I’ve been getting a lot of questions from students lately about setting intentions. In some form or another I’m sure you’ve all heard: “Please take a moment to set your intention for practice.” What do we teachers mean when we ask you to do this? When I go through the Yoga for Transformation course with students, this is the first thing I ask them to think about.

An important thing to understand is that an intention is different than a goal. An intention is not: “I will master downward facing dog” or “I will stop eating sugar.” These are goals. A goal is something you set and then strive for. At a certain point you either meet your goal, fail to meet your goal or you decide to change it or give it up. Goals are really useful things. They’re an important part of our lives. But they’re different than intentions.

You can not meet or fail to meet your intention. Your intention simply is. It’s something that is behind and under everything you do. Your intention will inform the goals you make. Your intention is a lens through which you look, from which you act and decide and live. Some examples of possible intentions are: “I am compassionate toward myself” or “I make healthy choices” or “I remain present and aware of my feelings.”

The intention “I make healthy choices” could help shape a goal about changing eating patterns, such as the example above of giving up sugar. It could also help you think about your mental and spiritual health. As you reflect on your intention to make healthy choices you may notice the not-so-healthy inner dialog running through your mind and work to ease it. The intention to make healthy choices could also play a role in your asana practice, helping you to listen to your body as you decide which postures and adaptations are most appropriate for your structure in any given moment.

I always suggest that students work thoughtfully to articulate their intention and then work with it consistently for several months before thinking about editing or changing it. So when the teachers ask you to take a moment and set your intention, it’s an invitation to return to your intention again and again, an invitation to keep it close.

Intentions help you think about how you want to be in the world. Intentions are not about doing, although they will help you do things with more presence and care.