The definition of yoga is “union.” This union might be breath and body; it might be body and spirit. Regardless of how we define it on a deeper level, this basic definition reminds us that yoga is more than just a movement practice. Yoga is a practice that transcends a typical workout: it’s whole body, including the subtle body (the breath and spirit) and the mental body (the mind).
When you attend a yoga class, you’ve probably noticed that your instructor offers an “intention” for the practice. Usually, an instructor talks about this intention at the beginning of the practice, throughout the practice, and then again at the end. Adding an intention to your movement practice gives it more depth and meaning. Sage and I have talked about this concept a few times on this blog already: here, she discusses how intention changes as we age. And here, I talk about the difference between intention and goals.
Once you’re clear on what an intention is, the next questions are more pragmatic: how do you find an appropriate intention? And how do you use it to guide your practice?
Finding an intention
Intentions can come from anywhere. I enjoy reading poetry, and when I find a poem that speaks to me, I set it aside to use in a practice later. If you enjoy poetry that has elements of spirituality, some authors to check out include Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Hafiz, and Rumi.
Yoga philosophy makes another great source for inspirational intentions. If you feel nervous about diving into ancient Sanksrit texts, have no fear: there are many good, modern translations. The most foundational is probably The Yoga Sutras, which provides short, clear instructions on living a yogic life. There are several excellent translations of the Sutras available, and it may even be a fun practice to read through them, using each one as an intention.
While philosophy and poetry have their place, your intentions don’t always have to be derived from a place so lofty, either. My favorite intentions are often focused on one word. If I arrive on my mat overwhelmed, the intention for the practice might be “peace.” If I’m exhausted, the intention might be “energize.” If I come to my practice mad at my husband (I’m sure you’ve never practiced yoga mad at your spouse!), my intention might be “calm” or “love” or “let go.” These simple intentions can be the easiest to grasp onto when you’re first adding them into your movement practice.
Using an intention to guide your practice
Once you’ve determined an intention that is speaking to you, what does it look like for that intention to “guide your practice”? If the root of your intention is a poem or philosophical proverb, you might begin your practice by reading it again. From there you could lie down or sit quietly for several breaths, allowing your mind to focus on the themes that the intention brings up for you.
Sometimes, the intention will guide specific movements. If my intention is “balance,” inevitably I’m going to add in some poses that challenge and encourage balance, like Warrior III. If my intention is “trust” or “love,” I’m probably going to do poses that are heart-opening, back-bending poses, like camel pose. That’s not to say that all intentions will have a obvious pose association, but some might.
As you move in your practice, make space to return to your intention. You could rest in a pose like child’s pose and hear your word or intention in your mind as you breathe. You could take a longer break in a seated pose and re-read the sutra or poem that is guiding your practice. Make space as you move to return to the emotional, mental, and spiritual part of yoga by reconnecting to the idea you’ve chosen as your foundation.
Finally, return to your intention once more after a rest in savasana, perhaps in seated meditation. You might even decide that you want to come back to your intention later in the day (right before bed is a nice time) or later in your week. An intention isn’t so much a lesson as a flavor, and the best intentions continue to flavor your day as you move off the mat and into the world.