As a long time yoga student and now a yoga instructor, I am often hearing/talking about ‘creating intention’ around a yoga practice – as a way of initiating a practice and focusing the mind. Intention can be a powerful tool to ground oneself and create a life of meaning and integrity. But, what exactly is an intention? And, how can it be used in a yoga practice, and then carried over into daily life?
In my experience, intention is often confused with goal setting. Setting a goal is an outcome orientated, future based object of a persons ambition or effort. Goals are something you work towards acheiving, with the end result being either a win/lose, positive/negative situation. Goals provide direction to your life, require planning and organizing your behaviour to achieve the objective of your goal. Goal setting is an extremely valuable skill – allowing you to envision your future world and move in a direction towards that destination. The un-yogic side of goal setting is that goals are centered around an imagined future, and the positive/negative outcome orientation around goals can create suffering. Further, goals do not guide you on how to live, they just guide you on what you want in the future, which is often volatile and out of your control.
Intention setting is different – intention is about how you choose to BE in the present moment. With an intention, it requires ever present attention to the changes and flow of your daily life. It requires constant mindfulness to respond to situations in your life in a way that is true to your deepest values, morals and ethics. It’s a committment to behave outwardly in a fashion that mirrors your inner values. By practicing “right intention” you live from a place of authenticity and unity, and from this place you can work towards your goal and create meaningful fulfilment in your life.
So, goals and intentions are intertwined. Intentions create a constant presence and mindfulness, aligning the energy of your heart with your energy of working towards your goals. Often, our goals become a little easier to reach when we act from right intention. This takes practice, awareness, and reflection. Especially when it comes to the storms we face in life, creating intention and acting from this unified core takes practice and compassion. When we lose our footing in the security of life, and stumble into confusion and despair, remembering our intentions can give us the grounding to reconnect with what is soulfully important to us. This reconnection is independent of the outcome of our goals…so when life changes and appears to fail us, we still have our intentions to allow us to find a foothold.
Yoga can provide a “practicum” in setting right intention by consistently coming back to it through out the class. If you can set the intention to “BE” every moment of a 90 minute yoga class, and non-judgementally watch the pull away from experiencing the present moment into the lure of a future oreientated striving, you can begin to understand the nature of the illusions of the mind versus the truth of the present moment.
As you move through grief, and work towards integrating your losses into your life (this would be the goal), you can approach each moment from a place of authenticity of your experience (this would be the intention). It is vital to come back to your noourishing center to remember that although you cannot control the events in your life you can use mindful intention to control how you respond – in a way that is self-supportive.
So, the next time you are in a yoga class, and the teacher invites you to create an intention, think about how you want to BE in the present moment, moment after moment. What deep value or wisdom do you you want to guide you through the ups and downs of life?
Then, when you are in a difficult pose and your mind starts to wander, or negative self talk begins to overtake you, come back to your intention. Or, if emotion arises – whether its anger or sadness, approach that emotion by remembering the intention that keeps you out of the “reaction” to the emotion and into the experience of blending your emotional release with your committment to BE with the present moment. Over time and with practice this will begin to organically guide you in all you do – on and off the yoga mat.
“Is yoga going to make all of my hardship go away? Of course not- my life is going to be hard. But without these difficulties, I would not be who I am.” – Matthew Sanford.
Matthew Sanford is a yoga teacher in Minnisota, USA. I first heard about Matthew Sanford while I was listening to a podcast on spirituality – it was a sound byte of him teaching a yoga class: “And then now, take your hands out straight, straight over you like you’re getting long, like you’re superman flying through the air. And then, even if you can’t do what I’m about to say it’s okay, cause I can’t do it either.” See, Matthew Sanford is paralyzed and wheelchair bound. He’s a yoga teacher, author, renowned public speaker, and founder of a non-profit organization that is dedicated to transforming trauma, loss and disability into hope.
I needed to know more. So I found another podcast – this one called “The Body’s Grace.” Its an interview with Krista Tippett from “On Being” and it’s Matthew’s story….and it’s truly inspiring.
At 13 years of age, he was in a car accident that killed his father and sister and left him paralyzed. He fell asleep in the car as a 13 year old walking boy, full of innocence and vigour, and woke up in a hospital from a coma with multiple fractures and paralyzed from the chest down.
He states that although his injury has a physical cause (spinal cord damage) his real disability at the core is an affliction of his mind-body connection. Specifically, he doesn’t have the same “ease” of anatomical and neurological connections from his mind to his body that a walking person would have, due to the damage in his spinal cord.
He talks about how a yoga practice gave him the tools of patience, and grace in his outlook and, smoothness and balance in his physical rehabilitation.
