What is an Intention?

My friend Tami came down to Pavones Yoga Center for the Words To Live By poetry and mindfulness retreat. We were discussing yoga ‘stuff’ over dinner.

“What I don’t get is when yoga teachers open a class by asking me to set an intention. Then they move right into yoga poses without even giving me time to figure it out. It feels like kind of a big question to just breeze over, and I spend a lot of class time worrying about whether I’ve picked the right intention. Then they don’t bring up intention at all until the very end of class. At that point I’m finally feeling relaxed in my body and I’ve forgotten about my whole drama around intention. The teacher will say ‘come back to your intention’ and I get uptight again! I walk out of class feeling like I did the whole practice wrong!”

Tami was laughing, but I could tell some of the stress around intention-setting was real. “So — what do teachers mean when they ask students to set an intention?” she asked me next.

You might want to skip this next paragraph unless you’re a yoga teacher interested in refining your teaching skills—
Before Tami and I got into the conversation about what an intention is, I spent a little time on a soapbox (Tami was very patient) offering a hullabaloo about how she needn’t get down on herself for this experience. On the contrary, it is the job of a yoga teacher to offer insightful and helpful guidance to students in setting intentions. If you’re a yoga teacher, and you’re going to ask people to set an intention, it might be helpful to make sure your students know what this entails. This is why, instead of asking people to set intentions, PYC teachers develop themes and offer suggestions for intentions. (I can’t wait to share deeper insight into theme-weaving during the upcoming Art of Flow vinyasa yoga teacher training). When I incorporate a theme into my yoga classes the burden of giving meaning and purpose to the class is on me, the teacher, not on my students. My students can choose to follow the intention I’ve created, or create their own. Having said that, anytime I find myself in a class where the teacher asks me to set an intention without offering suggestions, I generally stick with something simple like “observe my breath” or “stay in the present moment” because these types of intentions fit into a wide variety of yoga classes.


So back to the issue of what an intention is (and what it is intended to support or offer). Intentions in yoga classes are objects of focus that help us (yoga students) to train attention. Where we place our attention is of vital importance because consciously placed attention reduces stress and anxiety(mostly when we let the mind wander aimlessly it will sputter from one anxiety-inducing rumination to another). Where we place our attention is also a way to determine what we value. What we value, in turn, determines the shape of our lives. When setting an intention any object of attention works, because the practice is meant to show us how often our minds wander. The moments of wisdom and awakening in yoga classes are actually happening as soon as you realize you forgot your intention. This is a moment of awakened mind. Don’t judge yourself for forgetting your intention—celebrate that you’ve come back to it! It is the realization (and the coming back to your object of attention) that teaches you something. Yoga is about cultivating conscious awareness—to do this, try taking on the perspective that you are merely the witness to your thoughts. Pretend for a moment (or the duration of a yoga class) that your thoughts had nothing at all to do with you. You’re the one who watches it all unfold. Once you create some space around your thoughts with this practice of conscious awareness, you can begin to direct attention more skillfully toward creating the kind of life you want to live: one that feels full of meaning and purpose (i.e. intention) to you. One way to create meaningful intentions is to finish any of the following phrases (just pick the one that you answer most spontaneously)

Today I stand for…

One quality I would like to cultivate is… 

My life is an expression of…

Decide how long you’d like to work with your intention. The new moon is Thursday, February 15. During programs at PYC, we set new intentions with the new moon and release them on the full moon. You can join us in this practice from anywhere in the world.
One more helpful hint about intentions: the moment you set one you may find yourself noticing all the ways that you are not living up to your intention. When this started happening to me in the beginning, I thought I was failing at my intention. It wasn’t until later that I realized this is actually the sign that the intention practice is working. Rather than trying to force change to happen willfully with your mind, let conscious awareness simply observe the feeling-tone that is arising in your body. If you stick with your intention, you will come into alignment with it ease-fully over time.

Write me with any questions or to share your intention if you’ve found this practice useful. I’d love to hear from you.

Sending well-wishes of peace out to you…



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