How intentions and sankalpa can help strengthen your yoga practice

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The second sutra in the Yoga Sutras talks about developing one-pointed focus in order to direct the mind. One way to focus the mind in an asana practice is to set an intention at the beginning of class.

Many instructors offer this as a tool at the beginning of the class, often along with a poem, a quote, a story, or a suggestion for what your intention could be. But no one ever really talks about what an intention actually is.

The purpose of intention

Considering we’re still in January, it is a good time to revisit the purpose of setting intentions. Back in 2015, I ran a 21-day healthy habit building challenge that talked about the importance of setting intentions. It’s a great introductory post to setting intentions, but here I’m going to dive deeper.

An intention can guide you back to the present moment. Intentions are not goals. You can achieve a goal but intentions are embodied and integrated in all the layers of your Self. Intentions can be adapted because it’s not about the outcome but how you show up in your action.

How to set an intention

The first step towards setting an intention is to get quiet and still. Take a deep breath, do some simple movements to release stored energy in the body and take a few moments to listen deeply to what your body, mind, and senses are trying to tell you.

Ask yourself what you most need. Watch to see if an answer seems to appear spontaneously without you having to analyse too much.

If nothing comes, ask yourself why you showed up on your yoga mat in the first place. Is there something you’ve been searching for?

Try to boil your intention down to one word or one short phrase that is easy to remember. Peace, Love, Quiet, Truth, Breath, Strength, etc. are all great examples. Feeling words tend to be easier for the mind to comprehend.

How to use your intentions throughout class

When you set an intention at the beginning of an asana class, you are choosing to focus on a particular way of being. If you find yourself feeling other than how you wish to be, then your intention can help you customize a yoga posture to fit your needs.

It’s common to set an intention at the beginning of class and then not even remember what it was by the end. If this is the case, the intention you chose is probably not that meaningful to you.

Throughout class, during every posture, every breath, every transition, you can ask yourself if you are embodying your word or phrase.

This is the part that tricked up one of my students. He was trying to reconcile setting an intention for say, peace, and then trying to push himself into and through difficult postures. My suggestion to him was to customise the posture so to help him achieve more peace, but that way of thinking was almost foreign to him. That's because, it’s more common to hear suggestions such as “push to your edge,” “take one more breath,” or “do XYZ so that you don’t tear your muscles, ligaments, tendons,” etc. While that language does have it’s place in certain circumstances, the beauty of a group yoga class is that everyone can be doing the same physical posture but with a different intention. If one person’s intention is strength, their individual expression will be quite different from the person who’s intention is peace. And that is okay! This is how intention guides your personal practice. This is how you know when it’s okay to go a little further and when it’s time to back off.

A word on Sankalpa

There is a Sanskrit word called sankalpa that often gets translated as intention. If you set an intention at the beginning of every class, that intention naturally adapts to your changing needs. Sankalpa, on the other hand, is a larger intention you wish to live your life by. Values such as peace, love and strength are good intentions but, on any given day, you might not feel strong, for example. Sometimes, we need to feel supported too.

That is why setting a Sankalpa is important. It is an exercise in understanding our deepest values and desires. It is a vow that we are determined to keep not because we are trying to change something about ourselves but because we need to be reminded every once in a while about our deepest held beliefs and desires and the importance of aligning with them.

A Sankalpa is often more than one word or phrase, but a short sentence — a declaration. Our Sankalpa is beyond the ego and mind. It comes from the heart.

Sankalpas can change over time too. The lifespan of a Sankalpa is best measured on the scale of months and years unlike intention that are usually meant for a few days to a few weeks at the most.

As you practice setting intentions, notice if any patterns arise. Are there intentions that keep popping up over and over again? If so, consider spending some time reflecting on your beliefs and desires and crafting a Sankalpa that you can take with you into every practice. It is possible to have both a Sankalpa, a mantra of sorts, and an intention that changes day-to-day.

Good luck setting your intentions! Remember, it’s called yoga 'practice' not yoga perfect.

This blog has been adapted from the original, which appears on the author's website.

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