Intentions. The road to hell is paved with ‘em. They can be good. They can be bad. We often hide behind them. Sometimes we wear them like badges. They can distract us or bring about laser focus. They can be frivolous or deadly serious. You can even go to prison because of them.
As a student and teacher of yoga, I have often struggled with the meaning of the word “intention.” Are intentions enough? How do I decide on one in class? In relationships? In life? Can’t I just do stuff and hope for the best?
I have attended many yoga classes through the years that begin with the call to “set your intention for class.” What the heck does that even mean exactly? I always figured it had to be something big, like “world peace,” or dedicating my practice to the victims of (insert disaster-of-the-day) because teachers are so solemn when they say it.
Now I’m not saying that sympathy and well wishes are not necessary or appreciated, but I can tell you first hand in a country that just experienced some of the worst earthquakes in its history that the people on the coast of Ecuador would much rather have clean water and funds to rebuild their infrastructure than my really good Down Dog and useless intentions.
So how can you set reasonable and attainable intentions?
I believe the answer lies in simplicity. The smaller and more specific the intention the more likely you are to see it through. This is something I have been reminded of many times this year. We all have dreams and goals, but those aims are made up of many, much smaller units of measurement.
In February I had the “intention” to get published in the Amazon Kindle store. Problem was, I didn’t have a finished book yet. That intention was a good idea, but much too vague. I had to start getting more specific and finding smaller intentions I could act upon. So I restructured my intentions into smaller units, and after proving to myself that I could follow through on all the smaller intentions, I was able to realize the bigger one. I kept it simple.
I knew that I would be able to realize my dream of offering people real solutions to practicing yoga and meditation in the midst of a busy life because I have been experimenting with how intentions work while on the mat for over 18 years. When I started studying yoga, my intention was to become better at yoga. But after about a year I really wasn’t that much better even though I had been regularly going to class. I had the intention, but nothing had changed to put me closer to my goal. My intention was too imprecise, too grand.
In my second year of studying yoga, I decided to pick just one specific intention for each class and practice. Not once did it involve world peace. No, my intentions were much smaller in scale. Some examples:
- I will not clench my teeth during this class.
- I will keep my breath steady for 20 minutes.
- I will bring my attention back to my practice each time it wanders.
- I will not stare at the new, really flexible student in the front row. (And I will definitely not be jealous!)
- I will keep the mound at the base of my index finger securely on the mat while in Down Dog.
- I will at least try to engage my bandhas throughout all the Ashtanga standing postures during this practice.
- I will calmly step out of my comfort zone and produce at least one good, clear OM.
Now, these are not earth-shattering intentions, but over time these smaller intentions did, in fact, lead me to my larger goal of becoming better at yoga. And this process gave me a template to use while off the mat.
I believe the goal of a better world is attainable, one simple intention at a time. Instead of just thinking about a problem and feeling overwhelmed, I now look for small, specific ways to inch toward my goal. If we were all content with following through on just a few small intentions, those smaller focused intentions would add up and lead to much larger, positive changes in the world. On, and off, the mat.
K. Kris Loomis is the author of the humorous travel memoir, Thirty Days In Quito: Two Gringos and a Three-Legged Cat Move to Ecuador. She also writes adult parables and short stories as well as books about yoga and meditation. Kris is a determined chess player, an origami enthusiast, a classically trained pianist, and a playwright. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two cats.
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