As some of you may (or may not) know, I am currently a Master’s student of Somatic Psychotherapy. This is a field of psychology that acknowledges that wellness and wholeness of a human is accessed not just through the mind and emotional body, but through the physical body as well. It takes into account that human beings develop physical and physiological responses to experiences throughout our lifetimes and that these postures and responses help guide our experience of the world. It’s a positionally that strives to help sort through human problems by recognizing that we are our bodies and they hold the stories of our lives.
I’ve had an interesting time lately when it comes to teaching yoga classes and often find myself paradoxically confused on how to bring elements of what I’m learning into the asana practice I guide without pathologizing our practice. Even as a student of psychology, I don’t think that pathology is always a helpful stance. We are relational beings – interacting with others in both the human and more than human world that we inhabit. It is these relationships that inform our behaviors and positions with ourselves – both in mind and body. The work is then to integrate ourselves with ourselves. To bridge the imaginary gap (because there cannot be a separation – they are parts of the exact same whole) between body, mind and spirit and to give us space to experience ourselves in all our glory. I had a moment in meditation this morning when I remembered that is the yoga practice. That we come to the mat to practice the art of remembering and strengthening our mind-body connection. I have to say, I sighed a huge sigh of relief…I don’t have to “bring” anything from Somatic Psychology to Yoga because they – like body and mind – are parts of the exact same whole. But then I asked myself how… how do we take yoga from the physical practice into one of integration? In my mind, the answer is intention.
There are many times in yoga classes – mine included – where the instructor will invite those in the room to set an intention for the practice. Sometimes there’s guidance on distilling it to one word that can be easily recalled, sometimes not. Sometimes, the instructor guides us back to that intention throughout the practice or at the end, sometimes not. But more often than not, it’s something we set and forget – if we set it at all. The idea of the intention is not arbitrary and something that I think has the potential to bring deep, true awareness of the true link between mind and body, and yet, we run past this part to get to the sweaty parts.
In my mind, the intention we set should be distinctly different from a goal. From my experience, a yoga goal is an action measurable by our ability to achieve it. To that end, they are often physical in nature. They often include things like “I will touch my toes by next class.” “I will not take a break this class.” “I will nail a handstand today.” or some other pose, shape, or measurable physical ability. This kind of goal – though helpful in stretching our physical selfs – is limiting in scope, applicability, and can be – in some cases – damaging to our image of self and ability if we cannot achieve them due to real physical (or psychological) limitations. In a world where we are bombarded with images of young, thin women folding themselves in half…backwards…it’s easy to fall into a pattern of wanting to do it “right” or look like what we’re told Yoga makes you look like. This is a symptom of mind-body disconnect and a lack of self-acceptance and love that yoga is intending to help us move away from. Not all bodies should push into certain shapes because we are all the result of a lifetime of experiences, learned responses, inherited physiologies, and physical, psychological, and emotional structures and patterns. Therefore, until we connect with ourselves and explore these patterns as they are, we cannot begin to take new shapes in either body or mind. To change our bodies, we must change our minds about them by listening to them – and the same is true in the reverse. It comes through our bodies.
So what is an intention?
An intention is a positionality, attitude, understanding, or way of being that we are striving to cultivate in our lives that is applicable to our minds, bodies, and spirits in relationship to ourselves and others. They are easily applied to ways of moving, being, speaking, and engaging in the world. They can look like “I’m striving to find more flexibility.” “I am working on not holding or contracting when faced with challenge.” “I am going to find more joy in every moment, no matter the circumstance.” Flexibility is something that applies to the physical body as well as our ability to move and function off the mat and in the world. Having flexibility means we can easily maneuver change, adversity, and disappointment. Not contracting when faced with challenge can be practiced by not clenching our jaws when in a long Virabhadrasana I and by working on not being defensive when confronted with an issue. Finding more joy can be explored when we try to smile and welcome the fire of in an extended Utkatasana and or a long line when we’re in a hurry. These are things we are striving not to find on a yoga mat, but to explore and play with on the yoga mat. Intentions are in service of our life as a whole, not just in a yoga room.
Yoga asana class is where we can begin to play with cultivating the person we hope to be. We set an intention and begin to navigate the ways in which our minds and bodies run up against the walls that have prevented us from inhabiting the world in various ways. We will always do ourselves more of a service if we are willing to explore these ideas in a way that we can take them into our day. And of course, we won’t always get it right, but that is why yoga is a practice. It is not a means to an end – it is very much a journey. This is why it’s incredibly important to find a teacher that holds a safe space for your exploration. If you try a class and don’t feel safe in mind or body, try another one. Find someone who allows you to open up to yourself in more ways than a hamstring.
So, the next time you are invited to set an intention, see what it feels like to set one for a day, a week, or a lifetime. See what it’s like for that intention to be something you hope to cultivate in all aspects of your life, not just in a practice. It is my intention to inspire you – I hope you find something excites you.