Tag Archives: focus

Find a Sacred Place

wp000119“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” ~ Joseph Campbell

At the suggestion of a friend, I’ve been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell lately. I recently watched his DVD interviews with Bill Moyers around the idea of myth and the hero’s journey. A piece of the interviews that really caught my attention is their discussion about the importance of having a sacred place in our lives.
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A Rested Mind

“For those just coming back from vacation, think carefully about what you are going to put your fresh, valuable mind to in your first few days. Value this resource highly. It may be your only chance to see the mountain you are on, to decide if you’re taking the right path up, or even if it’s the right mountain to be climbing at all.” ~ David Rock in Psychology Today

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on clearing my mind more often during the day. The natural tendency for a busy mind is to work ever-harder to crack a problem or find an innovative solution. The yogic belief is that a clear, unburdened, relaxed mind is actually a more creative, efficient problem solver. And now that belief has a boost from hardcore science.

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Ugly Yoga

Last night at the park, after my run, a girl was practicing yoga next to me. (A cute assortment of yogis had gathered at one end of the track.) She did lots of stretchy poses, the ones I like to do: Standing Crescents, High Lunges, Wide-Legged Forward Bends. And after enough peeking, I noticed a certain drama, and emphasis, on the flexibility. A prevailing hardness, not so much softness. And I realized, “That’s me. That’s how I (used to?) practice.”

I hadn’t escaped the showmanship. I was very conscious of the shapes I could or wanted to make. The more flexible I got in my practice, the more I felt the temptation to show off how flexible I was. Yoga was still an achievement, a skill, a linear path. Challenging the body, pushing towards an idealized shape, gave me a goal on which to focus, and a feeling of actually DOING something. I only started breathing deeply in yoga a couple years ago.

I’m studying therapeutic yoga now, and anatomy, and it’s made me close my eyes to go for feeling instead of shape. “Ugly Yoga”, someone called it. Permission is granted to differ from the pictures on the posters. Deeper layers of muscles are being found. Practice feels like conversation with the body, not mastery. And old poses have acquired new energy.

But still, it’s hard to practice without performing. Our extroverted culture encourages beautiful entertainers, and we’re all social beings. (Shantitown has a good post about acknowledging the desire to be recognized.)

I try to remember that recognition, once received, is actually an obstacle, just like the Sutras say about siddhis. [III.37 — “These faculties are obstacles in contemplation, but powers in active life.”] Recognition may serve me socially, but it’s one more thing I have to battle on my mat. Once I get it, I expect it again. If I don’t get it, I wonder “why not?” And there are much cooler things to focus on.

Focus Pocus

Well, I’m back in the city again. A few days in Florida with my mom filled me up on oranges (and blues and greens). I feel sunny inside, even if it’s not so much outside.

With the return to city life came the return to Twitter, CNN, texting, and emails. (I could have continued them through my trip, but chose to take a fairly full break.) And, happily, the Times, which today published a great article on the science of concentration. We know we’re living in the Age of Distraction; Winifred Gallagher wrote Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life to refocus our attention on our control of the matter: “…your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.” (‘My experience is what I agree to attend to.’)

It’s like that old Ann Landers advice: no one can take advantage of you unless you let them. We can only be distracted by incessant emails if we choose to obsessively check them, or keep that notifier on. We can choose to wake up and run to our devices, or we can choose to first gather our thoughts at another table.

But what about those taxi rides / offices / airports / companions full of noise and distractions, out of our control?

Ms. Gallagher advocates meditation to increase your focus, but she says there are also simpler ways to put the lessons of attention researchers to use. Once she learned how hard it was for the brain to avoid paying attention to sounds, particularly other people’s voices, she began carrying ear plugs with her. When you’re trapped in a noisy subway car or a taxi with a TV that won’t turn off, she says you have to build your own “stimulus shelter.”

And a bit of practical advice:

She recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption.

The last interesting takeaway was about scientists’ use of rhythmic light to assist our concentration. Regular, tiny pulses of light can create gamma waves in the brain, which are associated with focus and perception. This direct synchronization of neurons is interesting — I’ll be sure to consider strobe lights for my office — but I’m surprised the article did not mention music, a much more accessible assistant. Electronic music, with its lack of narrative and focus on atmosphere, does a great job of consolidating the fluctuations of the mind. (I posted a few favorite albums for yoga last month.) As background music, it’s often better than silence for concentration. There are even albums like “The Brainwave Suite” that promise to create alpha, theta, or delta brain waves with various ambient soundtracks. (I don’t know why they left out gamma.)

So, hopefully we can all learn to focus amid the symphony of modern life a bit better. Or we can stay on our smart phones, walking straight into traffic, and wait for Darwin to weed us out.

The Hardest Asana: Easy Pose

When I first started meditating, it was not what you’d call meditation. I’d sit down, close my eyes, try to focus, and promptly have a panic attack about all the things I should be doing besides SITTING ON THE FLOOR DOING NOTHING.

Gradually, I learned that there is some actual technique to this hobby. Yes, it’s incredibly simple, but in the same way that running is simple — you can still trip on a rock or run into a tree.

