Heavy white flakes fly by tickling my nose. What is this white stuff?  I was just outside soaking in the stillness of this afternoon storm.  Stillness within me and to my ears as the busy little whirling snowflakes make their hasty descent to the earth.

There was an incredible group of students in yesterday’s class.  We eased our hearts open and loosened constrictions with some passive backbends and then moved onto the bigger opening of a Supported Bridge Pose. All of course, supplemented with our breath moving from our Third Eye to the back of our heart.  It is now time to dig a little deeper, so grab your journals to create an intention or Sankalpa for your practice and for your life at this time.  Read on for more information on Sankalpa.

The Breath
Heart Breathing through the Third Eye or the Ajna Chakra
It provides the opportunity to bring our sankalpa (chosen intention) directly into our heart using the breath with profound effect. What we do is inhale from the third eye (point between the eyebrows) back to the center of the head and down the spinal nerve into the heart, and then exhale back out the same route through the third eye. On the inhalation we bring our intention in, and on the exhalation we send out impurities. If we slow down the breathing (comfortably), the effects will be enhanced. Breathing through the nose is preferable, but not mandatory. This method has great benefit for the heart, purifying and opening it.  It can be done for 5-10 minutes before or after sitting practices, or anytime. Be careful not to overdo it in the beginning, as it can bring excessive karmic releases in the heart if overdone. It is suggested you start off slow and work up gradually according to comfort and effect. 

The Poses
Yoga Nidra with Legs Extended (Swami Rama)
Props: Blanket or bolster to support lower back, a wall.
Benefits: help you restore your energy, sleep better at night, create atmosphere of conscious awareness while relaxing
Sit on the floor against a wall. Feel free to use props to support the back, extend the legs in front of you, crossing one ankle over the other. Cup your palms in your lap and close your eyes. You can let the head hang forward or rest against the wall.  Feel your relaxed breath, flowing in and out. Observe 3-5 breaths at your nostrils, the air flowing in and out. Rest your awareness at the eyebrow (Third Eye) center, at the throat center and finally at the heart center.  Keeping your awareness at the heart center, let your body sleep.  Trust that you will awaken when your mind is ready.  Continue to keep awareness on the sensations of breath throughout your body.  When your mind wakes you up, slowly move your head and stretch your body.  Coming back, open your eyes to your hands and then the room around you.

Passive Back Arch

Props: 2 blankets folded lengthwise
Benefits: helps open chest and abdomen, encouraging deeper breathing and oxygenation. Abdominal organs are stimulated as well as circulation. Aids in depression
Place one folded blanket lengthwise on your mat and 2nd blanket over the first one in a “T” figure or cross.  The end where your head will go may be flipped under to create a head and neck support. Sit at fringe end of blanket, sacrum at edge and lower down onto blankets. Arms can be straight out to the sides, hands at belly or for a shoulder opener, 90 deg. angle (Goddess arms) at either side. Stay for 5- 15 minutes, breathing a 3-Part breath.

Supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Powerful Heart Opener Variation

Props: 2 bolsters, blanket, strap
Benefits: chest and abdomen opener which helps breathing and digestive organs. Counteracts slumped sitting position and corrects posture.  Release from the defensive mode to a softer heart.
Lay the two bolsters lengthwise on your mat, touching.  Put the strap either around your thighs or calf muscles and tighten until the legs are hip distance apart (Tadasana alignment).  Recline over the bolsters, tightening the strap if you feel that the legs are rolling off.  Your back of your head and top of your shoulders will rest on the floor.  Have a blanket handy if you would like to support and raise the head.

Resolve to Evolve

Give your New Year’s resolutions a yogic twist—set an intention and infuse the new year with positive change.
By Catherine Guthrie
A new year’s resolution is a noteworthy concept—start off the year with a change for the better. So how did it devolve into a subconscious exercise in self-loathing? Lose 10 pounds! (Message to self: You’re fat.) Stop drinking caffeine! (You’re unhealthy.) Call Mom and Dad once a week! (You’re ungrateful.) Why not celebrate this new year by trading in your tired (and probably familiar) resolutions for a sankalpa instead?

POSITIVE POWER A Sanskrit word, sankalpa means “will, purpose, or determination.” To make a sankalpa is to set an intention—it’s like a New Year’s resolution with a yogic twist. While a resolution often zeros in on a perceived negative aspect of ourselves (as in, “I want to lose weight, so no more chocolate chip cookies or ice cream or cheese”), a sankalpa explores what’s behind the thought or feeling (“I crave chocolate chip cookies or ice cream or cheese when I’m feeling stressed or sad. I will set an intention to become conscious of this craving and allow my feelings to arise and pass, rather than fill up on fats”).

EFFORT COUNTS A sankalpa also praises the nobility of the effort rather than focusing on what you are doing wrong. “New Year’s resolutions leave me feeling guilty and mad at myself for not keeping them,” says Wendy McClellan, a yoga teacher in Louisville, Kentucky. So, last year, in a conscious effort to reject the resolution rut, she taught a special New Year’s Eve yoga class and encouraged students to look back and let go. Her intention, or sankalpa? To open her heart to new possibilities. “An intention has much more of a global sense than a resolution,” she says. “It helps me be softer with myself.” With a sankalpa, the self-loathing that comes from dwelling on past transgressions can begin to dissolve. In its place is an exercise in effort and surrender—create an intention and open yourself to the universe.

Sankalpa Setting

LOOK INWARD For several days, set aside time to write in a journal and meditate. Mull over your typical resolutions. How do they make you feel? Anxious? Unsettled? Incomplete? Now contemplate how you would like to feel during the coming year. Is there any way you can reframe your results-oriented resolutions into something that will make this year’s journey more joyful and worthwhile?

REPHRASE IT Create a short sentence or phrase for your sankalpa. Be careful not to set limitations based on fear. For example, instead of “May life bring me only happiness and joy this year” consider “May I be happy and open to what life brings me.”

BE FIRM BUT FAIR Change doesn’t happen overnight. When you stray from the essence of your sankalpa, don’t berate yourself. Instead, gently remind yourself of your intention. But be firm in your resolve—it’s a good idea to incorporate your sankalpa into yoru daily routine. Use it as a mantra during pranayama or meditation practice; post it on your computer, phone, or mirror; or simply say it to yourself quietly before going to sleep. —C.G

Catherine Guthrie is a writer and yoga teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, and a regular contributor to Yoga Journal.