Why set an Intention for class?

By Toby Matthews

How often have you been sitting at the beginning of class when the teacher asks you to set an Intention?  (It happens more often in the yoga context, but it happens in in Pilates classes too.)

Perhaps your mind goes blank.  And not in a good way.  :-). For many of us just making it to class on time was our big intention and that was (more or less) accomplished.  Now we need to come with something else?!?!?!? Why?  We’re here to workout.  Is that not intention enough?

Well . . . Yes . . .

AND you could make things so much richer and more life-giving.  Let me digress for a moment.

Before I became a bodyworker, I trained as an actor and theatre movement teacher.  I performed in plays by Chekhov, Gertrude Stein, and Tennessee Williams and taught performers all over the world how to inhabit their roles with an ever greater sense of physical detail and authenticity.  One of the cornerstones of actor training since the early 20th century has been the idea of having an Objective or Intention.  When an actor is on stage, her character must always have that Intention in mind:  “I want X.  There are things in my way.  How do I concretely achieve my goal through action?” All of an actor’s behaviors and words flow from this Intention.  They don’t even have to be “doing anything”. 

Think of how captivating some of our favorite screen actors are.  Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o can simply look at the camera and they hold our attention. 

They are creating this Presence through the use of Intention.

The wisdom of this approach is that it propels the actor forward on a journey and yet requires that they stay in the present moment in their bodies in order to deal with the obstacles they encounter.

Setting an Intention at the beginning of class can work in a similar way. 

It can be a thread that leads us from the beginning of class to end.  It can connect physical exercises to something much more vast – our inner emotional and spiritual lives.  And, somewhat counterintuitively, holding an Intention for something in the world outside ourselves can help us listen more attentively to the stream of sensations inside us during our workout.  This attentiveness also has the potential to unlock vast resources of strength and energy and joy when the going gets tough during class.

Setting an Intention is an act of the imagination. 

Not that it’s fake, but that we get to be creative and there is no wrong way to go about setting one.  The more specific you can make it, the better. 

In recent days, I have found myself setting a number of different Intentions.  Two that I have found especially helpful are “To be of benefit to Person A, who is too sick and in too much pain to be able to take class” and “To delight my Beloved Person B.”

Both of these Intentions ground me in the real world and yet give me an imaginary dance partner for class.  When my hip flexors feel tight in Spine Stretch, I can imagine their challenges.  When I’m having fun rolling in Seal, I can share that sense of freedom with them. 

The space, the ground, and any equipment I’m using become really important to whole process when I hold one of these Intentions, too. 

When I reach my heel, I am really reaching for something.  When I forget to breathe, I can come back to the thread of my Intention.  When I feel myself over-efforting in class, I can allow myself to receive the weight of a handle or weight in my hands like I receive a hug.

In these hyper-isolated, pandemic times, filled with an awareness of brokenness that few of us have ever encountered, I encourage you to play with setting an Intention for your next class. 

Don’t make it too nebulous or too emotionally overwhelming.  Pick something that gently pulls open your heart, centered around someone or something that’s concrete.  Then let your workout wrestle and dance with that heart-opening.  Each exercise presents obstacles on the path, but notice the threads of support that weave you into this place:  beginning to end, inside to outside, earth to sky, body to spirit. 

When you set an Intention you can explore what it feels like to be more connected, less alone, and more Presence-filled in this world that needs you so badly.

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