Lesson number one: Sitting on the floor is a posture, just like Triangle or Down Dog. There are alignment tips that will make it way more comfortable. Alignment is even MORE important in a meditative pose, since you’ll be holding it for ten, twenty, sixty minutes. I used to get so mad at myself for fidgeting, until I realized IT’S ANOTHER ASANA and set up properly. Now, I usually spend the first couple minutes of my meditation adjusting my pose; I guess that’s actually the pre-med. :)

  • Sit against a wall to start. We all know that the spine should be straight when meditating, but we might not realize we’re not actually sitting straight. Hard-core meditators might say this impedes the flow of energy or something, but I became WAY more relaxed and upright when I learned where vertical actually was. Plus, the pressure of the wall against my shoulder blades let my breath actually expand my lungs.
  • Elevate the hips, so that blood can flow easily to the knees and the hip flexors can completely relax. Even if you’re in Full Lotus, sit on a blanket or a block.
  • Cross the legs comfortably. You’ll have to experiment with this one — what’s comfortable for thirty seconds is not necessarily comfortable for thirty minutes. When you find that whoops, you’ve chosen an excruciating position, just make a note of that for next time, adjust your legs slightly, and begin your meditation again. (Note: any movement restarts your meditation, so you’ll probably have several short meditations in your early sessions, not one long one.) Don’t worry about getting to Lotus — the only thing you feel there is “wow, my back is straight!” Worry about your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back, and what they’re telling you.
  • Rest the hands easily on your thighs or lap. Palms face down is slightly more calming, palms face up is more open, and one palm in the other (non-dominant hand on top, thumbs touching) is more focusing.
  • Release the shoulders. I have to roll them forward, up, and back a few times to get them to relax and hang straight. When they’re relaxed, you’ll be able to feel your sternum rising and falling with the breath.
  • Elongate the neck. This is a tricky one. Your neck curves slightly forward, so you want to straighten the curve just a little by moving the chin an inch backwards, as if you’re pressing the back of your head into someone’s raised hand. You just want the muscles at the back of the neck to relax, so you have to make sure your big bowling ball of a head is not hanging forward. If you’re a yoga practitioner, you can stop doing ujayi now ;)
  • Relax the face, including the eyes, ears, and tongue. It’s amazing how much tension we hold in the face. How many people have you seen on the street with a furrowed brow ’cause they’re thinking so hard? I used to feel like I should say something to them… until my mom said I do the same thing! The hardest part about releasing your habits is actually noticing them. A lot of times someone else has to tell us; that’s why we go to yoga class. (If you tend to stress, cup the hands and touch the center of the forehead. Draw the fingertips away from each other, across the forehead, to release stress. Repeat at the hairline, the crown of the head, and down the back of the head.) Let the eyes relax like bean bags in the eye sockets. Pointing them towards the tip of the nose (not up towards the Third Eye) will help.

OK, now you’re comfortable. You can have a nice meditation just slowly scanning through these points, finding the millions of subtle sensations inside the skin. If you train yourself to actually admit your knees are hurting a bit, or your stomach is aching, you will prevent injury and answer your own questions about diet and lifestyle. If you find any points of pain, spend a little extra time focusing there. Just notice what thoughts flow through your head as you focus on each part of the body. And relax.

Tomorrow I’ll cover some the mental pieces.

Focus and Follow the Eyes (Drishti / Gaze Practice)

Pay attention to me...
Pay attention...

In the past week I’ve had two good lessons on drishti, or the point of focus for each pose. I knew that looking in different directions stimulates different functions of the brain (looking left stimulates new thought, which is why liars look left, while looking right stimulates memory, etc.), and that keeping our eyes focused on one thing keeps our mind from wandering, but a few exercises last week helped me really feel it.

Simplify the poses, and practice with the eyes. Steve’s Classic Hatha class at Greenhouse on Tuesdays has fairly minimal instruction, but he always points out the direction for the eyes to go. In Locust, for example, (lying on the belly with the arms and legs raised behind) we look forward towards the horizon. In Cobra (again on the belly, legs straight, arms straight under the shoulders to arch the spine), we look up towards the periphery of the vision. If the eyes start to blur and waver, he says it’s good; it’s strengthening the optic nerve. When I’m cross-eyed I’ll remember that.

It’s a weird feeling, when you really keep the gaze fixed. It’s so incredibly boring that you realize how much the eyes usually scan around, looking for entertainment. (I’ve heard we get 90% of our sensory information through the eyes.) Since Hatha classes don’t care about A+ alignment details, and we held poses for two, three, four minutes, I could actually devote my entire attention to this one effort… and I felt so much calmer just from making the eyes sit a while.

Initiate movement by anchoring the eyes. So, keeping the gaze fixed while holding a pose is one thing, but we can eventually practice drishti while moving, or even to initiate movement. Leslie mentioned this in his Application of Breath-Centered Yoga class at The Breathing Project on Wednesdays. We sat cross-legged facing partners, and as they traced a path in the air with one finger, we tried to follow it with the tip of our nose. By fixing the eyes and forcing the head and neck to work, the whole body began to participate: the chest would lift or round, the stomach would turn and contract. It was a funny feeling — the head really didn’t want to move, it was much more natural for the eyes to jump around. It was disorienting; l felt like a child bobbling along, trying to walk. Some people got nauseated — just from sitting and moving their heads.

I think that previously, I was doing a lot of movement of the eyes within the sockets as I directed them towards the sanctioned point of focus. Moving from the tip of the nose seems to keep the eyes more calm, in more of a softly focused gaze, and also acknowledge the limits of the neck. (I think Ana Forrest teaches something similar; she puts drishti for most poses at the tip of the nose, and even has you use your hand to move the neck around.) Leslie says it helps to quiet the internal laundry list of alignment corrections, and bring the attention back to how the pose feels, rather than how it looks. Indeed, it’s much less strain to follow the nose.