Reflections, Intentions and Fresh Starts

We do not need a new calendar year to make fresh choices and implement change. We do not need a new week, or even a new day. Each breath is an opportunity to choose again, choose again, choose again.   

As one year folds into the next, however, it can naturally be a time when our thoughts revisit the past, scanning for meaning and take-outs,  and then to the future, possibly making plans and choosing things we would like to move towards. 

Can we take learnings and blessings from the past instead of over-focussing on what we didn’t like?  Can we harness the enthusiasm for change while avoiding the pitfalls common to New Years Resolutions?   Here we take a look at some possible steps leading to new aspirations and their implementation, with the yogic outlook on change and acceptance.

Reflection

The transition from one year to the next can offer a precious opportunity to reflect.  Reflection gives us the opportunity to pause amidst a hurried pace of life and potentially see things with greater clarity than through a haze of in-the-moment, reactive emotions.  It can be a valuable way to untangle thoughts and derive learnings from experiences.

Reflection for many people means simply looking at our externalities: what went well, what was difficult, what happened to us.   

Our brains are pigeon-holing machines, they love to categorise and label things, this is good, that is bad. We may enjoy a chuckle and the feeling of solidarity that comes from farewelling a year collectively deemed to be ‘bad’ through shared jokes and memes.

But let’s pause: Was the year really all bad? What if we resist putting a label on our years? And do we really want to wish time away?

Because of our brain’s tendency to give greater focus to circumstances that gave rise to difficult emotions rather than pleasant ones (a phenomenon known as negativity bias), a practice of reflection based entirely on external circumstances can end up being an unsatisfying replay of everything we found challenging without the counterbalance of all the things we can feel grateful for. 


TIP 1: If revisiting the circumstances of the past year, be mindful to include a list of the many, many things that went your way and that you feel thankful for.   

When we’re feeling irritable this can be more challenging; pause for conscious breath to feel the lifeforce moving inside you.  We can thank our cells and organs for their hard work every day, thank our microbiome for extracting nutrients and bolstering our immunity, we can feel gratitude for the privileges of modern living including clean, drinkable water on tap.  Once you get started, gratitude tends to snowball under its own momentum!

TIP 2: If the past year included genuine struggle or misfortune, sadness may be an appropriate and healthy response. You can allow yourself to feel sadness without setting up camp there.  Sadness is a tunnel, we all have to go through it at some stage to get to the other side, but take heart that sadness is a tunnel, it need not be a cave.  Be gentle and patient without yourself.   

TIP 3: Reflect on what lessons the past year might have given you. What learnings would you like to carry forward?  Maybe the year affirmed for you just how strong you really are, what people you want to surround yourself with, or to take some of the joys of slower living that arose out of lockdowns, into regular life.  (See ‘Lessons from Lockdowns’).


Sidenote 1 – Lessons from Lockdowns

We can be hopeful of no further lockdowns while still appreciating the lessons lockdowns of previous years have brought to us:

1. The importance of looking after our physical and mental health
2. The power of community and connection
3. The soothing and healing power of a connection to nature
4. The joys of a slower pace of living and time for hobbies
5. Things like job titles, brands, and Hollywood & Instagram celebrities all seemed less important, while scientists, academics and healthcare workers were elevated and bestowed society’s attention and admiration


Now is our chance to hold onto some of the wisdom that revealed itself to humanity during our more challenging days, and carry it forward.


Self-enquiry

For yogis, the word reflection more often actually means self-reflection or self-enquiry, rather than reflecting on external circumstances.   We can acknowledge the externalities (and especially the things we are grateful for) and then turn our attention to our inner selves. 

Self-enquiry is also referred to as svadhyaya, the fourth niyama (personal observance) in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, related to self-study and introspection.   

Classically associated with mantra or scripture recitation, a modern take on svadhyaya is any activity that allows us to quietly observe ourselves: our thoughts, emotions, actions, motivations.

Self-enquiry can both play an important role in our spiritual journey as it expands our self-awareness: Self-analysis  helps us examine not only our actions and reactions, but also the deeper layers steering our actions and reactions, namely our underlying beliefs, patterns and attitudes.  Why did we react that way? Why we were so quick to judge that person? Taking time to be curious and note these can help us identify new ways of being we might wish to work towards.

