How Yoga Helps Me

I’m sure that by now you’ve seen articles or shows talking about the benefits of yoga.  They’ve been everywhere from Good Housekeeping to Dr. Oz.  I’m not going to revisit the many physical benefits of this practice today.  Instead, I’d like to tell you about one specific mental benefit of yoga that has truly changed how I relate to the world.

I am a recovering perfectionist.  I come from a long line of planners, who like to have all the details arranged before beginning a project, a trip, or even a day at the beach.  This required a lot of effort, but had a way of making me feel secure.  As if planning ahead would create a script of how the day would go.  Of course, it can’t do that.  Sick kids, weather, a broken garage door, all of these things have disrupted sets of well-made plans.  And of course they (and a million other unforeseeable events) will disrupt them again.  I had been known to turn into a giant raging stress monster if things didn’t go the way I anticipated.  I couldn’t let go of my attachment to how I wanted things to be.  Thoughts such as “if only this hadn’t happened” raced through my mind, and I would grieve for the day that I had planned.  The silly thing is, that day only ever existed in my head.  Imagine me grumping around in a funk over an imagined scene, instead of adapting and living the actual scene in front of me!  Maybe you’ve been there, too?

Now, I’m not going to say that yoga has magically cured me of this tendency.  But, with long-term regular practice, I have seen big improvements.  What yoga has done, is to force me to let go of what I want to have happening, and accept what is actually happening.  The change takes time and effort, because I’ve learned this by going to classes when I would rather have slept in.  I’ve been in classes focused on strengthening the core when there’s just about anything I’d rather do than that.  I’ve been in classes where the music is too loud, or too New Age-y, or where the person next to me must have bathed in onions the night before.  Most of the time, all of these completely uncontrollable factors have gone from creating an all-consuming irritability, to barely registering on my radar as I move through the poses of the class.

I’ve also had to learn to live with the things in my own body that I can’t control.  I have to accept the strength and balance that I have today, instead of wishing I had that of the yoga rock star on the next mat.  I’ve had to learn that I will fall many times, but what matters is that I get up again.  I  no longer look around and worry what people think of my poses.  Nor do I care what their practice looks like.  I am practicing for myself, no one else.

So, the reason I keep practicing yoga is what it keeps teaching me about acceptance and non-attachment.  Remain peaceful and calm in the midst of adversity.  Stay present and breathe.  This boat pose shall pass.  Do your own yoga because everybody else is taking care of their own.  In real life, all these lessons translate to a kinder, more relaxed attitude.  I’m far from perfect, but the little details don’t have the power to make or break my experience anymore.  I’m still working on full acceptance of changes, but I know I’ve come a long way.  These are just some of the ways yoga has benefitted my life so far.  I can’t wait to see what the next 5 years of practice will bring.

Stay Focused

Attention and focus are big problems for a lot of us.  I can’t tell you how many patients I’ve seen that at some point say “I swear I think I’m ADHD.”  Most of the time, they’re only sort of kidding.  ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a condition that presents in childhood.  Sometimes people aren’t diagnosed until they are adults, but they will usually be able to look back and see that the condition was always there.  So what about people who notice a significant decline in focus as an adult?  Poor concentration is a common symptom.  It can occur as part of a mood or anxiety disorder, or a physical condition like sleep apnea.  With any major change in concentration or memory, it’s important to rule out these types of serious causes.  Most of the time, however, it’s a symptom of a stressful lifestyle.  Yes, good old stress, showing us yet another reason why we need to learn to manage its effects on our lives!

Stress affects focus and concentration in a number of ways.  Physically, it can affect our sleep, causing daytime fatigue.  We can’t focus on writing a detailed report at work if our mind is spending all its energy trying to stay awake.  Stress also causes the release of hormones that trigger the fight or flight response.  Physiologically, we are being primed to run or turn and fight our attacker.  Our brains are scanning for threats and escape routes, and literally can’t stay focused on one task when that is going on.  Obviously, we will need to relax in order to improve our concentration!

Distraction is another reason for poor focus.  We lead busy lives, and are often trying to multi-task in order to accomplish everything.  This can increase stress, but it also ensures that we aren’t fully attended to any one thing at a time.  Multi-tasking can also create an over-stimulating environment, as we watch TV while trying to read an article and wonder why we can’t remember anything we’ve read.  I also see a common problem with procrastination.  If you’ve ever put off an important assignment, then worried about it in the back of your mind all day long, you know how distracting it can be!

So, based on the reasons for lack of focus listed above, here are some ways to improve concentration:

1. Reduce stress.  Since stress is the most common reason we can’t concentrate, this goes without saying!

2. Get enough sleep.  And if you’re tired and losing focus, try taking a short break.  Take a walk, call a friend, or just have a cold drink.  Your alertness may improve, and your focus along with it.

3. Single-task.  Do one thing at a time, and don’t put things off.  You are much more likely to stay on task and accomplish everything on schedule.

4. Meditate.  I know, this is my answer for everything, but hear me out.  iRest, Mindfulness Meditation, and Transcendental Meditation have all been shown to have profound relaxation effects on the body  (see number 1).  They have also been found to improve concentration, separate from their impact on stress.  Meditation actually trains your brain to stay focused on one thing.  So, we meditate to relax the body while we strengthen our attention at the same time.  Beautiful!

Lack of focus is common, and there are often many reasons for it.  Sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture of the stress and demands on our lives to truly discover why we can’t concentrate.  The treatment should fit the cause, and therefore my prescriptions most often include the lifestyle changes listed above.  It may take some work to accomplish, but the benefits will extend into your whole life.

