If you go to a yoga class, you will probably be asked by the teacher to set an intention early in the practice. I’ve found very different explanations to how and why you set intentions. I will give you my own point of view on the matter based on my personal experience.
Why an intention? I believe that setting an intention allows two important things on the long term. First, it enables you to establish a personal path in life and second, it lets you to figure out what virtues or abilities you need to work on to stay on the path. Let’s delve into these two things separately.
The personal path: The intention forces you to ask yourself “what do I want” every time you step on the mat. Your intention can be very different every time. You might want to relax, or you might want to energize your body. You might want a loved one to recover from illness. You might want more quality time with your family. Or maybe you just want more money. Over time, you will notice that your wishes will probably become more aligned from one day to the next one. If you are familiar with corporate culture, vision and mission is where everything starts. Moreover, self-help literature uses similar principles. You need to define where you want to go in life, even when that vision changes over time. There is inner peace in knowing where you are going, whether is based on free will or destiny. Your goals are your compass. Setting an intention forces you to look at the compass often, increasing confidence and helping deal with the anxiety of not knowing where you are heading.
My virtues/abilities: Once you have a clear picture of where you want to be, you will probably ask yourself “what do I need to get there?”. This is also a way to think about where are you now, and to work on self-acceptance. Only by accepting where you are now you can establish how to get to where you want to be. A big part of yoga is about understanding self-transformation. The analogy I’m using here is seeing transformation as a journey from who you are now to who you might be tomorrow.
Reverse engineering: My approach to intentions is completely intuitive. Because of this, I find my intention based on my needs at the moment I start the practice. Rather than asking myself “what do I want?” I ask myself “what do I need?”. What I want is, by default, to feel good here and now. What I look for early in the practice is to figure out what I need to get to a good place within myself. I look at this from both a mental and a physical perspective.
Where is my mind? Form the mental perspective, I search for what worries me (which deals with your mind thinking about the future) and what I’m regretting (which deals with your mind thinking about the past). When you recognize and name your worries and regrets, you are identifying your mental needs. You are establishing what is required to have an emotionally balanced attitude when facing these worries (fear) and regrets (sadness). you can let your mind set in the present, while at the same time identifying your mental needs. These needs can be identified by establishing what is required to have an emotional balanced attitude when facing these worries (fear) and regrets (sadness). Maybe you have to work on being patient, or being grateful, or disciplined, or self-forgiving. That is for you to find out. This is not about repressing your emotions. It’s about recognizing these emotions and using their energy for the best in life and, by default, in your practice. Only then can you let your mind set in on the present.
Where is my body? I’ve seen many people working out and not feeling well. You see TV commercials where people take pills so they can go and play sports or to do some physical activity. That is so wrong. Please listen to your body. What does your body need? Remember that your body lives in the present moment. In yoga you are present with your body. In that sense, your intention could be to recover from minor injury or a sore muscle, to drain energy and reduce tension or to get energized, to relax, to work more on your strength or your flexibility.
The aftermath: At the end of the practice, before the “Namaste” part of the class, check if you accomplished your intentions. The easy answer to that is to check if you feel better than when you started. If that didn’t happen, don’t feel bad. That means that you need to review your needs and your goals. Or maybe you need to work on better identifying where your mind and your body are at. Then rinse and repeat.