Take Aim! Practicing with Intention.

Via Sean Conley
on Jun 27, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

It seems “intention” is the latest buzzword in the yoga world.

But the first time a teacher told me to “set my intention for the class,” I thought, what the heck is she talking about?!  I admit, I struggle mightily to understand yogaspeak (as some call it).

So, the following is my best attempt to explain the idea of setting an intention in yoga, in the simplest way possible. Here goes.


an aim that guides action

purpose or attitude toward the effect of one’s actions or conduct

a determination to act in a certain way

Inviting intention into our yoga practice begins with the simple question: What is Your Intention?

What are you hoping to create?  What are you looking to get rid of?  Why do you practice Yoga?  Yoga is an individual experience.  We can all find something that resonates with our hearts and minds, but whatever is happening in our lives makes each time on the mat unique.  If you’re holding onto anger, resentment, fear, or anxiety, yoga offers you the opportunity to let go.  This is why the practice is profound, why it is powerful and it can be life changing.  For yoga to work, just bring an open mind to your mat.  Breathe, breathe, breathe.  Life is a journey, not a destination, so let’s enjoy the ride.

Setting an intention is not focusing on a future outcome.  Intention is “your reason,” why you practice yoga.  It’s why you dragged your ass out of bed, packed your yoga bag with a mat, towel, water bottle, Yogitoes, block, strap, china gel, eye pillow, and sanitary wipes. Then drove 45 minutes in traffic, parked 3 blocks away, poured 12 quarters into the meter, and somehow managed to get the last mat space available in the yoga room.  Ahhhhh….

Your intention is what you are looking to create on your mat. This is quite different from setting goals, which focuses on future outcomes like a job promotion or finding a spouse.  Look at setting an intention as something you “practice,” a path along which you focus solely on the present moment.  While experiencing the ever-changing flow of life, your attention is on the always present “now.”  You choose an intention based on what matters most to you and follow it with focus and, most importantly, commitment—a commitment to match your actions with your inner wisdom and spirit.

Once you’ve set an intention, you’ve set your positive thoughts in motion, and that has phenomenal power!  You’ll begin to experience a release.  Remember that feeling.  What seem at first like problems turn out to be invitations to change. We practice focusing, which allows us to be present.  We practice breathing, which makes us calm.  By not reacting to challenges, we lessen the power of our weaknesses.  We strengthen ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Yoga is a state of mind.

You cannot just turn on your intentions and become instantly forgiving.  Yoga does not have an On/Off button.  But being aware of what you need to work on is the first crucial step.  By focusing on our true intentions, we can live a fuller, freer life, one less attached to wanting, achievements, doubts, and insecurities.  We can live in harmony and balance, focused on making other people happy.  This is our greatest gift: giving our love, our time, and a part of ourselves to others.

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. –Winston Churchill

Of course, life will present us with its ups and downs, but by staying committed to our intentions we move with the flow, remaining strong even in the presence of pain and fear.  We become more comfortable in our own skin.  We realize we are in command of our own happiness, that we can be joyful regardless of external events.

Try to not judge yourself as you work through the process.  Awareness is the first step toward moving to positive results.

How do we know if our intentions are coming from the right place?

If you go to yoga consumed with thoughts of vanity, i.e. I wish my ass was smaller, I wish I had more money, I wish I was flexible like her…and continue to focus on these thoughts during class, you will end up more obsessed with these things.  If, on the other hand, you to go to yoga consumed with thoughts of vanity but focus your intention on not wanting and gratitude instead, you will begin to free yourself.  This is mindfulness.

We must move towards what is called “the heart center.”  This is our inner wisdom, our awakened inner mind-heart.  Yoga is confrontational:  we must commit to working on what we know we need to work on.  By practicing and practicing, our intentions become our way of life.  We stay anchored to loving and giving to others and are better able to resist falling for ego, vanity, and materialism.

Don’t think it will be easy.  You will fall off the path, start questioning yourself, and struggle in certain poses.  That’s okay.  Yoga imitates life: sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s rosy.  Get back on the path.  Work on giving up the struggle.  Breathe!  We go to yoga to work on being more gentle, more patient and forgiving.  Just keep coming back to your intentions.  By giving them consistent attention, they will thrive and grow!

All-star yoga words to infuse your Intentions:









and LOVE

Think of these words while in a difficult moment holding a yoga pose.

Yoga helps us find focus and clarity on the mat.  And what we do on the mat has everything to do with how we live life.


About Sean Conley

Sean Conley, along with his wife Karen, founded the Amazing Yoga Studios in Pittsburgh, PA. They are co-authors of Amazing Yoga: A Practical Guide to Strength, Wellness, and Spirit. They lead Power Vinyasa Yoga Teacher Trainings in Mexico and Costa Rica. They have 4 kids who sometimes tag along with them to these amazing places. Sean bounced around in the NFL for 4 years. But after injuries and getting cut by a number of teams, he moved on and luckily stumbled into yoga. He believes yoga is an incredible way for all of us to practice healing ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And at the same time, we can help heal the planet. Yoga can change the way we think, eat, talk, and interact with others. Website: www.amazingyoga.net Facebook: SeanFacebook Twitter: @Sean_Conley_


10 Responses to “Take Aim! Practicing with Intention.”

  1. yogiclarebear says:

    Thanks for this Sean. I'm all about setting intentions on the mat, but the bigger reminder/challenge for me is to set them and live them in all areas of my life, letting my "on the mat" translate much wider.

  2. Linda McKernan says:

    Nice article! It certainly helps beginners get what intention means. We all need a little reminding of what we want to accomplish with our practice.

  3. tanya lee markul says:

    Hi Sean. Thanks for sharing this. I really love how you defined 'setting an intention'…."Setting an intention is not focusing on a future outcome. Intention is “your reason,” why you practice yoga." This really made an impression on me. I have found myself many times starting my practice unable to think of an intention, which seems ridiculous, but I have found that in those times I have been thinking too much into the future, what I want to become, what I want to be like, instead of being present and acknowledging why I am practicing now. Thank you so much. This is beautiful.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  4. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  5. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  6. […] enjoyed my food. I savored the taste of what I was eating. I focused on one thing at one time and with intention. I just stopped all the other noise around me. Photo: Mo […]

  7. […] Commit: Extraordinary! It’s so obvious! Of course! Whatever we have chosen, Commit! 100%! […]

  8. Jenny says:

    Such a beautiful article Sean, thank you for sharing.

  9. Beth says:

    I just stumbled upon this article and it was definitely an eye opener! I've been going to yoga just hoping that my life will change by "clearing my mind" and "letting it all go" in the moment of my practice. I am coming to the realization that THAT is not how yoga heals. I had no idea how crucial it was to set a personal, yet positive, intention. I truly think this perspective will not only change my practive, but my life.

    Thank you so so much.