Ask The Yogi
Yoga and Creative Visualization
Q: I have heard that setting an intention or Sankalpa in your yoga practice is not good. What is the teaching of yoga and visualization? What if my intention is to love or accept someone? Is there a difference between visualizing something good versus something that is bad or destructive? Should I try to visualize what I want in my life or should I just go with the flow?
A: In Kabbalah there is a saying: Intention is all. Perhaps the deepest meaning of this is that a Divine intention permeates the whole universe as the scent of a rose permeates an entire garden. Divine intention lies behind and within all things and this is the stuff that the dance of the universe is made of. To a large degree, yoga is the practice of aligning your intention with the state of Unity.
Sankalpa has been interpreted as setting an active Intention. In Sanskrit, Sankalpa means to be complete with or align with your “kalpa”. In sanskrit, vikalpa or imagination consists of the root verb klp which means “in accordance with” and vi which means “apart”. (Kalpa may also be an indication of a longperiod of time). Taken together, imagination may then be described as a state where we are “in accordance with being apart.” When we imagine, by definition we are not in an ultimate state of yoga as the mind is actively visualizing an alternative reality. Since Truth and Beingness are only in this moment, our imagination can be a stumbling block to experiencing true peace if it keeps us out of the NOW. So what of our dreams and goals and intentions? As the mystic poet Kabir states, “The best way to make your Dreams come true is to wake up.”
Anything – even a good intention — that takes you away from your Atman or true Self (which is beyond time, permanence and impermenance) causes you to identify with your desire or vritti and the impatience or pain that comes from being separate from what you are seeking (disturbances of Cit or consciousness). The result is maya and duhkha or suffering which comes from confusing what is eternal (Purusa, Spirit) with what is transient (material world, prakriti). In this respect, Sankalpa or setting intention can create a state of conflict for the spritual student. This is not to say that setting an intention is “bad” or “wrong”. Indeed, like memory, imagination and perception, intention may be used to serve on the path of Self Realization. But having a conscious, willful intention to love, accept or heal for example, and then attaching ourselves to an exact idea or how we want this to happen may in fact do more to keep us away from experiencing these states than it does to bring them closer.
Let’s put it another way. Say you want to set a conscious intention of love or acceptance or healing in your yoga practice or your life. You think of your intention manifesting through some future experience, maybe a relationship or a healthy body or a sense of peace. Almost all spiritual paths inform us that Love and Unity is the natural state of our Spiritual nature. If you set an intention to reach for what is already yours, by definition you must put time and space between you and experiencing what is already present. Setting an intention can be a double-edged sword, for you can either identify with the Divine creator or identify with your goal and bind yourself to a time-bound awareness in order to experience future results in the land of Karma (cause and effect). Such an intention may only further your attachment to “unripened” karma (sancita karma) so that you may experience the future results. This concept also might be clarified through the following story…
In ancient India there was a mythical tree known as a “wishing tree” which had the power to grant all desires. Once it happened that a young man was travelling by foot through the countryide. After many wrong turns he became lost and ended up in a hidden valley. Looking around he did not recognize the landscape and decided to rest under a nearby tree.
While sitting beneath the tree’s leafy branches the young man’s thirst became unbearable. “Oh I would love to have some cool water to drink,” he thought.
Instantly a vessel of water appeared at his side. The man was so thirsty he took many deep gulps without thinking. When his thirst lessened he became aware of how hungry he was, and how weak his limbs felt from lack of food.
“A seven course dinner with all the trimmings would be perfect right now,” he thought, picturing the meal in his head.
Instantly a sumptuous spread appeared consisting of all of his favorite foods. The young man dug in with gusto, sampling everything and paying particular attention to the deserts. When his appetite was sated he leaned back against the tree and took in the beautiful valley. “What a handsome landscape,” he thought. “How nice it would be to have a home here with a gorgeous wife inside.”
Instantly he saw a house in the distance that he had not noticed before. A beautiful woman walked out the front door and called him by name, waving him to enter.
“What’s this,” the young man spoke, suddenly apprehensive. “How is that everything I have thought about has come into being? Perhaps this place is haunted by evil spirits.”
Instantly the young man became aware of several ghostly shapes moving all around him. His fear increased to the point of panic.
“Oh no, these ghouls have come to kill me!” he thought, and instantly he fell dead.
Imagination is the comprehension of an object based on words or expression, though the object itself is absent. –Yoga Sutra 1.9
Unconscious use of the imagination can deepen attachments to the idea that our happiness resides somewhere else, in some other time or with someone else. These projections can lead us further into our habits (samskara) of separation. Since most habits emerge from unconscious states, our habitual actions keep us separate from Truth instead of bringing us closer to realizing our true state of kaivalyam or freedom.
By all means, be willing to change in Yoga Class. You may even have specific preferences or ideas on how you’d like this change to happen. But while you are actually practicing yogasanas, see if you can let go of all expectation and judgement and embrace the present moment on its own terms, accepting yourself exactly as you are. The result of such present-moment awareness is a shift of consciousness away from the time-bound mental forms or good/bad, right/wrong which binds us to avidya or ignorance. Once in the present moment we are led to the birth of all possibility and a fading away of the self-as-habit that keeps us identified with our preconceived limitations. Then change happens easily, organically, like a ripe fruit falling from a tree.
For a related article on Creative Visualization, click here.
Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga. All suggestions are voluntary. Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.
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