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Part 3 - The Stages of Yoga Nidra: Stage 3 Sankalpa

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

This week we explore the 3rd stage of Yoga Nidra: sankalpa or intention. This is a HUGE subject so I’m going to try to be as concise as I can with each exploration and may not be able to cover every angle and approach but I’ll do my best!

Intention vs. no intention

Sankalpa loosely translated from Sanskrit to English means a vow to your highest self or highest truth. Some schools of Yoga Nidra believe this stage to be crucially important whilst others believe it to be contradictory to the state of Yoga Nidra and then of course there are a range of opinions that run in between. I, and many others, believe that Yoga Nidra is whole and complete without this stage and so is entirely optional and at the discretion of the practitioner. It can be truly transformational to work with intentions and affirmations and to explore connecting to your heartfelt desire for this life but so too can it be transformational to let the practice of Yoga Nidra and indeed life unfold as it does without attempting to guide or direct.

I once heard JP Sears talk about how goals created from the small mind might become a limitation to that which wants to move through you and I truly find this to be the case in my work, so why not my life. Of course goals and intentions are subtly different but I feel the same could be said of an intention. Perhaps the universe or life has bigger or simply different plans for you from the ones you have created from your mind (if you believe in that kind of thing) or to word that to a more secular audience how you feel now might change radically in a year or even a week and so to it may be more conducive to let life unfold as it does rather than to attempt to wilfully direct its course.

One origin of the school of thought behind not working with sankalpa can be found in the mention of ‘nirvikalpa’ in the old yogic texts. Nirvikalpa meaning to be free of intention or desire. So if your intention is to be free of desire then working without sankalpa may be the best pathway for you (literally just got up and put Gala 'Freed from Desire'... the 90s really was so great).

Naturally arising intuitive guidance

My personal favourite way of working with sankalpa was given to me by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and Nirlipta Tuli of The Yoga Nidra Network. They often invite attention to settle at the heart space with the suggestion of listening inwardly for any naturally arising intuitive guidance. I really enjoy this way of working because it allows me to connect to my inner wisdom, to the voice of the inner teacher and to in their words ‘find your life-purpose and then align your ego to that rather than trying to align the universe to your will’.

Living in the question

Nirlipta opened me up to another way of working with sankalpa, he spoke of being open to living in the question and as such inviting a space within your practice of Yoga Nidra from which your sankalpa may gradually emerge either within the practice or over time. Another method of being open to inner guidance, this time with the suggestion of perhaps visualising an egg in a nest that may hatch or a creature under the sea that may gradually reveal more and more of itself. As a lover of story, dreams and visions this approach really works for me and I am ever grateful for these creative approaches to Yoga Nidra that Uma and Nirlipta offer through their trainings.

Placement of this stage

In terms of weaving it into a practice, I also like to explore the difference between sankalpa being the 3rd stage or the 1st. I find sometimes that to settle and internalise deeply can leave me more open and receptive to naturally arising intuitive guidance but if I want to work with a specific intention or affirmation then I prefer to draw it to mind early in the practice so that I can truly let go and drop in and also because to use cognition at this stage can be disruptive to the settling process. Again all of these things are completely personal.

Along a similar vein, there are some styles where sankalpa is revisited towards the end of the practice as a reaffirmation or to explore if anything has changed. I wanted to shed a little light on one of the reasons you might want to do this:

During the opposites stage there is the invitation to experience opposites of sensation such as hot and cold or heavy and light (we’ll go into this in more depth when we explore this stage) and then the invitation to experience both at the same time during which there are (at least) two things unfolding:

1. Two nerve circuits that under normal circumstances never operate simultaneously are being asked to operate at the same time, which establishes a new circuit incorporating these two, usually irreconcilable, states in such a way that relaxation predominates. This becomes incredibly potent when working with opposites of emotion.

2. The mind is being asked to do the impossible of experiencing two opposing states and as such believes itself to be in a state of trance during which the subconscious is highly receptive to hypnotic suggestion in the hypnogogic state (the state between sleep and waking) as we move from Yoga Nidra back into an every day waking state.

So to return to the sankalpa towards the end of practice is to harness the subconscious at its most receptive and suggestible.

Methods of exploration

In the Himalayan Institute, there is no sanakalpa stage honouring the idea of the highest ideal being nirvikalpa or no desire. In the traditional style of yoga nidra this stage is quite short and simple and focused around sowing the seed of sankalpa into your practice. You may be invited to form a sentence in the present tense so that it becomes more of an affirmation such as ‘I am open to insight’ or ‘I am healthy and well’ and then to repeat it three times. Whereas in the iRest style of Yoga Nidra this stage is explored in more detail and broken down into two separate explorations; your intention for the practice and your heartfelt desire. I like to think of heartfelt desire as that which is most important to you or that which you truly long for in this life. Your intention for the practice might change daily whereas typically a heartfelt desire might be a lifelong sankalpa or something you work with for a longer period of time. iRest breaks this stage down in more detail for many reasons, one of them being that it can be profoundly helpful to reconnect to a deeper purpose when healing from trauma or encountering challenges in life.

Effectively working with sankalpa & the science of visualisation

In terms of how to most effectively plant your seed of sankalpa into your practice if you decide to work with one it can be particularly helpful to visualise your sankalpa as though it is already happening (and of course there are a third of people for whom visualising is challenging or impossible so it is always important to weave in sensory aspects), whilst also feeling the associated emotions. Visualising a sankalpa is like mentally rehearsing an experience and it activates the reticular activation system in the brain. This part of the brain knows no difference between lived or imagined experiences. Whatever is visualised the body responds to it as though it were real and it fires and wires new neurons as if you were living the experience. I recently read that If manifestation had a mathematical equation, it would look something like this: Realisation + Visualisation = Manifestation. And this is essentially the process of coming to know your heartfelt desire for this life and formulating it into a sankalpa.

This is a huge subject but for now, this is where I’m going to sign off. Please do feel free to get in touch with any questions or experiences your want to share around sankalpa!

And of course if you’re local do come along to class to join the discussion and take an experiential exploration of working with sankalpa.

Next week we explore the rotation of consciousness or body scan stage including a breakdown of the different itineraries and methodologies behind them.

Carly x

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Uma and Nirlipta ~

Photo: Lisa Chapman // @primalembrace 2019

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