Often at the beginning of a yoga class, the teacher encourages the students to set an intention for their practice. I find this to be a very helpful tool for directing my energy and for creating purpose and meaning in my asana practice. What exactly is an intention in the context of yoga and how does one go about setting one?
Certainly this might have different meanings and applications for different people and in different styles of yoga, but for the most part when you are standing on your yoga mat setting an intention for your practice you are deciding how you want to be. Unlike setting a goal, you are not looking towards the future deciding something you want to achieve later, but rather committing to do something right now. Intentions are concerned with the present moment and often involve summoning a quality within yourself.
Setting a goal might be something like “I want to be able to do a handstand without the help of a wall”, while an intention might include “I will be patient with myself during my yoga practice”. At some point, the handstand will hopefully happen. The patience, however, begins the moment you set that intention and continues through the class and potentially through the rest of the day, week, month… Practicing intentions on the yoga mat can help us to set and follow intentions in other areas of our lives.
One helpful way to decide what your intention should be, is to think about why you are on the mat in the first place. Why did you decide to practice yoga today? What do you need? What matters to you the most right now? The answers are infinite…
Patience, strength, physical, mental or emotional healing, deep breathing, perseverance, humility, gratitude, grace, staying in the present moment, balancing power with ease, letting go of control, dedicating your energy to someone who needs it, offering up your practice to an important cause, etc.
By setting an intention you are choosing to give your external actions meaning and purpose by uniting them with your deepest inner values. You should keep reminding yourself of your intention throughout your practice and after you leave your mat as well. By doing this, your yoga practice can become a very different experience. Your practice will gain positive energy and a significance that will keep you coming back for more.
Personally, as a practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, my intention is set as I start with the opening chant. By performing this chant, I am showing my gratitude for, and faith in, the tradition and the lineage of the practice and committing to honour that through each pose, each breath and each vinyasa. When I am tired or want to give up, remembering this intention keeps me going with renewed appreciation and resolve. When I finish my practice with the closing Ashtanga chant I am promising to carry on the hard work that I have done on my mat out into the world where I can continue to do good and help others find peace and happiness as well.