Self-enquiry requires mindful vigilance of our mind’s journey, lest our self-reflection mutate into a looping reel of all the things we don’t like about ourselves, with all of our perceived flaws and mistakes playing over and over.  Yogic self-reflection is about noticing with curiosity and compassion for ourselves, not admonishing or shaming ourselves for being human.   It’s helpful to also reflect on instances where you responded in a way the you from years ago may not have.   Acknowledge the work you have already done becoming the person you want to be.

A simple example of self-enquiry may arise when we observe our patterns in asana practice as we enter discomfort. A breakthrough for yoga practitioners is when they truly discern the difference between discomfort and pain.  We never move into pain on our mat, but we can learn not to immediately run from discomfort.  If we are honest about our body’s messages and learning to distinguish unpleasantness from pain, we can learn to sit with discomfort and thereby see our incredible capacity for strength and tolerance.  Lessons on the mat then seep into our daily lives.


TIP 1:  When observing tendencies that you would like to work on, keep your inner critic in check by recalling that we all have traits that do not serve us, we all have a darker side.  In many cases, we can even be blind to them, so congratulate yourself on identifying and acknowledging a quality you would like to work on.    

TIP 2: Similar to above, we all make mistakes. Mistakes can be amongst our greatest teachers.  Acknowledging them is akin to accepting constructive feedback as a gift.  A mistake is just a lesson in another form. Practice forgiving yourself.


Sidenote 2 – Do your New Year resolutions include changing the way you look?

For many people, the new year is a time to plan to change something about their appearance. New Years Resolutions are often about our outer self and the way we look.  If you search poll statistics on what ratio of people state ‘weight loss’ as their number one resolution, you will find around half of all New Years Resolutions are related to losing weight. 

It is indeed important to look after our physical health, eating well and staying active are important pillars in physical health, but weight and shape do not necessarily correlate to good health. If deep down, your goal each year is motivated by a desire to change your outward appearance, we invite you to build a different relationship with your body.

Believing we can deprive or overwork our bodies to yield to our wishes indicates a disconnect between a person and their body. Your body is not something separate to your heart and mind that can be punished into submission.

Continued yoga practice helps us re-connect with our body: to feel love and gratitude for the myriad of things it does for us each and every day, to marvel at its ability to move, to assimilate food, to heal, to dance, to see, to hear, to touch, to smell, to send us messages when we need to slow down and rest, to carry things, and to carry us through this life. With regular yoga practice, we can accept genetics and physical limitations and importantly, shape. 

We come onto our yoga mats to honour our bodies, not to punish them.  Our bodies deserve our reverence, not our scorn.  Our shape may never change but our health can. Critically, so too can our mindset around our bodies and the way we cultivate self-love and self-esteem. 

A true and honest yoga practice can set us free from self-worth linked to appearance and other temporary conditions such as youth.  Through yoga we learn to value that which is unchanging within us.

May you come to see that you are already precious and perfect, just as you are.

Continue reading below to learn more about the difference between resolutions and intentions, and swapping goals based on rigid end-results or achievements, for loving practices based around lifestyle change and mindset shifts.


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Resolutions and Intentions

A new year can be an appealing time to think about letting go of certain things and practising new things, especially if you have just spent some of the holiday period in self-reflection. The natural extension may be to choose things to work on. We can do so in a conscious and sustainable way.

Many people liken their efforts to change as ‘self-improvement’. It’s an easily understood and widely used phrase and while its usage is not really problematic, it’s not quite accurate either. The yogic approach to change is about developing practices that move us closer to our true nature. It’s arguably not really about self-improvement as your divine, true nature needs no improvement. It’s more about regular practices that serve us to shed what is an obstacle to our true selves.

Resolutions, intentions, proclamations?

If we start each new year with the vague but dogged proclamation, “This is going to be my year!”, our mind is already clinging to the notion that everything will go our way. We are already exhibiting resistance to the natural flow of life. It’s the flipside to looking back at a year and dismissing it as just ‘bad’.

Change can be a very worthwhile pursuit, but not always easy.  Start with small, specific and manageable actions that you can add on to later, and try to resist the urge to predict the outcome, instead focussing on the lifestyle change.  

Herein lies the difference between resolution and intention: one is very results-oriented, the other more about changing our mindset and developing beneficial practices. One doesn’t leave much space for missing a day or making a mistake, while the other is patient and forgiving, and moulds to your real-life. 

The word ‘resolution’ may inadvertently capture  a somewhat rigid, all-or-nothing sentiment, meaning the first time we even slightly deviate from a fixed goal, some unkind self-talk kicks in and we may feel inclined to give up.  

