In many yoga classes, students are encouraged to set an intention at the beginning of practice. Intentions are not quite goals. I see goals as some kind of finish line, a completed achievement. In the context of yoga, a goal could be to be able to accomplish a particular feat such as touching your forehead to your knees in a forward fold, tucking your legs into full lotus position, holding a challenging arm balance, or (maybe hardest of all) not fidgeting or thinking about to-do lists during savasana, the final pose of asana practice. Goals are about where you are going, while intentions are about how you get there.
For me, in my yoga practice, intentions are thoughts or feelings I want to carry with me through the class or an energy or attitude I want to be carried by. I have set the intention to focus on my breath, to let my inhales and exhales be the source of my movement. I have set the intention to move with love for myself or to send love to someone else. Sometimes my intention is to focus on correct and careful alignment of my posses rather than depth or intensity. Sometimes it is to stay grounded in the present, to keep my mind from spinning on events in my life. It changes, but when I’m on my mat, my intentions are always “good:” they are meant to offer support, stability, softness, or something similar. Whatever they are, my intentions always come from inside me: they are something I want, something I want for myself and my practice that day.
A month and some change ago I injured myself. First I pulled a hamstring on my right side and then, shortly after, I sprained my left ankle. It was a “true sprain,” as I was told, meaning I did some real damage that will take quite a long time to heal. The hamstring, too, will likely take several months of babying before it’s fully recovered from whatever I did to it.
The first time I was back on my yoga mat for a vinyasa class was exactly two weeks after the sprain. I went in with intention: to have an easy practice by being soft with my body as I go through the poses. My mantra was going to be, “if it doesn’t hurt, be gentle; if it does hurt, don’t do it.” Good intention, right? I thought so, too.
The class I chose to start with was one with a teacher I feel safe with, trust, and respect, someone who I know would support me doing whatever modifications I felt necessary, even if my body was making a very different shape from the rest of the class. This was an important choice: I needed as much as possible to feel familiar and safe because I knew my body would not.
I laid down my mat in the furthest corner of the room without a mirror in front of me. I wanted to turn inwards, not be affected by what I looked like, and only barely be able to see what everyone else was doing. Comparison is a toxic, toxic drug for me, and the less I could see of others the better I knew I would be able to care for myself. I didn’t want to feel “inspired” by what the other students were doing to push my body further than what was smart or safe. I didn’t want to see all the beautiful shapes their bodies would make that mine could not. I even opted to wear glasses instead of contact lenses because when I take my glasses off for practice I am rendered basically blind. This would mean that when I did catch a glimpse at what was happening around me it would literally be out of focus; the reduction of external information would encourage me to stay inside myself, to focus on the sensations in my body, not the bodies of others.
I really tried to set myself up for success, to manifest the “easy” class I had intended for myself but it was punishing. The greatest difficulty was not the poses (although I did physically struggle through learning what asanas were and were not accessible to me), and it wasn’t that I found the flow of the sequence particularly demanding. For those 75 minutes, I suffered not from physical pain, but because it was an emotionally devastating experience for me. My heart was breaking for myself with frustration and—to be completely honest—deep self-pity. I took care of my body, but taking care of my body’s needs was, for all my good intentions, not enough to be true “self-care”.
My intention to care for my body was wise. My intention to allow my practice to primarily be guided by softness to my physical abilities was appropriately conservative, practical, and necessary, but it wasn’t enough. I thought I prepared myself for the emotional experience of being back on my mat because I had put so many safeguards in place against external influences, but I wasn’t even close to shielded from what came up in my heart and mind. I fought my way through that class: I fought myself through that class.
Every twinge of my ankle, every limit of my hamstring, every newfound tightness or inhibition of my body landed on me like defeat. Never mind that in some distant, rational part of my brain I understood that injuries heal and I would recover. Never mind that I was still basically able to practice. I was consumed by everything I couldn’t do, so deeply attached to the way I used to be able to move, that I was unable to step out of the river of suffering that I created through my own narrative to open myself to the invitation that my new circumstance offered.
In yoga, no matter one’s intentions when beginning a practice, there are other forces at work that will determine how your practice goes. In a studio class, your practice is affected by the instructor, the music, the energy of the students around you, the temperature of the room, the sequence of poses offered, and so on. When practicing at home you may be affected by a different set of sounds, smells, or events around you: anything from dogs barking, phones ringing, other people moving about and living their lives, even the sight of unwashed dishes may help or hinder your intentions. You will be touched by all the elements of the environment you are in whether on a beach, in a studio, at a park, or on the floor of your living room. In addition to our surroundings, regardless of where you practice, there are also internal factors at play. How both your body and mind feel that day and how they react to what occurs both inside and outside of you over the course of your practice will affect your experience on the mat.
