“The Purpose of Life is The Expansion of Human Happiness”  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

It has been over thirty years since I first read the above quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. At the time it both stunned and intrigued me, firmly planting  the seeds that led me to my personal Yoga practice and indirectly to the work I do now. The words resonated  at a deep part of me as true but flew in the face of my and so many other peoples  experience with the “sling and arrows” that seem to define the fortune of our lives. Insights gained from Yoga and meditation practice can be what allow us to begin to resolve this apparent contradiction.

Yoga and Positive Thinking

We’ve all heard the prescription towards positive thinking.  We’ve been told many times that it is supposed to be good for our health, our relationships, and our present situation.  But what exactly is positive thinking?  And how do we get there?

The Trouble with Defining It…

To begin with, from the Yogic view,  positive thinking is not a Pollyanna-ish denial of suffering in our lives.  It is not an internal manifestation of liveliness: perky, fun, and self-confident.  And it is not even really to be equated with optimism, although it certainly shares a lot of its features.

It may not even be what you are actually are thinking about. For the yogi, positive thinking begins and ends with awareness.  It is a process of becoming aware of thoughts on our emotions and bodies.  It is an observation of both words and silence and how they impact the present moment.  It is even an understanding of what is not: whether that be pain, mental anguish, or any other form of suffering.

In this sense, positive thinking can’t be prescribed in terms such as “think this way” or “don’t have those kinds of thoughts.”  It is a moment-to-moment process that clears a path in the mind towards compassion and joy.

Detaching from Old Patterns

By the process of becoming aware of our thinking, positive thoughts are often detached thoughts.  Observational and without judgment, these thoughts tune in to the present moment.  They recognize the ego’s insistence on experiencing anger, resentment, indignation, worry, guilt, or anxiety.

Letting go of these kinds of ego driven thought patterns – what we term as negative thinking – can open us up to new, fresh landscapes of thought.  The same tired thought scenarios make way for the crispness of what is happening right in the present.  It is a landscape as fresh as each new moment.

From Ego Games to Compassion

By moving away from circular thinking patterns revolving around the ego’s concerns, we open ourselves up to a higher level of consciousness.  We begin to recognize the connections between that which we thought separate before.  We start to practice the principles of compassion.  Both towards others and ourselves.

Compassion is the ultimate result of recognizing inter-connectnedness.  It can be manifested in loving kindness towards all living things.

Yoga and the Positive Mind

A yoga practice can help foster positive thinking.  Not only do we learn to practice bringing our awareness into the present – through meditation, breathwork, and attention to our bodies – we also begin to regain our natural inclination towards wonder.

By breaking out of ways of holding our bodies constricted and protected against the world, our mind simultaneously breaks out of its own constriction.  It is part of what makes you feel so radiant after a particularly rejuvenating yoga class.  Our minds are nudged to veer off its circular pathways and orbit a little wider.

By striving to think more positively, we are simply striving to reclaim the now.  It is a process of recognizing that which is negative and ego-driven and observing its effects.  Letting go of the hold of negative thoughts on us, we capture the glow of positive thinking – without really striving to think “positive” thoughts.  But positive thoughts are ultimately the result.  And a more joyful, radiant and compassionate you.

Setting an Intention in Class

What does it mean when a yoga instructor suggests you set an intention for the class?  Many students have no idea what this means.  For those who treat yoga more as an exercise class, ignoring this suggestion is perfectly fine.  But if you are looking to go a bit deeper with your practice, setting an intention can be a powerful way to do so.

Difference between Intention and Goal

The difference between an intention and a goal is subtle.  A goal, as we know, is directed towards a future outcome.  An intention, on the other hand, is more a reminder about the present.

In a yoga class, for instance, an intention could be to accept where you are today without judgment.  Or to appreciate all aspects of your body.  Or it could be an intention to come back to your breath when your mind begins to wander.

For others, an intention formed in class could be a dedication to a loved one, or to someone one needs to forgive, or understand, or want to ignore.  It could be an intention to let go of old hurts or emotions.  Still others understand intention as a prayer – another meaningful way of enriching your practice.

Purpose of Intentions

An intention can act somewhat like a filter in your mind.  By directing thoughts away from the usual ego-driven pathways, an intention towards compassion, for instance, can result in non-judgmental thinking.

When setting an intention on the mat, each asana becomes a vehicle to realize that intention.  By giving your yoga practice a direction, your experience can be enriched.

Give it a Go

By taking up your instructor’s suggestion to set an intention, you’ll add a layer of meaning to each Yoga Pose.  It may be a simple intention, such as closing your eyes while you practice or focusing on relaxing the tension in your face, or it could be more involved.  Whatever you choose, view it as an added dimension to what you are doing.  Make it count as part of the moment.

So next time you’re in a yoga class, think about setting an intention for your practice that day.  Deeply personal, your intention can lend a powerful perspective not only on your practice, but off the mat as well.