In his healing process, he describes how the relationship to his body changed. He had to “close the door” on the innocence and rambunctiousness of a 13 year old boy and adopt a more subtle awareness of noticing and sensing his ‘new’ body. He says, “I’ve had to pursue a lot of the subtler connections between mind and body. That’s the foundation of my yoga practice. So, what ends up happening with me is that I have to go inward and LISTEN, to levels that we all share. You have the same connections in your mind-body relationhsip that I use to do yoga, and that I use in the rest of my life…..One of the big healing things for me was to recognize that my paralyzed body didn’t stop talking to my mind, it changed its voice. It went to a more subtle whisper, that doesn’t have as much clarity. Its sweeter, its quieter, and it doesn’t as quickly react. I try to decribe it as energetic presence.”
What resonnated with me is that everyone has experiences in life where our world changes – whether its the loss of health, the loss of a love, trauma, heart break etc…when our world changes shape, we also lose our place in it – we become disorientated and disconnected. We may not have a spinal cord injury, but everyone can relate to feeling like their body and life is completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
What yoga can teach us is to how to reconnect with ourselves – by using the intention of the mind to explore the body. In our new, changed world, it gives us the opportunity to develop a changed relationship with our body, breath, and even mind. In times of grief, stress, and disability, it becomes harder to hear the subtle callings and quiet sweet whispers within ourselves. If we become silent and we listen and we begin (with baby steps) to form a connection between the intention we create in our mind and the sensation it brings to our body…mind-body connection. Whether you can stand on your head, or balance on your arms, or practice yoga in a wheelchair – it doesn’t matter… yoga is approaching your life with non-violence and compassion and meeting yourself exactly where you are. Perhaps, this breeds acceptance of your changed experience….and from there, even a new relationship to hope.
Incidentally, Matthew observes that as his students form a stronger mind-body connection, their compassion for themselves and for humanity increases. Once you begin to connect your mind and body in a mutually supportive way, it becomes easier to see the humanness in all situations and people.
So, in your experience, know that your mind hasn’t stopped talking to your body – it may have just changed it’s voice. Be silent and listen to the subtle whispers that are guiding your through each new moment.
Since March 2010 I have been hosting a class here in Edmonton called Yoga for Grief Support. When people hear this, the inevitable first question is, “How is that different from regular yoga?” Well, to be brief, it’s different in the focus and community.
Yoga for Grief Support was created to encourage a safe place where students could use yoga to explore and move through their grief. In any yoga class, you will explore your body and mind, and develop a connection between the two. In Yoga for Grief Support, we explore the body/mind connection and the impact our grief has on us. In order for grief to be healed, we must learn to move through our pain. Mindful movement and mindful meditation can be valuable tools in journeying through our grief, and learning tools to cope. The class tends to be quite gentle and restorative, with a strong focus on deep breathing and calming the mind. As with any bodywork, the movement, opening and releasing of the physical practice helps to relieve tension and aches and pains our bodies experience when we are under stress and grieving.
I created this class after my partner died in 2006 – it has been many years in the making, finally coming to fruition in March 2010. Yoga and meditation were, and remain, extremely valualbe in my journey through grief, and through life as I have rebuilt. It was my hope to create a safe, sacred place, where people can learn tools they can use themselves as they live with loss. There is nothing more honest, open, raw or wholeheartedly vulnerable as walking alongside people who are in their “dark night of the soul.”
From the very first session I had all students fill out a questionnaire outlining the impact Yoga for Grief had on their journey….my own informal, qualitative research study. Most of the comments centred around four main themes:
1. Body: ”better sleep, less pain,” ”awareness in which our bodies and minds react in grief,” ”feel less contracted,” “I am more embodied,” “opportunity to move stress through my body,” “conscious relaxation.”
2. Community: “powerful to be among others with similar experiences,” “being with others along this most horrible path,” “it was comfortable to be able to ‘let go’ knowing others are on a grief journey as well,” “I am not alone in my feelings.”
3. Taking time: ”take time for myself and be OK with needing it,” ”learn to pay attention to my inner self and needs,” ”class allowed grief/loss,” “a moment to slow down,” “opportunity for reflection/insight,” “time to nurture my soul.”
4. Coping: ”given me hope that I can experience grief and not get stuck in it,” “I have some control over what happens when I have grief bursts,” “grief can suspend us in limbo, but that is OK, because we can just be there with whatever is there,” “that I have to move gently through loss and grief, and not push through.”
….the number of comments were endless, and I wish I could include them all. I use all comments and feedback from students to create a class that is nurturing and healing. Most importantly, I strive to create a community, where we can grieve openly, share wisdom, and breathe deeply together.
I will update this blog weekly, so please check back for posts about life, loss and yoga.