Words have power – as you and I have heard a million times – and, according to the famous actor F. M. Alexander, actions follow thoughts. The ideas in your head can change the outcome of your life. So state your intention, create a mantra, pray, define your goals, and make your dreams a reality.
Can this New Age babble be true? I must admit, I didn’t get it when I started taking hot yoga classes and the teacher asked us to set an intention. “Pick a few words to focus your mind on during your practice,” she said. I thought this was the height of spiritual mumbo-jumbo; to me, yoga was just an exercise class, a way to change the way I looked.
My mom has been into yoga for most of her life. It kept her in shape after two pregnancies, lots of sitting and driving, and 50 years of aging. (A woman never mentions her age, but a woman’s daughter can, right?) I first joined her when I was 14 and had just hit puberty. I had a wheat allergy, which didn’t keep me from eating whatever I wanted, and I had been recently diagnosed with Graves’ disease (a thyroid condition). The medicine I took for Graves’ was causing me to gain weight, so my mom suggested I take hot yoga with her.
I went along with her because I thought I had to. I figured she’d be offended if I skipped our mother-daughter bonding. At first, when my mom would ask, “Are you ready to go to hot yoga?” I would say that I didn’t really want to, but I never said why. I knew there was no nice way of saying, “Well, it’s not that I don’t want to go. It’s just that I don’t want to go with you.”
Don’t get me wrong – I love my mother, and she never embarrasses me. She’s pretty hip. The truth is, I was embarrassed that my 50-year-old mother could show me up. As a teenager, I was supposed to be in my prime. She, as my mother, was supposed to be old and chubby – not standing on her head and nimbly flipping over backwards while I flopped around on my mat like a slimy catfish pulled from our backyard pond.
When I eventually explained this, she laughed. “You’re going,” she said. “It’s good for you.” And that was that. I was going to hot yoga – with my mom – every Monday night.
I really struggled. Thankfully, I already knew all the poses; otherwise, it would have been completely miserable and humiliating. Still, I had to rest in child’s pose with my head between my knees every five minutes out of fear that I would pass out from the intense heat and exertion.
Despite the pain, I went back every week. I began to like the feeling of sweat dripping down my face and arms. I began to love the fresh feeling I experienced at the end of class – like I had been reborn. I got better and better. I wasn’t fantastic, but I grew in strength and stamina.
But I still didn’t understand what the teacher, Annie, meant when she told us to “set an intention” at the beginning of each class. I would set my intention along physical lines, hoping to lose weight, slim my thighs, or develop a bigger booty. I would suffer through class after class, expecting to wake up one morning and see a buff butt in the mirror. I never did. While there were improvements in my body, I wasn’t seeing the drastic changes I’d wanted. I was starting to lose motivation, but I kept going because of my mom.
One day I came to class in a horrible mood. I attend a performing arts high school and take acting very seriously, and earlier that day I had rehearsed a scene with a boy whom I found utterly frustrating. I had yelled at him. It seemed to me that the other actors were not applying themselves either. I knew I wasn’t able to control the people around me, but lately, I’d been trying to – and I was beginning to scare them. I could see it in the way they approached me or walked around me like they were lost in thought or busy on their phone. I did not want to be the class dictator and I missed my friends. I wondered how I could change the way I was acting around them.
Suddenly I heard F. M. Alexander’s teachings in my head about actions following thoughts. As much as I wanted to blame my scene partner, my friends, the bus driver, and the world at large, I knew that if I changed the way I acted, people would like me and want to be my friend.
On the way to yoga, guilt set in. I was feeling awful about the way I had spoken to my poor scene partner. This boy, who was my good friend, had put up with my hysteria. At the beginning of yoga that night, Annie said her usual “Set your intention for the class.” Change had been a constant theme when setting my intention, but that day the word had a bigger meaning. I wanted to change the way I felt. I realized that if I changed the words I used, I could feel better. Instead of setting my intention on fitness, I began the class with the intention to “change the way I speak to my peers.”
I also listened more closely to Annie’s words. “Sink in,” she said. “Let yourself feel the pain, the fidgeting, and the struggle. Meet it.” I followed her instructions like a dancer follows music, and I had the most amazing class. I was strong and graceful and got through the whole class without a single head-between-legs-gasping-like-a-fish episode.
Light bulb: maybe there is something to be said for setting an intention.
The next day, I was a bit more go-with-the-flow, a little less mean and bossy. I didn’t snap at my scene partner when he didn’t listen to my ideas. I just remembered my class the night before and let it go. Mostly, I remembered how it felt in my body, that hot, drippy sensation of going through the yoga moves with ease. I wondered if the feeling of that yoga practice stayed with me longer because my intention was deeper and more to the point. I wasn’t convinced, but I was intrigued.
Over the next few weeks, I conducted an experiment. I set my intention at the beginning of yoga class based on whatever concerns my intense teenage brain had chewed on that day. Then I started basing it on ideas I thought would truly make me happy, and sometimes on what I thought would affect the people around me as well. My body responded in class. Annie started singling me out. She even shouted, “Wow, girl, you are on fire tonight!” across the room.
I am one of those people who thrive on praise. I realized the connection between mind and body is real. I realized that setting an intention using words is what bridges that connection. Yoga is about connecting your consciousness with the consciousness of the universe. Words are what helped me do that. Words connect people. I am still hoping for that bootylicious butt – but having friends is actually much more fun.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.