The events, internal and external, that occur as you practice may support your intention: the sound of the next student’s strong breath may keep you in tune with an intention to maintain mindful ujjayi breathing, the music you play may support an intention channel strength, a feeling of openness in your hips may aid and intention to move smoothly in and out of postures. You may also feel your intention frustrated. It may be challenging to manifest a sense of deep peace if your dogs explode when a package is delivered, to focus on careful alignment if the instructor offers a particularly vigorous sequence with quick transitions, or to work towards greater balance and stability if your mind, unbidden, keeps replaying a difficult conversation.
When our intentions, our desires for how we want our yoga practice—or anything else in our lives—to feel and flow are hindered by what is happening inside or outside of our bodies, when our practice doesn’t go the way we want it to, there’s more possible than “making the best of it” and pushing through towards what we want for ourselves. Sometimes the barriers in the way of our goals and intentions, instead of being obstacles are detour signs: they may in fact be an invitation to have a distinct and precious experience independent of the one we intended. But we must recognize and accept that invitation in order to receive its gifts.
When I adopted my dog Kit I had a whole world of goals: he was going to be my adventure dog. We had a future of road trips, weekend hikes, camping trips, playdates, and outings to dog-friendly places. My intention in adopting a third dog was to have a “good” one, a dog who was not so fearful that they couldn’t do the things that “normal” dogs can do. After three successive dogs with fearful behavior (two of whom are still with me), I wanted to have the experience of having an easy dog*, I had specific things in mind that were going to be in our future. It was gonna be rad.
I made plans, and the universe laughed. Hard.
The experience of learning who Kit was and what he could or couldn’t do was excruciatingly painful. Wall after wall shot up in front of my goals and my intention to adopt a “good” dog was crushed by reality. Nearly everything I wanted was clearly vetoed by Kit’s unfolding personality and behavioral (ahem) quirks.
No to hikes at high-traffic times or in high-traffic places. No to dog beach. No to road trips or being in urban environments. No to easy vet visits. No to making friends with other dogs. No to peaceful neighborhood walks. No to being my demo dog for classes. No to being my “helper dog” with clients. No, no, no.
And every “no” from Kit felt like a failure. Every “no” made our world smaller, with fewer opportunities, and left me smoldering with grief and disappointment because Kit was not the dog he was “supposed” to be. He was explosively reactive, anxious, and unable to tolerate frustration. He had meltdowns over dogs, children, doves, holding still, visitors to my house, car rides, vet visits, …the list went on. I took the loss of my should-have-been dog harder at some times than others, but it always felt like something was taken from me, a promise broken.
Everything I wanted from him seemed dead on arrival, or nearly so, but for a very long time I still kept my eyes on that impossible horizon of our never-to-be future. I was looking at what I had wanted, not what was in front of me.
It took years to shift my gaze and see that Kit and my life with Kit offered me something else, something completely unrelated to what I wanted: an invitation to have a life-changing experience, an experience I never would have asked for but have grown from ten thousand times more than I would have from any number of dog-accompanied road trips or visits to dog beach.
The invitation I was offered was not to do, which had been at the front of my intentions and goals, but something much more valuable: I was offered the invitation to take each struggle with him as a gift of insight and opportunity to grow.
To re-learn the emotional reality of life as an overwhelmed new dog-parent, to have my fresh experience of being at a loss, crying with frustration, and feeling helpless open me to greater empathy for the people I work with.
To learn a new understanding of stress, anxiety, and reactivity, both Kit’s and my own, and discover gentler ways of responding to them when they arise in each of us.
To learn the power of acceptance itself, to sit with grief, frustration, and shame when they emerge and give those feelings room to breathe. To offer love to those feelings because they are true and deserve to take up space.
To learn what it truly means to meet my dog where he is each day, to respect his limits.
To begin to learn what it means to meet myself where I am each day and respect my own limits.
When I adopted Kit I unknowingly traded desired external experiences for difficult and demanding internal experiences. I traded adventures for perspective and I traded all the things I wanted for so, so much that I didn’t know I needed.
Invitations often come with conditions. In order to access what is on offer, we have to agree to the terms presented. You may attend an event but have to abide by a particular dress code, you are welcome for Thanksgiving but have to leave politics at the door, you are admitted to a college but have to pay tuition. Whatever the invitation is, the terms are set by the inviter.
The terms of my invitation from Kit were that I had to truly let go of my attachments to everything I wanted my life with him to look and feel like. I had to voluntarily, without bitterness or resentment turn away from my goals and release my intentions. I had to surrender what I wanted to what reality made available. Instead of feeling frustrated by Kit’s behavior, I had to learn to see the invitation to grow and learn from those daily moments of conflict between who he is and the idea of who I wanted him to be.
