Why is it helpful in our yoga practice to set an intention and how do we make it meaningful?
What is an intention?
A little bit like making a miniature New Year’s resolution; an intention is something many of us might make before a yoga practice. An intention is usually something recognised as the practice of bringing awareness to a quality or virtue you’d like to cultivate for yourself.
The word ‘intention’ can have different definitions within different contexts: it’s often described as a “thing intended; an aim or plan”, but interestingly within the field of medicine, it also refers to “the healing process of a wound”.
The word is derived from the Latin intendere or intentio, which means both “stretching” and “purpose”. In essence then; if we are to live up to an intention we’ve set, we’re stretching ourselves beyond the place we’re currently at – possibly towards a different state of mind, a new action or a new way of feeling, or even a new life path.
If you’re usually someone who takes things easy and likes to rest, then setting an intention to get stronger might require you to stretch beyond the boundaries you’ve currently set for yourself. As a contrast; if you’ve always been quite hard on yourself and pushed yourself to the point of exhaustion and pain, then being kinder and more gentle to yourself is going to stretch you beyond the current boundaries you’ve set for yourself. The ability to find the mid-point between the two is called balance.
Start from where you are
In order to make an intention meaningful and effective, it’s important to realise where we’re each starting from. Whether wounds are physical or emotional, temporary or deep, many of the intentions we set are related to healing in some way, and moving energy from one place to another. Think back to a time you’ve made a resolution, an intention, or even created an affirmation to repeat to yourself daily – were they linked to healing or resolving something?
Before a yoga class, you might choose to set an intention to practice with the Yama Ahimsa or ‘kindness’ and ‘non-harming’ to yourself, or Satya, meaning ‘truthfulness’, both of which are derived from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and have echoed their importance throughout thousands of years. Intentions are different from ‘goals’. With a goal, we actively work towards something; however an intention is intended to flow through our every word, thought and deed. If your intention is to be kind, notice how this effects your thoughts, your words and your actions, and if your intention is courage, be courageous.
With a goal, we actively work towards something; however an intention is intended to flow through our every word, thought and deed.
Taking intentions off the mat
By setting an intention, we actively choose to empower ourselves to make a change. Even looking objectively at ourselves and asking ‘how am I?’ to begin with can be a transformational step, bringing attention to the present moment. When an intention is set, it’s also a way of carrying a yoga practice off the mat and out into the world, where that intention can translate to other aspects of life.
By building more awareness through a steady and mindful practice, we may realise that an intention can be set at any moment of the day, not just in a yoga class. When you wake up in the morning, perhaps set an intention for the day, something that transcends all layers of being, and will work in all situations: gratitude, patience, compassion, courage, honesty, kindness, forgiveness, letting go, inner strength, cheerfulness, abundance or effort are all intentions that are often made, and can bring valuable focus to the day.
Perhaps one of the most important, yet difficult, things to practice regarding intentions, is detaching from the outcome – doing your best and letting go of the rest. We may not have control over others’ actions, or the world around us, but we can choose how we act and react to it. Once an intention is set, allow it to trickle through your day and throughout who you are, and notice the little changes that start to happen…
Text: Emma Newlyn
Images: Emma Newlyn/Ekhart Yoga