When I reflect on welcoming a new year, two words and one fond memory invariably come to mind.

The first, of course, is Sankalpa. What are my heartfelt intentions for this year?

Sankalpa (Sanskrit: संकल्प) means an intention formed by the heart and mind -- a solemn vow, determination, or will.[1]  A sankalpa is a tool meant to harness the will, and to focus and harmonize mind and body.

This word captures our age-old practice of setting resolutions and making our life or our self a better, more improved version in the New Year.

It doesn’t take much research to know that most resolutions, or Sankalpas, fall flat on their face. We start out all gung-ho to accomplish these things that may or may not be feasible, but over time, we loose our enthusiasm and fall right back into our usual ways and habits. I believe we don’t often manifest our sankalpas because of the habits that contradict our intended goals. This leads us to the second word that comes to mind: Samskara.

Samskaras (Sanskrit: संस्कार) manifest as tendency, karmic impulse, subliminal impression, habitual potency or innate dispositions.[2][3]

So much of life is done on autopilot; this is natural as it’s the brain’s way of being efficient with the multitude of stimuli we’re faced with day in and day out. But without our realizing it, our autopilot can either support or hinder us. It’s looking at our autopilot setting that’s important, to realize if our habits are in alignment with where we intend to grow.

A simple example is the resolution for weight loss. If your habit is munching on Doritos (or the like) in front of the tv for hours every night, then you will likely find it challenging to make new habits out of exercise and a healthy diet. The challenge lies in the contradiction between our habits; the contrast in our samskaras. So, how do we reprogram our autopilot or replace these samskaras that don’t serve us?

We’ve probably all heard that you can create a new habit (ideally a ‘good’ one) by practicing it everyday for a month. I think this is one way of doing it and absolutely can work for people! However, almost 15 years ago I took a different route to reprogram my autopilot. With an almost lion heart ferocity I set a sankalpa that shattered my shitty samskaras and redirected my entire life as a whole. This leads me to the fond memory I always recall at the start of each year…

I believe it was New Year’s 2003, I was 21 years old and deeply dissatisfied with my stake in life. Only a year or so before I dropped out of college and took a full time job doing something that I didn’t enjoy (though I’m grateful I had that job now!!). My dating life was dismal and I have a clear recollection of my step-dad guessing my weight at the dinner table as a way to call me out on my weight gain and reason for misery. I was hunkering down on bags upon bags of candy, I was lazy, I was overweight, alone and overall felt like my life was shit. I decided 2003 would be the year I changed that!

Just before the 2003 New Year, I had started back up at college and had lucked out with a recent job change that I thought was a dream come true (I had become an event planner!) So, feeling somewhat emboldened with my renewed collegiate enrollment and newfound job that I couldn’t possibly love more, I did some self reflecting to figure out what was holding me back and what was propelling me forward. Having been introduced to yoga a few years before and having had tremendous guidance in meditation through my childhood, it was somewhat easy to be honest with myself in these reflections and see what the problem really was. The problem was clear and yet extraordinarily simple: I was extremely fearful. Fear is an ugly emotion (though vital when it comes to the case of survival) that we often assign to things that have nothing to do with survival; like fear of rejection leading us to avoid approaching a romantic intrigue or apply for the job we really want. So, my sankalpa that fateful year became: I will say yes to anything that scares me.

Believe it or not, this is a true story! And many years before the movie Yes Man had come out. I simply came up with this idea and made a very strong, clear, rooted-in-the-heart sankalpa that I would just close my eyes and bear whatever I was afraid of by just saying yes and walking right into it. Of course, my story didn’t have the foibles that Yes Man portrays; instead it only resulted in gift, after gift after unimaginable gift.

So, where do I begin? Nearly 15 years ago it’s hard to recall all of it in chronological order, but 2003 ended with…a 4.0 GPA while keeping that full-time job that I loved so much. That 4.0 grade of saying yes to every professor and going above and beyond any of their expectations led to a professor requesting that I edit her textbook. That teacher was so grateful, she managed to put this English Major in an International Business program in Germany. That was the first time I ever took an international flight and it would only be the beginning of endless international adventures. I finally approached the heartthrob I’d always seen studying in the library and by the international summer program we were dating and already in a serious relationship. I changed my diet, I stopped eating pounds of cinnamon bears and fell back in love with GOOD, healthy food. I even changed my major because I noticed that every part of me was saying yes more eagerly to my Human Comm classes than my English Lit classes; a choice that still blesses me to this day.

Needless to say, it was a busy year, but the girl who walked into 2003 walked into 2004 as an entirely different woman who would continue on to lead a much more ambitious and courageous life. Looking back now, I realize I could have only set that sankalpa by having already had a good relationship with myself; an honest one that wasn’t too afraid to see who I really was. I wholeheartedly believe that we must first know and embrace where we are before we intend to grow up and out into greater things. At 21 I knew I was afraid and, instead of hiding or avoiding it, I embraced the fear; I let my fearful self exist and allowed the fear to guide me into when to say yes to life. And as we know from the 30-day program, if you do something over and over again and a new samskara is born.

There are always doors opening around us, so many that we never even notice when we’re stuck in autopilot. Those doors open and close based on our ability to see them. If in our yearly resolutions we only focus on the prize, whatever it may be, and don’t place honest reflection instead on what’s keeping us stuck, I think we’ll continue to statistically fail and give up on our goals. Ultimately, the habits you keep create the life you experience. So, what are your habits? If you know what the prize or goal is, what are the HABITS that are keeping you from it? Start there and the rest should fall into place.

With the start of 2018, I’m still doing my self-reflecting to set a clear sankalpa for the year ahead. It’s an exciting intention I’m forming because in ways it’s reminiscent of 2003. Unlike 2003, I walk into 2018 loving my life and myself more than I have in any previous year. However, my work with fear is not over. In 2003 fear was out for me and my intention was to manage my response to it. Nearly 15 years later, the tables have turned and I’m setting my sights on fear; I’m going after fear and my sankalpa will be centered on risk and how to get uncomfortable in order to blossom into life unknown. I’m sure when things get real tough I’ll take a cue from 2003 by just closing my eyes and walking right through whatever it is that frightens me!

WellnessKiara McBain