Desire has a fundamental role in yogic philosophy and practice.

“At the center of your being

you have the answer;

you know who you are

and you know what you want.”

Lao Tzu

According to the “Vedas,” ancient, sacred texts that formed the basis of Hinduism and the yoga tradition, everything in existence was born out of desire. In other words, desire—inextricably woven into the very fabric of your being—is the reason you exist.

That’s a radically different notion of desire than most of us are accustomed to hold. To be clear, we’re not talking about the desires, or cravings, for objects of the senses (the desires Buddha warned lead to suffering); or the more superficial desires, such as wanting a nicer car. Rather, the desire the “Vedas” refer to is the powerful, persistent, intense longing found deep within. Your soul’s desires.

The “Vedas,” which explored themes of creationism and praised a higher power, described the soul (atman) as having two distinct aspects: the supreme, absolute or primordial Self (para or paramatman), which is unconditional, omnipresent and one with divine consciousness; and the individual soul (jiva or jivaatman), the aspect of your spirit that makes you uniquely who you are. You can think of jiva as your own personal, spiritual blueprint determining your talents, strengths, challenges and weaknesses, as well as your personal predisposition and highest aspirations, or soul’s desires.

From personal blueprint to the will to live

In yogic philosophy, the Sanskrit word for desire is “iccha,” which also means “will,” as in the will to be, do and know in this world. Yogic philosophy holds desire and will as one and the same; desire (iccha) is the will to live—something we deeply desire. Shakti, which translates to “power,” is the dynamic, cosmic energy animating everything in creation. Iccha shakti is the divine willpower to create—the driving force of life. Everything exists because of the divine’s desire to create, including you.

Without desire, life would cease to exist. They are that intricately linked, as are your soul’s desires and your personal destiny, known as your dharma in yogic philosophy. Embedded in the blueprint of your individual spirit, dharma is your life’s duty or purpose, which is to fulfill your unique potential and become who you are meant to be. However, it’s the energetic power of your soul’s desires (iccha shakti) that propel you toward your destiny. Without desire, your full potential would never unfold. (For example, if a seed’s dharma is to become a blade of grass, iccha shakti is what drives the seed to fulfill it’s purpose and become a blade of grass.)

Steps to pinpoint your soul’s desires

So how do you know which desires are your soul’s desires?

Your soul’s desires are the aspirations that keep coming back, year after year, through various relationships, jobs and living situations—your deepest longings that at times can be suffocating and at others gently nudging but are always there reminding you of what you truly want most of all. They are not the fleeting desires of the senses, or short-term gratifications, that can sometimes deter us from the long-term fulfillment we’re after.

Still, it can be hard to know what you truly want for yourself and even easier to forget, push aside or become caught up in what others are doing and lose sight of your own soul’s desires. Besides, things change, our needs and aspirations shift, and we could all use a little check-in and tuneup from time to time.

1. Figure out what you don’t want. Really think about and become clear about what just isn’t for you. For example, as a yoga teacher, I know I don’t want to travel all the time leading workshops and training sessions in other places. That insight has helped me to recognize that I desire more of a home life, so I’ve redirected my efforts toward teaching at local studios.

2. Pay attention to what pulls on your heartstrings, what makes you excited, what you love doing and when you feel your best. Don’t judge or second-guess, just notice. We often think that what we desire or should be doing with our lives has to be something of significant proportions. It doesn’t! Just because your desires are tied to your destiny doesn’t mean you have to win a Nobel Prize, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make a ton of money doing it. It’s what you feel good doing, what makes you happy and more fulfilled. Allow yourself to daydream outside the confinements of financial commitments and social obligations. Your soul’s desires have nothing to do with “should” or feelings of “have to.”

3. Free-write to channel your soul’s desires. Sit down with a journal and pen, softly close your eyes and ask yourself: What does my heart truly want in this very moment? Then open your eyes and just start writing. Try not to involve too much of your intellect, and certainly don’t stress about grammar or punctuation. Desire is energy, life pulsing through you—let your desires flow out onto the paper. Don’t block it with fear or judgment. Free writing takes some practice, but it’s a great tool for uncovering longings deep in your soul.

The last, and vital, step is to sit quietly with yourself (yes, meditate). Believe it or not, under the constant bombardment of thoughts, there is the quiet voice of your soul waiting to be heard. You have to spend a little time (even just a few minutes) each day with your attention directed inward, seated inside yourself, paying attention to sensations and the way you feel. Your true desires are there, not anywhere outside yourself.

Inspiration or Jealousy?

In the world of social media, it’s easy to confuse desire and even inspiration with jealousy. The next time you find yourself being swept away by feelings of longing that don’t feel good or thinking you want something someone else has, pause and simply ask yourself why. Why do I want it? And is it really something I want? Or can I just feel gratitude for someone else’s experience? Oftentimes, it’s not something we truly desired, anyway. (Then spend a little time practicing that meditation to find your true desires.)

Photo credit: Thinkstock, iStock, kirstypargeter.