Stop the Mindless Eating

I once saw a tongue-in-cheek list of ways to avoid gaining weight.  It included things like “Always eat standing up” and “Eat the broken cookies because the calories have all leaked out.” Like all good jokes, it was funny precisely because it contained so much truth.  A lot of us have complex relationships with food, to say the least, and have developed habits of mindless eating that aren’t healthy or helpful.  This can vary from silly “rules” for eating, to snacking out of boredom, to eating on the run.  All of these have in common a pattern of disinterest in just how and what we put into our bodies.  I have to admit to standing at the counter and “cleaning up the edges” of the pan of brownies, believing I’m only eating a small amount.  But studies have shown that this type of behavior actually results in eating more, rather than less.  The worst part is, I don’t even realize it because I’m not being attentive.

Mindless eating also includes something I’ll call the multi-task meal.  You know, where you’re really too busy to stop for lunch so you eat at your desk while answering emails.  Or while driving.  Or while on a conference call.  The multi-task meal means eating has been relegated to just another thing on the to-do list.  I can say from experience that food eaten this way is not enjoyed.  In fact, it’s probably barely even tasted.  As eating this way becomes a habit, it becomes less important what we choose to eat.  Clearly this is a stuff-and-go operation, so quality of taste and nutrition aren’t a priority.  Once we lose sight of the value of the food, the simple pleasures of a meal are ignored altogether.  We eat on autopilot, whatever we can get and eat the fastest so we can get back to doing something more important.  Yikes!  What could be more important than giving our body the fuel it needs to be healthy?

We all know the pitfalls of a fast food diet, including obesity and heart disease.  Mindless eating also has a negative impact on health.  As I mentioned above, we may choose less healthy foods, but we also tend to eat more, and more quickly, when we aren’t paying attention.  This can result in indigestion, heartburn, weight gain and irritable bowel symptoms.  The rushed feeling of a multi-task meal can also increase feelings of stress.  Meal times were designed to be a break in the action of the day.  Our bodies actually need to be in a relaxed state to even digest food, so eating under pressure works against our most fundamental biology.

So how can we take back mealtime?  One way is to apply mindfulness concepts to eating. Mindfulness means being fully present, and at home in all of our senses.  We cannot be aware if our attention is divided, so the first thing to do is simply eat, with no distractions.  Turn off computers, phones and the TV.  If possible, leave the office altogether at lunch time and eat in a relaxed setting.  Focus on the sensory experience at hand, including the smell, taste, and texture of your food.  Eat slowly, and put your fork down between bites.  Savor the meal and enjoy the time out in the day.  Eating this way has been shown to allow us to recognize when we’re full, so overeating becomes less likely.  Some studies have shown this can lead to weight loss.  These changes also decrease the stress response at meal time, so digestion will improve.

We can start with meals, and then bring mindfulness to all of our eating.  I can start by assessing why I’m choosing to eat in the first place.  Am I hungry?  Do I just want something sweet?  Or am I bored and lonely?  Awareness of my motivation should drive my next action, and I can be sure I’m making conscious choices.   Then, I remind myself that every bite of food is worthy of my full attention.  Therefore, every snack should be put on a plate and eaten sitting at the table.  No more mindless grabbing of food, I eat slowly, savoring the experience.  Over time, these habits create a consistent pattern of awareness that will improve health and well-being.  Eating should be a multi-sensorial experience, a pleasure for every human being.  Mindful eating can return us to that state.

Leave it Behind

Our brains are designed to store information as memories.  Some from recent moments, some from the remote past.  Our brains are also designed to analyze, judge and stew over things.  If the mind isn’t actively engaged, it may turn to the memory files for something to chew on.  Then, we may find ourselves replaying a situation again and again, pondering what we could or should have done differently.  Sometimes it’s like a song on constant repeat.  Why can’t we just let it go?

I love a good story, so I’ll share a Zen Buddhist tale I heard recently that illustrates this tendency.  Two monks were walking home from a journey.  They came to a river, and saw a lovely young woman standing by the edge.  It was clear she was afraid to cross by herself.  The younger monk crossed to the other side, ignoring her.  Then the elder monk picked her up and carried her safely across.  He placed her down and the two monks continued on their journey.  As they walked, it became clear that the younger monk was upset.  Finally, he could no longer contain himself.  “Why did you carry that woman? You know it’s against our vows!”  The elder monk looked at him and said “You’re still thinking about that woman?  I left her back by the river.  Why are you still carrying her?”

The younger monk was dragging along his irritation and upset about a situation that was already over and done with.  He couldn’t let it go, and he walked for miles allowing the past to hold onto his emotions.  The elder monk, however, was peaceful and content on his journey.  The past didn’t enter his consciousness, and the young woman stayed by the river.  So how do we learn to leave it behind?

The little every day upsets that come and go can get stuck on replay.  The best way to leave them by the river is to act like the elder monk.  Return to the present moment.  Take a deep breath, feel the breeze on your skin.  Hear the birds singing in the trees, and smell the freshly cut grass.  There is no room for the past when we focus on the beauty of right now.  The more we practice mindfulness, the easier it becomes to stay present.  Our minds aren’t muddled by the little things, and we can more easily see the big ones that need to be addressed.

The past is there to teach us something. Why else would we need to store memories? I learn that a hot stove will cause a burn, and I know not to touch it again. When our minds stay fixed in the past, however, we are preventing ourselves from moving forward. I can’t change something that happened last week or last year. I can learn from it and change my behavior so I act more according to my values in the future, if that’s what I need to do. Then I need to release it. If it comes back again, I need to reassess if I’ve learned all I need to from it. This can be done with a meditation technique, such as iRest, or with journaling, or the support of a good counselor.  Eventually we can work through the file of memories, separating them from the emotional baggage that drags us down.  The we are free to continue our journey home.