Intentions (often referred to in yoga as sankalpa) are not about your daily/weekly /monthly outcomes or achievements, they are about how you are being and living.  Intentions help guide our actions. 

Resolution: the focus is on the end-results and is dependent upon willpower

Intention: the focus is on your attitude and the way you live, and is self-energising 

If resolutions work well for you, fantastic! But they don’t work well for everyone, so intentions can be a good alternative.

How does sankalpa work? 

A sankalpa is a statement of a deeply-held value and phrased as present-tense affirmations, rather than future-tense desires. 

Let’s say your goal is to be more patient with yourself and others.  You may bring this awareness to your senses at the start of each yoga practice with a simple statement such as, “My true nature is patience and kindness”, and then during your practice as you are noticing how postures feel in your body and noticing your breath, observe if this trait pops up. You may notice yourself feeling frustrated or impatient with yourself (or with your teacher). Try to catch this emotion ‘in the act’ without judging yourself for it, “Ahhh, I’m being visited by impatience again!” . In this way, we are practising being aware of how we’re being.

You may like to then revisit your sankalpa as an affirmation after some pranayama or meditation when your nervous system is relaxed and brain waves are more receptive to suggestion.  We can additionally summon gratitude for the way of being we are moving towards. It may seem counterintuitive to feel gratitude for something we don’t yet have, yet the more we can practice feeling gratitude for something as if it has already manifested, the more we pull it towards us.   

Perhaps your goal is around health, you may choose a sankalpa such as, “My body is strong and healthy”, or “My body’s natural state is health and wellbeing”, or “I am already whole and healed”.

Practice without attachment to result

Through sankalpa, we let go of the striving and pushing of a conventional resolution, but this does not mean we cannot utilise effort.  Desire alone is not enough to create change.

There exists a degree of persistent effort (known as abhyasa). For example, if we lack the discipline to bring awareness to our sankalpa on a regular basis, the desire to be more patient will likely remain just a wish. We’re not talking about a forcing, pushing kind of effort; it may be as simple as diligently creating the space in your day for a 5-minute conscious breathing practice, creating the opportunity for yourself to walk barefoot on the grass, or to give yourself a foot massage in the evening. These is a degree of effort to help these practices become regular and consistent in your life, but they manifest very differently to the willpower-propelled efforts of results-oriented resolutions.

Similarly, we can draw in help and guidance to learn and grow, but we cannot outsource the work. The effort and responsibility to make a shift in our life will always sit with each one of us.

Each new year brings a raft of commercial enterprise ready to convince you of a personal growth or self-improvement quick-fix. Choose your source of learnings and guidance with deliberate discernment and be willing to create the space in your life to do the work: slow, steady and far from the glow of social media and other external sources of validation. Your character is what you do when nobody is looking.

   

Gentle practice allows us to balance effort (abhyasa) without attaching to an outcome (vairagya).  

If your constitution is typically one of action and striving, it may take more practice to ease back on striving and a focus on results.  If your constitution is typically easygoing, it may take more practice to bring about consistency with the effort part of your implementation.     We are all different, so just allow your path to be your path as you journey.

“No matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can always set our compass to the highest intentions in the present moment” – Jack Kornfield

Choosing your sankalpa

Below are some ideas of things you may like to let go of, or embrace.  Your reflection and self-enquiry will help you think of others too. If one of them leaps out at you, it may help you consider formulating a sankalpa to take forward.

Things you may want to let go of:

  • Perfectionism
  • Comparison to others
  • Toxic or unsupportive people
  • Making yourself smaller for other people’s comfort  
  • Old resentments
  • Impatience
  • Gossip

Things you may want to embrace:

  • Communicating your needs
  • Listening to your body
  • Listening to your inner voice
  • Nourishing your inner child with more play and laughter
  • Learning more about the philosophy side of yoga
  • Prioritising self-care routines
  • Opening your heart to new experiences and people
  • Patience and kindness

It’s never too early or too late

To change your life, change your choices.  Recall that you can start any new way of thinking or living right now, with each new breath.

Now pause and take a deep and slow breath…… If you don’t like the thought in your head or would like a different state of being, every moment has the freedom to start afresh and choose again.  One of the gifts of being human is that we have evolved to be conscious of our own existence, and aware of our own awareness. We have the privilege of being aware of our own existence, to select the thoughts that are allowed to be in our head, and to choose how we are being. What a magnificent gift – Happy New Year!

Written by Nicole Small, The Yoga Institute 

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