There is this beautiful part of a yoga class when the teacher says, “…and now, set an intention for your practice.” For years, when I heard that, I’d sit on my mat, think of a friend who needed a little extra love, start my practice, forget about my friend and think about alignment. Class would close, and if I remembered, I’d send a psychic shout-out to that person again. I had a hard time connecting intention with asana practice. It just didn’t feel all that meaningful. Recently, I’ve begun to work with intentions that cultivate qualities I want to grow. Staying with an intention is a mindfulness practice and a way to connect the physical practice of yoga with the mental practice. I try to cultivate a quality in my mind and experience that quality in my body. When I apply this sort of intention to the range of experiences that come at me during an asana practice then when something similar occurs in life off the mat, I already have some practice with the intention.
Asana practice gives us the opportunity to connect to the body and to see how an abstract concept or thought applies or manifests itself in the physical form. There is a lot to be learned in how we hold an intention with and in our bodies. Anusara yogis start a practice by “opening to grace.” In classes I’ve attended, when a teacher asks her students to open to grace, there is a lightness and ease that comes into the bodies in the room. Chests broaden and faces soften. It’s beautiful. Try it out. What does opening to grace look like in your body? How does it feel physically and emotionally? The simple exercise of expressing an intention in your body can help us to clue in to the way our posture and physical attitude affects the nervous system and our mental state.
This practice takes some creative and metaphorical thinking at first which can feel a little like middle school English class, but the effort really works for me. Here are a couple of good questions to ask: What could this quality look like in my body and how can I bring this quality into each pose I practice today? Check out the following list of qualities. Read one, close your eyes, and for a couple of minutes let that quality wash over and through you. Move a little, sway, make a sound (a sigh or a hum works nicely), whatever helps you to be the quality, and then notice the state of your mind.
Did anything change in how you hold your shoulders, the muscles around your eyes, how your feet meet the floor? An asana practice with the mindful intention becomes a moving meditation. It is a way to notice and start to influence our thought and movement patterns that are habitual and maybe not all that helpful and cultivate the ones that help us to maintain a clear mind.
Cultivating the connections between the mental and physical and the practice on and off the mat has helped to give more meaning to my practice and to my life. My day doesn’t seem to be broken up into units anymore…coffee unit, breakfast unit, yoga unit, parenting unit, etc. Instead, I can see that there are challenges and joys in my parenting that relate to the challenges and joys in my yoga practice, my work and my other relationships and I can see how one quality relates to these different roles I play. Having an intention in yoga and trying it out in the different postures is kinda like having an intention and seeing how to stay present and mindful in the different roles we play.