An aim that guides an action is an intention. To do something intentionally is to act on purpose. To act on purpose means that you act consciously. To pay attention is to act consciously, to act deliberately—to aim towards a goal. It is said that those who believe in coincidence aren’t paying attention. Practicing yoga with a high intention is very important because what determines the outcome of any action is the underlying intention. Practicing asana with an elevated intention could make the difference between achieving mere gymnastic strength and flexibility or enlightenment.
I was just reading an online article about the growing popularity of yoga in America. It stated that 22 million people are practicing yoga! The top six reasons why people practice yoga according to the statistics are: to gain flexibility, to lose weight, to increase muscle tone, to relieve back pain, to look younger and to reduce stress. In all the millions of statistics gathered, no spiritual intention seems to have emerged. People weren’t citing as their reason to practice yoga the goal to become enlightened or to get closer to God or to better contribute to the happiness and freedom of others.
Yoga certainly doesn’t care why you are practicing. Yoga will give you any result you intend, if you do it long enough. What you are thinking about when you perform an action will determine the result of that action. You become what you contemplate. If you want yoga (the practice) to bring you to Yoga (the goal—enlightenment), then the intention underlying your practice must be Yoga. You are not going to achieve Yoga as your goal accidentally—you must desire it with your whole being.
Yoga means enlightenment, or to link to the higher Self. Just as each person must find their own way to relate to God, each of us must find his or her own way to articulate an elevated intention. Offering your practice to God is one way of establishing a high intention. For many that is a tall order. Offering your practice to your teacher is another. Wanting your teacher’s enlightenment, you dedicate the efforts of your practice to that aim. That will give you a break from thinking about yourself. Offering your practice to a person you know is another way to establish a high intention, because other-centeredness takes us out of our egoic self-centeredness and awakens compassion, which is the cause of enlightenment. What is realized in the enlightened state is the Oneness of being—where otherness disappears. So if you can find a way to set an intention for your practice that helps you to get past your preoccupation with your small personality self then you are on the path which will lead to Yoga. In the Jivamukti Yoga tradition we often set the intention for a class by chanting Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu and then we add the translation: “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.” The Bhagavad Gita teaches that one who desires Yoga must renounce the fruits of their actions. This does not mean that you don’t do things on purpose or set enlightenment as your goal. The wise practitioner has faith in God and knows that their main duty is to act with the utmost integrity, with the highest selfless intention, and at the same time to not be concerned with the outcome of their actions, but to leave that to God.