Sankalpa

Have you ever wondered how it works, sankalpa, that intention setting that the yoga teachers invites you to do at the beginning of a yoga class?

It took me a while to find a way that works for me but now that I have, I use it as much off the yoga mat as on.

My experience with fruitfully setting intentions does not come from studying the scriptures or from extensive meditation sessions. The health coaching skills that I picked up during my studies at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition were very helpful. But I mostly learned by doing and much of it by trial and error. You can scroll down to find a video in which I tell you about this wonderful, unexpected experience.

Yaisa on the Beach in Sellicks

Let me first list what I think intention setting is not about. It’s not about (and this is not an exhaustive list):
– asking to win the lottery or any other (materialistic) possession
– wishing somebody ill
– verbalising a wish and then letting go of any responsibility.

Consider this example: your car broke down and you have no money to fix it or to buy a new one. You have a serious transportation problem. As a sankalpa, it would be easy to express something like: “I want a new car” or “I need money to buy a new car.”

That’s the solution to all your problems, right? But does that sound like an intention that comes from the right place? If a friend would ask you exactly that in those words, would you be inclined to help?

Instead, look at the underlying issue. What are you not able to fulfill without transport? Who is going to get in trouble if you can’t drive? Perhaps, a better wording of your sankalpa is “I need a way to remain independent” or “I will do anything to keep my job” or “My children will not miss a single day of school.”

Already, the phrasing of your “wish” is less superficial. It’s not about you owning a car, but about the purpose of the car.

Broken 2CVBy Arnaud 25 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Next, ask yourself how you can inject this “request” to the universe with some positivity and conviction. There is a simple, grammatical solution to that. Rephrase your intention in an affirmative form and in the present tense.  So for example: “I am independent” or “The solution to my transport problem exists.”  Perhaps it doesn’t feel that way just yet, but by infusing yourself with this optimism, you tap into a pool of energy that knows no limits.

Another layer that you can add to your intention setting is to visualise the result. It only takes a couple of minutes. You can do it in bed, before you fall asleep. Imagine yourself driving a car to work or visualise getting a phone call from a colleague offering you to carpool. Smell the interior of the new car, hear the voice of your colleague. Don’t dwell on your current problems, instead focus on seeing, feeling, smelling or tasting the future. Visualising is a very powerful tool to direct every cell in your body towards a solution.

Once you have set your intention and done your visualising, don’t sit back and think that God (or whoever/whatever) will solve it all for you. I don’t think that that is how it works. I believe in Newton’s Third Law that action is reaction. You still need to keep your eyes open for solutions, explore your opportunities and do all the mundane things you can think of to achieve your objective. All the positive energy you put into finding a solution to your problem will reflect back on you and your will see it returned, somehow.

At Sellicks Beach

The last step however, is the most important one. And that is that you need to trust and surrender to the Universe, believing that it will present you with what you need and deserve. It could be exactly what you visualised in one of your fantasies or it could be totally unexpected.  Be open to whatever you are presented with and fully embrace it.

It could be that your neighbour breaks his leg and can’t drive their car for the next six weeks, so in return for doing his shopping, you can borrow his car for a while, giving you enough time to save money for a repair. Or your childless great-aunt passes away and leaves you and your cousins with a small inheritance, just enough for you to buy a second-hand car. Is the solution always perfect? Perhaps not. But it is a wish come true.

Just recently, as I was really hoping for a larger number of students in my Ashtanga classes, I set the following intention: “I am successful at sharing my love and passion for Ashtanga yoga”. I visualised full class rooms, spent a couple of minutes remembering the students that had come to my Ashtanga classes in the past but I hadn’t seen in a while and promoted my classes on social media with renewed energy. And believe it or not, but not only has the number of students been increasing since, but I even got asked to teach a new Ashtanga class at location where I had previously never taught. I would say, mission accomplished.

Yoga at Gemtree Winery

So now, let’s look at sankalpa from another perspective. A sankalpa does not necessarily need to be a solution to a problem. It can also be about something that you would like to invite into your life in a more general sense. A vision for your near or long-term future.

An example of this is the key word that I choose for my vision board this year: expansion. It does not concern an immediate or urgent situation, but it’s the state of mind that I wish to live in. For 2018, I desire expansion of my business, expansion of my knowledge and my skills so that I can help more yoga students and health coaching clients, expansion of my horizons by travelling and meeting new people…

My sankalpa could be: “I live an expansive life” or “My experiences continuously expand my life”, but in this case I kept it simple. It’s simply “Expansion”.  I repeat it like a mantra, I use the word as much as I can when appropriate and every time I undertake something, new or routine, I think: “Yes, this is expansion”. Heck, the whole purpose of this blog is about spreading the vibe even more!

Visionboard 2018

And surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), since I have planted this seed deep in my subconscious, several really great things have been presented to me. Some totally unexpected, others as the direct result of long standing efforts.

There is one event in particular that was way beyond my imagination and that enriched my life in a sense that I have never experience before. I tell you about this story in the video below.

In the meantime, ask me any question you have about Sankalpa and feel free to share your experience with intention setting below in the comment section.

Have you ever set an intention with a successful outcome? Have you ever had amazing gifts presented to you in the most unexpected beautiful ways? I would love to hear from you

My First Vipassana.

Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot.

My first steps out of the gate were slow, inquisitive, almost like a kitten allowed into the garden for the first time. The words “right foot, left foot” resonated in my head over and over again, like a mantra.

After a few hundred meters and reacquainting myself with Asian traffic, the natural spring started to return into my stride. My photographic eye was drawn towards objects that needed to be digitally framed and I forgot about the “right foot, left foot”.

I took a deep breath and headed towards the nearest café with free wifi to reconnect to the world.

