It's time for your second Intro to Ashtanga class.
You've arrived 15 minutes early.
You spread your mat and start stretching (that's what everyone else is doing! So that's what I'm supposed to do too, right).
Lying in Goddess Pose on your mat, your mind begins to wander. Feeling calmer.
Eyes closed and in Lotus, your instructor goes through the introductory sequence which encourages the class to find their center and focus.
"Set the intention for your practice," your teacher suggests.
Your eyes burst open, and you realize, at that moment, you don't have an intention.
You don't actually know what an intention is. You know the definition of the word, but not in this context.
What does this person mean by "set your intention", anyways?
Maybe this scenario sounds familiar to an old memory from the earliest months after your life-changing discovery of yoga. After class, maybe you asked the teacher or a fellow yogi how to set an intention. If you are like me, you pulled an introvert and Asked Jeeves (the internet) instead. My earliest intentions were demi-prayers. I looked towards the ceiling and asked, whoever, to please remove my negative thoughts and emotions (maybe it was a hard day in the office). Other early intentions, such as "please help me stay healthy and happy", were addressed to the higher power of my understanding: a power in which I refrain from naming, and in my mind is simply a kind, gentle, and loving power that is greater than myself.
What is an intention?
To truly understand what a yogic intention is, let's start at the root: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 'Intention' is defined as:
1. 'an aim or purpose', or something you plan or achieve; a determination to act in a certain way; resolve.
2. 'importance; significance'
3. 'the object for which a prayer, mass or pious act is offered'
4. 'a process or manner of healing of incised wounds'
5. 'a concept considered as the product of attention directed to an object of knowledge'
A yogic intention suggests deliberateness, a means of achieving an ends, and is simply a topic that is deliberated on through meditation and asanas (yoga poses). It's a way to center yourself and balance the turbulence of everyday life. An effective intention is concise and obtainable. It is very important, however, to clarify that an intention is completely different than a goal. An intention is not meant to lead you to future actions and outcomes. It is more focused on being present and being in the here and now.
One suggestion is to start at the end. Think of what you would like to have accomplished or find peace with -- maybe something you are struggling with at work, at home, or internally -- by the end of your practice or the end of your day. Working backwards helps ID and break down priorities, then, if need be, prioritize them.
Sometimes, my intention deals with an inter-personal problem that I am experiencing that day or week. Your intention doesn't have to be negative or pertaining to a problem. In fact, most intentions aren't. Gratitude is a great topic to meditate on. Self-awareness is another one. To set an intention means letting everything else go. The intention will be the center and theme of your practice. A few months ago, I found the concept of setting an intention so important, that I meticulously combed my brain and jotted down a tangible list of 'intentions' that I look over before class. Before I even enter the studio, I have my intention planned. Sometimes, I set my intention in the morning with my first cup of coffee. This therapeutic strategy or tool is one that extends beyond your yoga mat, beyond the studio, and can be carried with you for the rest of your life!
Feel free to be inspired or to gain a better understanding of this somewhat ambiguous concept with examples from my list of yogic intentions: gratitude, self-awareness, existence, purpose, the changing of seasons, humankind in relation to the universe, being one with nature and all things, finding deep peace, the breath, increasing mindfulness, paying it forward, acceptance, surrender, honesty, open mindedness, non-judging, real love, priorities (are they in order?), going the extra mile, going with the flow, letting things pass, weighing the pro's and con's, turning my will over to a higher being, selflessness, alignment, patience, balancing of doshas, karma and dharma, blind faith, body image and the physical self, consequences, lifestyle choices, identifying resentments, healthy life choices, empyting of expecatations, mercy, personal growth, hope, being of service to others, feeling my feelings, development of spiritual concepts, courage to change, serenity, reflections on relationships, secrets, favorite memories and empowerment. I grabbed most items on my list from the Yoga Sutras and The Bhagavad Gita. When you are in class and drawing a blank when it's time to set your intention, ask yourself why you came to yoga class in the first place? What are you trying to achieve?
Throughout your practice or class, when your mind starts to wander away from asanas or a contemplative state (e.g. what you are going to cook for dinner or where you're going to go right after class), you can always come back to your intention. Practicing drishti or focused gazing will help focus and realign your intention. When I am practicing, I am reminded of my intention every time I have to find a drishti point. When you feel like cursing the instructor after going in and out of wheel for the FIFTH time, reclaim your intention. If it's in the back of your mind, it will remain subconsciously with you, even when you are consciously trying to grab your arm in a crazy bind. Of course, savasana is the best time to wrap up all your thoughts cultivated during class pertaining to your intention. Can someone say, "clarity"?
Many times I have entered the yoga studio in a rageful state. Mad at my boyfriend, upset over a monetary situation, or upset because of a recent disagreement with a friend. Very rarely have I left the studio in the same mindset about the problem at hand. By emptying the mind through meditation and mantras, and flowing through an hour's worth of body/mind/soul-caressing asanas, I find clarity. And the quality of clarity that I find by setting my intention and mentally revisiting it frequently on my mat, is worth more than anything I could ever pay a doctor or psychiatrist for. This clarity is, like they say on the Mastercard commercials, "priceless". Working with an intention means living in the solution -- not feeling sorry for myself, not letting my emotions get the best of me -- but simply and naturally discovering the next right thing to do (an action or non action) in regards to my personal dilemma at hand. While it may seem your intention that solves a personal problem does not do much other than just that, there is only one type of intention: the type that will enrich, enhance, and grow your mental, emotional, and spiritual state.