Goals versus Intentions

Recently a friend, who is also a yoga teacher in training and mid-stream in cancer treatment, shared her intentions with me. A few days later she remarked that since the road to hell is paved with them, maybe intentions should be replaced with goals.

  Goals are all about the future. They guide us to an outcome as a result of our thinking and practice of efforts to achieve them. We envisage, plan a result, apply discipline and work hard to achieve. Committing to and visualizing them can assist with realizing goals.

  Setting intentions is not oriented to future results. Instead, it is a means by which we clarify our values about the present and how to conduct ourselves in any situation day to day. The focus is on the ever evolving now or the ebb and flow of daily life. You set intentions based on what matters most to you and align them with the actions you take day to day.

  With the help of a quietening practice of yoga, one can access wise reflection and the moral precepts of yoga according to Patanjali’s sutras. Thus the ability to act according to one’s intentions begins to break into flower.

  Yoga is called a practice because it is ever-renewing. Each day will present new opportunities to live according to one’s intentions.

  Goals help to make one’s way in the world, intentions ground one in integrity and unity of purpose. Intentions, skillfully tended, can provide the jumping-off place for goals to be formed. In that way, the goals may not bind one to a specific outcome, releasing the effort to the greater good without attachment. On the bedrock of intentions, goals become clearer as we proceed.

  Working from intentions also frees us from the frustration of unrealized goals. By their very nature goals can be thwarted, they can collapse or they can be reached, at which point they are replaced with another set of goals. From that point of view, goals are about wanting more from life. They cement the false consciousness that life is fixed and unchanging.

  Cultivating right intention does not mean we set aside goals. But we do form them differently if our values and intentions are clearly known to us. Goals in the larger context, offer peace beyond the fluctuations of daily life. They flow from intentions and are likely easier to reach because they align themselves with our deepest core values.

  According to Patanjali, living with the practice of ahimsa or non-harming and free from untruths or taking more than one needs, or coveting that which we do not need, purifies us in a moral sense. They are not guidelines for monks and nuns, they are precepts for everyone who wishes to contribute the best of themselves to the world around them.

  We can connect to our own sense of kindness and innate dignity. From there we can choose how we are best able to participate in life’s challenges until we outgrow them, too.

  Right intention is not moral law. It is an attitude or state of mind which evolves as we live it. The practice like any other, only ripens as we become more subtle in thought and action.

  In Iyengar yoga, tapas is not a Spanish word for a morsel of food, but rather the fiery discipline or volition that is essential in our undertaking to practice daily the ethical precepts of yoga. The extra emotional space that strong intentions offer allows us to step back from disappointment or unpleasant experience and explore the wider range of options with which to respond. We stay present and attuned to the needs of others as well as our own.

  According to the teachings, bright intentions lead to bright results. The opposite is also true. It is sometimes confusing to sort it all out. So let the heart speak to you when you are clarifying intentions. Our felt wisdom will guide us when the mind is unable to resist the lure of material or ego gain.

  When you live from right intentions, you mitigate the effects of unskillful actions. And by cultivating them, right intentions like organic gardens, flourish!


Kelly Murphy is owner of a yoga studio in Nanaimo.