Setting Intention: The Work Behind the Work

This entry was posted on Oct 19, 2011 by Charlotte Bell.

by Amy Putney Conn

Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.

We can’t be kind, true merciful generous or honest.

~ Maya Angelou

Before practicing Anusara yoga, our teacher will often set an intention or “heart theme” for the practice of that particular day.

Our work on the mat most assuredly settles our minds, but what our work on the mat accomplishes also translates into work performed off the mat as well. Sankalpa is the Sanskrit word for setting intention and is likened to planting a seed—the work behind the work.

An analogy that I think best describes this practice is that of the work of the farmer. At first, the physical labor (or work) of the farmer may be thought of as tilling the soil and planting the seeds. The farmer knows this type of work so there is ease in his routine. With intelligence and forethought, the farmer has mixed his soil with organic material, bringing it to the right temperature and setting the ideal foundation for a seed to send down its roots, then send up shoots toward the sun. This is the work behind the work:  establishing the perfect environment for his crops, which will then go on to feed a community. With the completion of harvest, the cycle begins again with a turning toward the next spring’s preparation and planting.

In my yoga practice, I work to get my body to feel that it’s not work—in other words, to find the ease within each pose to align my body so that it works together and not against itself. Yoga helps me become mindful, assisting me in placing my body, mind and spirit in a consciousness that allows me to do something about my intentions. Western civilization has the tradition of “powering” through the process, forcing an outcome to occur whether it correlates with the intention or not. From the farmer’s perspective, this would be similar to planting a bean seed but insisting on seeing a watermelon pop out of the ground.

Shashumna is the process of removing the kinks from our line of breathing. When we breathe with efficiency and without effort, from top to bottom and then back again, we find ourselves moving prana (life force) through our body. The process heats and nourishes the body, allowing the energy from within to be extended and exerted outside our body, to the community. When this happens, we allow ourselves to get out of the way of the true work behind our intention. We find ourselves planting a bean and being perfectly content when a bean plant rises up from the ground.

Amy Putney Conn is a Yoga teacher, PhD candidate in Exercise and Sport Science and founder of A Quality Life Community, a non-profit organization serves cancer survivors, caregivers and loved ones. She offers a free class for this population on the third Saturday of every month.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

2 responses to “Setting Intention: The Work Behind the Work”

  1. Avatar Brooks says:

    I love the farmer analogy, but the remark that hit home for me is Amy’s statement, “Western civilization has the tradition of “powering” through the process, forcing an outcome to occur whether it correlates with the intention or not.” This is to the core of truth and as a fallible human being, I often overlook intention. Thank you to the author and to Charlotte for the thought-provoking post.

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      Intention and action are the two halves of karma. Intention is just as important as action. It colors the action and determines the results of any action. I’m so happy that Amy shared this post. There’s wise counsel for everyone in every situation here.

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