Accepting his invitation didn’t happen in a sudden flash of enlightenment. Nearly four years deep into our life together, I am much more at peace with the reality of who Kit is, but I still—often—struggle to accept his behavior in the moment. It’s been a slow trudge, an often painful process that is ongoing, but the hardest part is over. The hardest part was to see the invitation to begin with: to take off the blinders of attachment to my goals and intentions, and open myself to what was being held out with open
On my mat, during that first class back after the sprain, I couldn’t see the invitation I was being offered. I was paying all my attention to my body, my physical experience, which was in line with my intention but did not serve all of me well. By keeping my focus on tuning in to the edge of where possibility ended and pain began, I was unintentionally clinging hard to all the nos I was receiving from my body. No from my ankle. No from my hamstring. No from all the muscles in my hips, low back, and upper body that had tightened and changed to compensate for my injuries. I took each no like a rejection, like a failure.
At the end of class, in savasana, I took a restorative pose, legs-up-the-wall. This pose has always felt comforting to me, but this time I chose it primarily because it allowed me to elevate my ankle. I lay there thinking about how I needed to put an ice pack on it when I got home and I cried. I was grieving the loss of the body I had just a few weeks ago. I was grieving the loss of access to poses.
It pains me to admit the intensity of my self-pity in that class, but it was profound, and I was buried in it. I’m not going to say I was ashamed of my lost mobility, it wasn’t quite like that, but I had—unknowingly—so closely intertwined my ability to move (mostly) confidently on my mat with my idea of who I was as a yoga practitioner, that my suddenly reduced range of motion struck a huge blow to my ego. I felt like I was failing and being the person I wanted to be. I felt like something important was taken from me, some crucial piece of how I thought of myself, again forgetting the temporary nature of injury. Despite the fact that I claim to believe that “real” yoga is in the heart and the breath, not the postures, I felt like my ability to have a “real” practice was lost.
It was days after that class that I finally saw the invitation. The blinders of attachment to my asana practice, the deep waters of self-pity and ego that I was drowning in, and my own good intention to focus on discovering the edges of my ability closed me off from seeing the invitation that was extended to me.
The invitation was an opportunity to soften my heart to my own emotional experience, an opportunity to care for myself—however that may look from the outside—without judgment. To change my perspective from seeing the edge of discomfort not as the place where movement ends, but as the place where nurturing begins. To stop viewing the limits of my body as a “no,” but as an opportunity to show compassion for myself, to respect the boundaries of my physical body, and even take pride in doing so. To recognize each modification and moment of doing less as an act of love myself, not as a failure of ability. To remember the truth that I keep tucked away somewhere deep in my marrow, so deep that I often forget it: that I am deserving of my own care and tenderness, no matter the shape of my body or the shapes I can make with my body.
There are some invitations that are easy to take. If I had intended to spend the day in the garden but the weather is cold and rainy, it would be easy to let go of my plans and take the day’s invitation to snuggle on the couch with a book and some tea. When Shine, my 14-year-old dog, stops to roll in a patch of grass while we’re on a walk, it’s easy for me to pause from the goal of our activity to take the invitation to delight in her delight.
The invitations that are harder to accept are the ones that have steep terms, the ones that require us to give up something dear, but those are the invitations that offer the most. The terms of the invitation I received that day on my mat, just like the terms of the invitation I received from Kit, were that I must surrender my attachments to the way I want things to look and feel, that I must step outside my intentions to see what is truly possible.
Letting go of my goals, intentions, and attachments–many of which are deeply rooted in constructs of who I think I should be, what I think my life should be like, how my dogs should behave, or what my body should look like or be able to do–is hard. It’s really, really hard.
I’ve been back on my mat several times since that class, and I’ve tried to remind myself of the invitation waiting for me in that room. I don’t always remember and I lose myself in my attachments, grasping for everything I wish I could to do and be. When Kit is sky-high on adrenaline and cortisol I don’t always remember that it’s an invitation for me to soften and open to a new understanding of how each of us responds to our respective triggers.
The ability to become aware of those pivotal invitations and then choose to accept them, willingly setting down my goals to reach for something harder and greater, to accept the terms of all life is inviting me to experience will be something I struggle with until the day I die.
But slowly, I’m learning. I’m learning to see when my intentions are serving me, when they are supported and elevated by what life holds out. I’m learning to see when they are well considered, but need to be adjusted by the reality of the present moment. And, most difficult of all, I’m learning to see when it’s time to leave the baggage of my best intentions, my hopes, and desires on the side of the road, to accept life’s invitation to ride unencumbered and discover something unanticipated and beautiful.