11 days earlier, I checked into a Buddhist meditation centre in the middle of Yangon wanting to experience this “Vipassana thing”.

On the one hand, I wanted to deepen my meditation practice, for both personal and teaching purposes. On the other hand, a Vipassana retreat sounded like an economical and useful way to spend time in an otherwise pricey Myanmar – a Vipassana costs nothing unless you choose to leave behind a donation (dana).

Instead of going to a Vipassana course, providence led me to Panditarama, a Buddhist centre with resident monks and nuns where (aspiring) meditators can stay for as long as they want. Whilst specialised Vipassana centres only run courses with a fixed starting and ending date, yogis arriving at Panditarama simply join the ongoing flow of coming and going meditators.

Of the roughly 60 female meditators during my retreat, only three were foreign, including myself. The entire structure is set up to for locals, the only luxury for foreigners being private rooms instead of dormitories.

The day I arrived, I was asked to change into the required clothes and not wear anything else during my stay: brown longyis (traditional Burmese sarong), a white shirt with long sleeves and a shoulder scarf, called a lawbet.

The initial introduction was succinct but the instructions were clear: I was to meditate 14 hours and sleep no more than 6 hours a day, with wake up call at 3 am. I was to move slowly and mindfully during all other waking hours of the day, was not allowed to speak or communicate otherwise with anyone unless absolutely necessary. Basically, I was not do anything else but meditate.

Every other day, I was to report to Sayadaw – the meditation teacher – about my progress with the sitting and walking meditation.

Some additional rules were given in a booklet, the only thing I was allowed to read during my retreat. The rest of the socially and culturally appropriate behaviours however, I had to discover during the course of my stay through observation. Although I was supposed to exclude the rest of the world as much as possible from my mind, I couldn’t help but watch everything that was happening around me.

It was an immersion into meditation as much as it was a discovery of Buddhist and Burmese culture.

Being a total Vipassana beginner, the whole meditation experience was rather intense. Sitting still in a cross-legged position for a whole hour and that several times a day was a physical challenge, to stay the least.  Every single part of my body ached at some point or another and my spine would crack from cervical to sacral with the slightest movement. The first few days, I was exhausted beyond belief. Just from sitting and walking ultra slowly. Thankfully, my body eventually got used to the new routine, the pain ebbed away and the sitting became bearable.

But then there was the mind stuff.

The first stage of the sitting meditation was to focus on the abdomen rising and falling with the breath. If any other thought, sound, feeling or other sensation would distract my mind, I was told to give it a label in my head: thinking, planning, hearing, pain, itch…  After labelling that distraction, I was to go back to the rising and falling of the belly.

So there I sat. Breathing in, rising belly, breathing out, falling belly. Rising and falling, rising, falling, rising, falling, expanding, contracting, expanding, contrac… Is it contracting or should I say relaxing? Expanding, relaxing, expanding, relaxing… No, that doesn’t sound right. How would I say it in a yoga class? Perhaps I shouldn’t use the words expanding and contracting at all. Maybe just rising and falling. Yes, rising and falling. Or just inhale and exhale? Yes, that sounds easier. Oh, damn! I’m not focussing on my belly. Back to the breath. Rising, falling, rising, fall… Oh no, I forgot to label the thoughts that I had before. What was I thinking again? Ah yes, I was thinking about teaching meditation during a yoga class. So the label is teaching. Or is it thinking? Or is it imagining?  Aaaargh!!! I’m thinking again! Focus! Deep breath. Focus… Okay… Here we go. Rising, falling, rising, falling… Ouch, my knee is starting to hurt and I think we’re only five minutes into the session. Shall I open my eyes to check the clock? No, I shouldn’t. I should get a little pillow for under my knee though, that could help with the pain. I hope they have any spare ones. Where did I see them? Ah yes, in the blue bag in the back of the hall… Oh crap, I’m thinking again. Eeeehmmm, label, what label… pain. Yes, it started with pain. But then I was thinking and planning as well. Never mind, focus, focus! Rising, falling, rising, falling…

And that went on for 60 minutes that sometimes seemed to last for 60 hours. I will spare you the millions of useless, crazy, anxious, stressed, hilarious, ambitious and obsessed thoughts that crossed my mind in all those hours. I had a very busy monkey in my brain.

Dhamma Hall, Female Meditation Hall at Panditarama, Yangon, Myanmar
Waiting for samadi. Or for Dr Spock to beam us up.

The walking meditation seemed easier: take very slow steps and keep your mind focussed on your feet. If any distractions arise, label them, let them go and go back to the feet.

So there I went. First breathing and stretching the utterly unbearable stiffness out of my body after the seated meditation and then turning my attention to my feet.

Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Now slow down the pace and focus on the lifting and the placing of each foot. Lift, place, lift, place, lift, place… Slow down even more and focus on the lifting, moving and placing of the foot. Right foot lift, move, place. Left foot life, move, place. Right foot lift, move, place. Left foot lift, move, place.

Easy enough, right?

But at a pace of about three steps per minute, my mind was racing as if I was on speed. Thoughts about everything and even thoughts about nothing were distracting me from what should be the object of my focus: the movement of my feet.

I thought I was never going to get to that moment of total focus.

A few days into the retreat however, when the physical pain subsided and the novelty of the new environment had worn off, I finally did manage a few minutes of pure focus. Distractions were swiftly labelled and set aside, followed by more minutes of blissful breathing…

Just me and my breath. Or me and my feet, moving slowly through space and time.

After those sessions, I would feel deeply grateful and peaceful within.

The simplicity yet the depth of the Vipassana practice was a true eye-opener.

When I left the centre, left foot, right foot, 11 days later, I already knew that one day I will be stepping back into this wonderful place to find more inner truth.

But first, internet and catching up with the world.