We all have our reasons, or purpose, for pursuing a yoga practice; indeed there are as many different reasons as there are yogis. In Sanskrit this is “Sankalpa’” our intention, or the reason we do what we do. I’ve certainly redefined my intentions more than once over the relatively short time Iíve dedicated myself to this path, and I anticipate that as my practice deepens and evolves, my sankalpa will follow suite.
In March of 1999, I shattered my 12th thoracic vertebra and discovered a pain that I never knew one could live through. At the age of 30, I was unprepared to live the remainder of my life in this battered and broken down vehicle. Motivated by the idea of a more pain-free existence, I gave yoga a try as I was brittle, broken, and bent. What did I have to lose?
Over the course of time, I came to realize that there was much more to discover during this 90 minute appointment with my sticky mat. My teachers taught me not only how to align my bones with my joints and how to appropriately engage various muscles throughout my body, but they continue to teach me how to align my thoughts with my words, my principles with my actions and to engage intention every step of the way. This has been of immeasurable value as I have found that touching my toes does not bring me any closer to enlightenment, just as balancing on my head brings me no closer to walking through solid walls.
According to the Buddhist tradition, Right Intention is the second step in the Noble 8-Fold Path. Right Intention includes generosity, tolerance, gentleness and forgiveness; great virtues by which to practice our asana – and by which to live our lives. I know I always benefit greatly when I chose to incorporate a bit more tolerance and forgiveness towards my bodies’ limitations, or gentleness when I catch myself pushing a little too hard or forgiveness when my body doesn’t allow me to do today what it was capable of yesterday. Exploring these concepts as we’re on the mat can guide and energize our actions while laying the foundation towards a life of discriminating wisdom throughout the remainder of our day.
Setting goals certainly have their place in our lives and in our practice, however, they’re always future-oriented (“I will touch my toes by January 13th”) and always with a termination date. Intentions on the other hand, invite us to look directly at the present moment (“Where’s my mind with regards to what I’m about to do – and is there congruency between my thoughts and actions?”) and provide us with a foundation that cultivates consistency without an expiration date. I pulled out my old school Webster’s and confirmed that indeed intention has to do with purpose or “acting in a certain way” whereas goals, while often a synonym for intention, typically suggest an “end reached by prolonged effort and hardship”. Hardship isn’t exactly what I’m looking for in my yoga practice (or my life) these days. We ought to welcome the opportunity to put forth effort as without it we won’t evolve, but inviting hardship? Don’t we have enough of that already within our lives without reaching out for more while we’re on the mat? Anyway, in my experience hardship arises when I chose force over feeling. Hardly yogic.
My current teacher reminds us that it’s the intention which will determine the quality of our experience both in yoga class as well as out in the world. The Buddha spoke of right intention as a commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. The word commitment implies this is an on-going deal; the virtues I chose to cultivate on the mat I will carry with me as I roll up my sticky mat and head out into my scene.
When you show up for your first Sun Salutation of the New Year (free class January 1st, 11am), what will your intention be? Will it be effort-driven, goal-oriented and full of hardship (“Must touch toes! Must touch toes!! Oh shit – there goes my hamstring!!!”)? Or would you perhaps consider applying generosity, tolerance, gentleness and forgiveness to your practice and towards all of the life around you?