Paying attention to intention

Mountain in snow

It’s hard to illustrate ‘intention’ so here’s a Scottish mountain – there is actually a mountain theme if you read right to the end! (Pic copyright – my mum!)

Most people, including governments, know or agree that practising yoga is ‘good for us‘. This is because of the benefits that result from the combination of movement, postures and breathing practices of yoga. But over the last few years I’ve also been pondering how the intention of the pose and the person can also affect how it is felt in the body, and the benefits that come as a result.

For example, it’s possible to be in tadasana (mountain pose) in a strong, firm and very erect manner, as practised in Iyengar and Ashtanga styles for example. This will help bring strength to the muscles involved, create a feeling of firmness and perhaps even power in the body and a ‘determined’ outlook. However it’s also possible to stand in tadasana in a much softer, more relaxed manner. This won’t necessarily develop leg muscle strength but it will enable the person to stand for much longer, hours maybe, without tiring. It may be a more suitable version for someone who has a tendency to have residual tension in their body and who finds it difficult to soften or relax. I experimented with the different versions on a recent workshop with Antonia Boyle.

Neither version is ‘better’ than the other: you might change which one you do depending on what benefits you want, what your intention is – for that pose, day, or week.

Being aware of the intention of the pose is something that Peter Blackaby discusses in his book Intelligent Yoga and it’s good to remind our selves of why we practise each yoga posture: is it because we want to do a twist, or an inversion, or a backbend, in order to become ‘better’ at those things?

Or do we want to do a twist, inversion or backbend in order to undo poor habits that have built up over the day, months, years? Or do we want to practise movements and stretches that will be useful for our daily lives?

‘But so what?’, you may be thinking. ‘What’s this got to do with my yoga practice?’ Well, it’s not something you have to think about: you can have a perfectly enjoyable and beneficial yoga class without thinking about the intention behind every posture. In fact, sometimes it’s good not to over analyse things and just go with the flow (literally, if you’re in a flow yoga class!). But, you could also experiment with a home practice session where you consider why you are doing each pose: is this the best twist pose for you today? If it’s a strengthening pose, are the relevant muscles fully engaged, no slacking or cheating? Have you chosen easy options rather than versions you find more challenging? Or conversely, are you being really hard on yourself and perhaps need to give your body a more restorative pose today?

One of the benefits of experimenting with being attentive to your intention is that if you have your own home practice it can be easy to slip into a tried and trusted routine, perhaps almost being on autopilot, and not really paying attention to the body, its needs that day, what you really need to work on, or the postures which you might ‘conveniently’ forget.

However, we should also remember that we don’t need to analyse every yoga session or be serious all the time – sometimes it’s good just to have some fun with the movement, and do postures not because there’s any real obvious benefit to them or because they’re useful in our daily lives (there certainly can’t be many daily circumstances which would benefit from somebody being able to do these!) but to do them just because we can* (or we can try!)

*When asked why he climbed mountains the famous mountaineer George Mallory is said to have replied “because they’re there“.

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