If you have ever attended a yoga class in the 21st century, I can guarantee you have been asked at some point or another by your teacher to set an intention. Why do I need to? What does it mean? Will it help me get into handstand? Intention setting is often relegated to the more 'woo woo' layer of a yoga practice, but I think it is actually a key and highly practical component of a good yoga practice (and life). Allow me to demystify.
When the teacher keeps you in a challenging pose for slightly longer than usual, what happens? Your mind goes to tomorrow's important meeting, or whether you turned the heating off, or anywhere but this present moment, because this moment at hand is hard. Difficulty is often shown in a negative light, but difficulty, and your attitude to it, is actually pretty central to yoga.
But isn't yoga meant to be about being calm? That's part of it, but life throws all sorts of curveballs our way, they can't be avoided no matter what, so yoga teaches us to be calm in spite of that. This quality isn't cultivated by ignorance, but rather presence. Finding a way to be present with feelings that don't seem so favourable is a key part of our growth both on and off the mat. When I am teaching I sometimes describe intention as 'an anchor point', which is sometimes easier to comprehend/visualise. I then give suggestions of what this might be. Sometimes it's as simple as observing your breath in that exact moment. We are so trained to tune out at any given moment, by way of notifications popping up on your screen, having multiple tabs open and making more plans than we can honestly commit to. Our attention has been so pulled in every which direction that we no longer know how to be present.
Setting an intention is one free resource we have for cultivating presence. I have found three simple ways to put intention into action. Allow me to share them with you:
Intention #1: To breathe deeply and evenly.
Some of my students say they come to yoga 'just to breathe'. This might sound odd as that logic would suggest everyone else is technically dead, but I know exactly what they mean. The first thing you have to do in a yoga class, before you have begun to move your body, is to notice and then adjust your breath to prepare your body for said movement. During this time I see the expressions on my students' faces change from either bothered and/or bemused to blissed out. That doesn't always last, however, as once the poses get challenging, so does the ability to stay present. Ironically we lose the breath when we need it most. We are pretty much hard wired to the fight or flight response, and this is what kicks in when a challenge arises. One way to counteract this response is by focusing on the breath. That breath can be your intention. It's the easiest one to hold because it will always be there, whether barely audible in a deep restorative pose, or when hyperventilating in headstand.
Intention #2: To trust gravity.
What is your current relationship with gravity right now? As you scan through your body, notice where is resisting gravity and where is falling heavily into it. Just noticing this allows you to start the process of evening things out. When you are wobbling in a pose, it is tempting to give up altogether or to tighten and force. This intention is about allowing yourself to just be. To observe. To watch the body as it magnificently responds to checks and balances, but not analyse or criticise the process. Inevitably the mind will want to kick in at some point, as it's designed to do, so we find intention to offset this response. Your intention here is to feel the ground beneath you. To allow yourself to be held by it even if from that point up there is a feeling of instability. In yogic philosophy, the ground is mother earth and that which nurtures us, offering us respite from the business of the cosmos. Again, this is a fairly easy intention to hold, because there will always be ground beneath you to feel, unless you have already reached enlightenment, in which case there is no need for you to be reading this.
Intention #3: To practice for someone who needs it.
This form of intention setting can bring its own challenges, because the person you choose may trigger an emotional response in you, so this one is certainly more personal. However, if you feel like your practice, or indeed your life, have been lacking in meaning, this can be a good way to revive inspiration. When I attend a particularly dynamic or physically demanding yoga class, and I start to feel the bristle of my ego in a big ol' fancy pretzel pose, I offer my efforts and energy to someone else. This is, for me, a way towards mastering the ego. I have by no means achieved this, but it feels like a step in the right direction. The ego shows up both as your inner critic and a peacock in yoga, depending on how your practice is going, or rather, how your ego thinks your practice is going. It comes up for all of us in many ways, and all of them block growth. If you are a visual person, having a specific familiar face in mind during your yoga practice can help you to stay focused in the moment. If you are an over-thinker it may create a distracting narrative. Either way, dedicating your efforts and offering them up to someone else is good for the soul.
There are two main ways to spend your time; conscious or distracted, whichever you choose the time will pass anyway. Allowing yourself to tune out is the reason you're saying "How is it June already?!", whereas living with intention will allow you to lead a fuller life.