Iyengar Yoga and the Power of Intention

An Excerpt from the Keynote Address to the New England Regional Conference

John Schumacher

John SchumacherI felt very honored when I was asked to give the keynote address to this conference. This is the largest group of senior-level Iyengar Yoga teachers ever gathered for a weekend conference. And it is the first regional conference ever put on by IYNAUS. Because of that, it is a wonderful opportunity for all of us to experience Iyengar Yoga in a deeper and broader way. So in light of that, I've thought long and hard about what to say on such an occasion.

I chose the topic, Iyengar Yoga and The Power of Intention, for several reasons.

The first is that it is relevant to all of us. Each of us here has an interest in yoga–obviously, or we wouldn't be here. But each of us has our own particular reason for pursuing the path of yoga. Back in the old days, when my classes were smaller, I used to ask my beginning students why they had come to class. As many students as there were, that's how many reasons there were for their being there. For some, it may be have been to try to heal a back problem; for others, a chance to get a little more flexible, or stronger. Some wanted to learn to relax and relieve some of the stress in their lives; others wanted to get high on movement or meditation. Some wanted to explore their spirituality in a system that had been doing so for thousands and thousands of years.

The reason those students were in that beginning class–and the reason you are here–is your sankalpa. That's the Sanskrit word for "intention."

So everybody starts on the path of yoga with some purpose, some goal in mind, some intention.

Another reason I picked this topic is that it illustrates the importance in yoga of the movement of our consciousness from the gross to the subtle, from the temporal to the timeless, from individual consciousness to cosmic consciousness. On this amazing journey, we travel from the external to the internal … AND THEN BACK OUT AGAIN!

I want to come back to the "then back out again" later on, but for right now, let's see how this evolution of involution, or curling inward of consciousness–which is what yoga is really all about–works in relation to intention.

Those of you who have been doing yoga for a while, think back to what your intention was when you first began. Now think about why you're doing yoga at this point in your practice. I'm pretty sure that very few of you have the same reason for practicing now as you did at the outset. And I would guess that for many, maybe most of you, your reason for practicing, your intention, is more sophisticated, more refined, subtler than it was in the past.

As we go on practicing, moving nearer to our goals, we continue to refine and redefine our intention. For me, that's one of the amazing things about yoga: the practice itself invites the continual refinement of intention. Just by doing what you do in your practice, you are changed, and because of that, your motivations and expectations are changed as well.

Now with respect to this involution of consciousness, in Iyengar Yoga, we are very explicit about this intention of taking our consciousness inward to the core of our being.

In his superb book Light on Life, our guruji, B.K.S. Iyengar, titles the first chapter "The Inward Journey." In the second paragraph he says, "The yogic journey guides us from our periphery, the body, to the center of our being, the soul. The aim is to integrate the various layers so that the inner divinity shines out as through clear glass."

No matter what your sankalpa at this stage in your practice, though, I think that one of the beauties of the Iyengar tradition is that the path to fulfilling your intention is within the scope of this method.

You can come at it for purely physical reasons. That's how I began. Lord knows, with our emphasis on Asana and Pranayama and the use of props and therapeutic techniques, you'll find what you're looking for on that level. With the focus on alignment, balance, and breath, you can learn to harmonize yourself with the powerful energies within yourself and discover emotional equilibrium and personal empowerment. The subtleties and precision of this practice draw you into a deeper and deeper experience of ekagra–a one-pointed, sharper, clearer state of mind.

In Iyengar Yoga, we work to develop and enhance our powers of discrimination. With respect to that, I think of Iyengar Yoga as the yoga of "What if?" "If I have this sensation in my hip when I press my inner heel, what happens if I press my outer heel?" "What is my state of mind after eight cycles of Viloma I? What if I make the pauses longer? Then what? What does that do to my awareness?" This is the process of developing discriminating wisdom. In this way, we refine our intuitive understanding of our bodies, our world, ourselves. And as we go deeper and deeper inward in our practice, we may begin to taste those moments of joy and freedom that open our hearts and make our lives sing.

So as we go on practicing, our reasons for practicing change. In light of this, I think it is really important to ask yourself–often, really–"Why in the heck am I doing this?"

Because it is important to understand that unless we are clear in our intention, our chances of fulfilling our purposes are greatly diminished. We need to ask ourselves "Why am I doing this?" because the clarity of our intention gives us much greater power to move toward our goal.


John Schumacher Keynote Speech
John delivers his keynote address at the first Regional Iyengar Yoga Conference in Providence, Rhode Island


B.K.S. Iyengar is fond of quoting the 22nd sutra of the first Pada of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: mrdu madhya adhimatratvat tatah api visesa, which he translates as, "There are those who are mild, medium, or keen in their practice." Patanjali tells us in the preceding sutra: tivra samveganam asannah, which Guruji translates as, "The goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice."

If the goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice, the question arises, "How do we become keen, intense in our practice so that we can move more readily toward our goal?"

Certainly one way to intensify your practice is to become clear in your intention. I think it is interesting to note that the words intense and intention have the same root, from the Latin intendere, "to stretch or intend." By understanding clearly what you intend to do, the intensity with which you can act is greatly enhanced. By consciously establishing your intention, you can stretch out and reach for your goal much more effectively.

Enlightenment philosopher John Locke has an interesting definition of intention. He says, "Intention is manifest when the mind, with great earnestness, and of choice, fixes its view on any idea, considers it on every side, and will not be called off by the ordinary solicitation of other ideas."

It is my experience that when we set our intention, when we choose to fix our view on something and consider it on every side, when we're not called off by all the distractions and impediments that surround us, something mysterious happens. What the sutras imply, and what I think you'll find, is that many of the obstacles that loom in your way fall aside when confronted with the clarity of your intention and the power of your intensity. Problems become manageable and, interestingly, help–expected and unexpected–seems to arrive from every quarter.

Locke's definition sounds a lot like the definition of dharana and dhyana, of meditation. (Go back and read it again.)

Now when you move nearer the core of your being through meditation, something mysterious happens. Yogis are, after all, mystics. A certain clarity that is beyond thought arises that calls forth powerful forces within us. These forces, this shakti, is not only within us, but is all around. We swim (or sink) in an ocean of energy. The essence of our practice is, as I see it, the process of aligning ourselves with the currents of energy our vessel moves in.

Alignment is not just getting your bones all pointed in the right direction and balancing the forces in your joints. It is becoming sensitive to the currents in which you move and learning to align yourself with that flow so that you are carried toward your destination, your goal, so that those powerful currents are not in your face, not against you, but are, instead, behind you, with you, urging you on with greater intensity than you could muster on your own. When your intention is clear and strong and you move forward with great intensity and integrity, the Universe is on your side.

So our journey inward is guided by our intention and is energized by our intention.

When I said earlier that our practice and its encouraging effect on our intention lead us ever more deeply into ourselves, I also said AND THEN BACK OUT AGAIN! It seems to me that whatever awakening, whatever opening up to the mystery and grandeur of it all we might touch in our practice, we have an obligation to manifest that awakening, to share it with our fellow beings. I mean, that's the real reason for teaching, isn't it? Because what arises from this awakening is a deep realization that we're all in the pool together and that what I do affects you and what you do affects me.

The entire keynote address is available at http://www.unitywoods.com/MARKETING/JS_RI2009.pdf.

John Schumacher is the founder and director of Unity Woods Yoga Center, the largest Iyengar Yoga center in the United States. He has taught in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area since 1973. John received Advanced Junior I certification from B.K.S. Iyengar.