Yoga and Meditation for Improved Focus and Awareness
Returning to school last year at the age of thirty-five, I had a little bit to learn about cultivating concentration. I completed my undergraduate studies thirteen years prior to entering graduate school, so needless to say, I was a little out of practice with memorizing facts and recalling information for tests.
I had perfected the art of multi-tasking thanks to motherhood (laundry while doing dishes while cooking and monitoring kids), but sitting in one place for an extended period of time was not something I was used to. However, I am extremely strong-willed, and I knew I would succeed in graduate school, as long as I could adjust to the new demands.
Now that I am well into my studies (as a straight-A student!) I can look back and see how some basic yogic practices have greatly supported me along the way. Here are some yoga asanas and a meditation technique I use to sharpen and improve my memory and concentration.
Flowing sequences are a great way to start a yoga practice when the goal is to calm the mind. When trying to bridge the world of busyness and a “go-go-go” pace with endeavors that require stillness and concentration, it can be challenging to just stop and sit.
Try to practice eight to ten rounds of your favorite flowing sequence, counting the number of rounds to help keep the mind focused. Sun or Moon Salutations are some of my favorites, but any sequence will work.
Long-held poses are like concentration for the whole body. I find it helpful to engage the entire body in the practice of stillness as a precursor to seated meditation work. This is a good second step after a flowing sequence, in a yoga practice aimed at improving concentration.
For these long-held poses, I like to choose poses that have a sturdy base of support, which can provide a sense of grounding and strength. Hold these poses for eight to ten breaths, if possible. I recommend Chair Pose (Utkatasana), Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), and Humble Warrior (Virabhdrasana Variation).
Balancing poses take the concept of whole-body concentration deeper by challenging the mind and the body at a higher level. When we attempt to balance on a narrow base of support, the mind must become calm and focused in order to be successful.
I find that when practicing balancing poses, if I gaze at a drishti point (single focal point) and turn my energy inward, rather than looking around at what is happening outside of myself, I am significantly more successful. In fact, the main purpose of a drishti point is to bring deep concentration and focus to the mind.
Choose any point that is within the view of your pose and keep the eyes held there while maintaining the posture. Hold these balancing poses for six to eight breaths. Tree (Vrksasana), Side Plank (Vasisthasana), and Standing Split (Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana) are great examples.
Seated stretching poses are a wonderful way to end your yoga practice, just before Savasana (Corpse Pose). Most ideal are those poses that allow the head to drop, thus bringing the mind further inward. Use props if necessary to settle into a safe and comfortable position, and hold these poses for thirty seconds to two minutes. I love both Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana) and Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend (Upavista Konasana), Head to Knee (Janu Sirsasana), and Double Firelog (Agnistambhasana).
In Textbook of Ayurveda, Volume 1, Dr. Vasant Lad says about meditation and concentration,
“In awareness, there is no concentration. Concentration involves narrowing the mind. In concentration, you create a wall of resistance. The more you concentrate the more you become exhausted and lose energy. Although meditation begins with concentration, it is pure, all-inclusive attention and awareness.”
This leads me to believe that perhaps we may want to think differently about concentration, particularly when it comes to a meditation practice. In my experience, having a regular meditation practice cultivates a greater ability to focus on a single task.
However, this focus seems to arise without the striving that Dr. Lad points to when he talks about traditional concentration. Of all the ways we can improve focus, meditation has provided the greatest benefit for me.
There are three considerations to address when embracing a regular meditation practice:
- Find a practice that resonates with you, and that you enjoy.
- Establish a quiet and pleasant place to practice.
- Clear a time each day to do your practice.
If these three are not in order, it may be difficult to maintain a regular practice. Sometimes I have a long or especially busy day, so I have to improvise by meditating in my car for 20 minutes before class starts or after I eat lunch. However, I have my regular location and time set aside for most days. There are many ways to meditate, and the following practice is one of my favorites.
- A seated posture provides support and grounding, so sit on a flat, comfortable cushion placed on the floor, with your legs crossed comfortably in front of you.
If this is not accessible for you, then sit in a chair with feet placed flat on the floor and knees a few inches apart. If your feet do not touch the floor, place a pillow or other support under the feet; the knees should be at a 90 degree angle.
The spine should be long with the chest open. Rest your hands on your knees or thighs with the palms facing down. Tuck your chin slightly in, so that the crown of the head points toward the sky.
- Keep your eyes open but relaxed. The gaze should be soft and the eyes withdrawn slightly, so that you are not “looking” at anything in particular.
The eyelids can be as open or as heavy as feels right for you; if you are feeling distracted then slightly lower the lids, and if you are feeling sleepy, then open them a little wider. Gaze forward and slightly downward, looking about four to six feet in front of you.
- Relax the mouth and jaw and touch the tongue lightly against the roof of the mouth, just behind the top front teeth.
- Count each out-breath until you reach twenty-one, and then start over again. Allow the in-breath to come easily and naturally, without the mind fixating on it too intensely.
When you notice the mind wandering, label it as “thinking” and return to counting. If you maintained the count while the mind wandered, keep going. If you lost the count, start again at one.
Yoga and meditation, especially when practiced together, are unparalleled for brain health, and can provide improved memory, greater energy, and effortless focus. Set aside time to integrate these into your regular routine to enjoy the greatest benefits.
If you find yourself in a rut and notice that you haven’t practiced in several days, don’t judge yourself. Just jump right back in! In time, these practices will be an essential and easy part of your everyday routine.