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Surrender & Sankalpa

OM Sarvesam svastir-bhavatu

Sarvesam shantir-bhavatu

Sarvesam purnam-bhavatu

Sarvesam mangalam-bhavatu

 -from the Brhadäranyaka Upanishad


May all beings experience well-being. May all beings feel real peace. May all beings experience wholeness. And may all experience what is good and beautiful. (Translation by Manorama)


During the 15 hour flight from JFK to Delhi last October, one of the many movies I watched was “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which takes place in India and which follows the story of a group of Westerners who are staying at the hotel. Evelyn, one of the characters, says to another about India, “Initially you're overwhelmed. But gradually you realize it’s like a wave. Resist, and you’ll be knocked over. Dive into it, and you’ll swim out the other side.” Before the trip, I had received similar advice about going to India, and I appreciated the reminder from the film not to resist. While I was there, I did my best to surrender, to let go, and to dive in. I swam out the other side in love with India and ready to dive in again and again.


I found the more that I softened and surrendered, the better and better my experience got. (All of the daily chanting we did helped tremendously with the softening and surrendering). The more that I let go of ego and operated from soul, the better it got. The more that I let go of the need to be in control and gave myself over to what was happening in the moment (being driven in Indian traffic is an excellent practice for this), the better it got.


I went into my first trip to India with the intentions of being as present and as mindful as I could be and to keep an open heart and mind. When I wanted to look away from things that were heartbreaking, I did my best to bear witness and keep looking. India presents many, many opportunities to resist what’s happening or to dive into what’s happening. And really, of course, so does all of life. No matter where we are in the world or what we are doing, we have the choice to lean in to our experience or to resist it. All the great spiritual traditions will tell you that leaning in rather than resisting is the way to move along in our spiritual development.


Letting go of resistance and diving in to our direct, felt experience is very much part of yoga. My teacher and co-founder of the Jivamukti Yoga method says, “You cannot 'do' yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga practices, which may reveal to you where you are resisting this natural state of happiness, ananda, bliss.” So yoga practices show us where we are stuck and the ways in which we may be resisting who we really are. Yoga practices can also help us to move through those hindrances and blockages so that ultimately we relax all resistance to who we really are.


Sankalpa is a Sanskrit term from yogic philosophy that refers to a heartfelt desire, a solemn vow, an intention, or a resolve to do something. It is similar to the idea of of a “new year’s resolution,” except that it comes from deep within and tends to be an affirmation. Unlike a goal, which is a personal need to accomplish something, sankalpa turns us inward to connect with the heart's highest intention—in yogic terms, enlightenment or realization of the Oneness of Being. A goal can be thought of as an individual's will, while sankalpa can be thought of as the universal will. A sankalpa is a positive declaration or affirmation, such as “Peace is my true nature,” rather than the ego-driven “I want peace in my life.”


“…sankalpa is not merely a resolution to do or not do a certain thing, it is a deep, unwavering commitment that emerges as our most Divine will…life’s dance is replete with dualities; joy and sorrow, success and failure, conflict and resolution. Developing sankalpa invites us to move gracefully through these dualities without being ensnared by attachment or aversion. The yogi learns to move through life’s challenges with resilience, wisdom, and an open heart…Sankalpa is not an idea but a living, breathing force that propels us forward on the path of enlightenment. With each breath, we can renew our commitment to be present and awake.”


In order to realize our sankalpa, our dharma (our life’s purpose), and ultimately the highest aim of yoga—enlightenment, we must do the work to thaw the layers of ice that have hardened around our spiritual hearts, and we must also cultivate mindful presence. If we resist our experiences we aren't being mindful or present; instead we are wishing things were some other way. The more we can lean into our experiences, especially the challenging ones, the more our hearts soften. Every time we shut down emotionally, get hurt by someone, put someone out of our heart, choose fear, or become consumed by jealousy, anger, greed, and so forth, we freeze our spiritual hearts a little more. Yoga practices such as asana, meditation, chanting, devotion, and selfless service help us to soften and chip away at those layers so that we can remember to who we truly are: Beings of unconditional love and boundless compassion. Beings of warmth and Light. Beings of kindness, generosity, and tenderness. Beings of Truth, Consciousness, and Bliss.

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