Intention is that which guides our actions. In many Jivamukti yoga classes, we set our intention to the mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu, which my teacher Sharon-ji translates as "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." It is a powerful intention that takes a lot of practice, and we can start by sending our thoughts to the most important person in our lives. We practice dedicating our actions to the freedom and happiness of this person. By thinking of the person we love, we practice moving without our egos and selfish interests. We practice acknowledging that the world does not revolve around us. It is a humbling way to experience that we move alongside other beings, that our comfort is no more important than the comfort of another.
It may seem like an easy thing to dedicate our practice to the one we love. After all, we already love this person. Of course we will do what it takes to make this person achieve happiness and freedom. And yet when we are already there, in a difficult asana that the teacher has asked us to hold for a long time, we easily forget our intentions. For many of us, we forget our intention as soon as challenges arise. We think: "How can I think of this person when I am the one who is suffering?" The ego takes over. This is the same tendency that we have in our lives off the mat. We start with the best of intentions. But then a financial challenge arises, or we encounter a relationship crisis, or we are faced with a job-related dilemma. We get caught up in our own drama and we forget that we had those intentions in the first place.
That is why it is important to understand that commitment is an element of intention. Intention is to see through our actions despite difficulties and setbacks. It is to get back up if we fall out of the wagon. It is to dust ourselves off, pick ourselves up, and try again. It is to look forward with hope, and not back with regret. It is to know that intention means we will do our best, and if we lapse, we forgive ourselves and we try again.
There is a woman who epitomized strong intention and commitment known by the name Julia Butterfly Hill. In 1997, she climbed a 1500 year-old tree to prevent loggers from cutting it down. She stayed there for a total of 738 days. She did this successfully. We can only imagine that there were many rough days. Some days the weather would have been horrible. Some days she may have been fighting hunger or boredom or even hopelessness. I don't know and I can only imagine. What I know is that it took unfaltering commitment to see through this intention. What would have happened if she had felt at one point that the discomfort was unbearable and let that take over her intention? Surely the results would be very different.
And so, going back to our yoga practice, we can use asana to elevate the way in which we experience the world. By setting our intentions beyond our ego and for the happiness and freedom of the person whom we love, we get used to what it is like to commit despite our personal difficulties. As we get more proficient at doing this, we can include more and more beings into our elevated intentions.
From the most important person in our lives, we can include other people whom we love. We can start to see our families, relatives, partners, and friends as being happy and free. We can start to understand that their happiness and their freedom do not take away ours. We can include others whom we know- our co-workers, our neighbors, our acquaintances, our yoga community- and also see them as being happy and free. We also begin to understand that their happiness and their freedom do not take away ours. We can start to include other people we do not know and have not met and will likely never meet- people from different backgrounds, different beliefs, different religions, different preferences, different races. We may often not understand them and they may often not understand us. Just the same, we can see them as being happy and free, and know that their happiness and freedom do not take away our happiness and freedom. We can include other beings, nonhumans, animals- animals in the wild, animals we have domesticated, animals in farms, animals in slaughterhouses- and we can start in our mind's eye to see that they can and should be happy and free. Their happiness and freedom do not take away our happiness or our freedom.
When we are able to practice consistently with this intention, it will dawn to us that when others are happy and free, we too are happy and free. When we practice yoga with the intention of reaching the state of yoga, we aim for non-duality and non-separation. Yoga asana practiced without intention can give us acrobatic abilities, but yoga asana practiced with the intention of liberation can free us. Therein lies the difference. To achieve yoga (union with all others), our intention and commitment must be to yoga itself and nothing less than that.
Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.