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Focus. It’s something we all say we want more of in our days. So we attempt to concentrate more intently. We stare at a screen longer. We overschedule each minute. We create unrealistic todo lists. We overemphasize self-discipline.
And then, when we falter at being endlessly productive, we fall into fatigue and shame and find ourselves procrastinating, lacking creativity, becoming frustrated, and spiraling into burnout.
That’s not how sustained attention works. When we bring tension and anxiety and white-knuckled determinism to any situation, that actually stifles our experience of focus.
Can you recall the last time you lost yourself in the lyrics of a song? The last time you felt compelled to keep reading a book late into the night (or into the early morning)? The last time you sat and stared, transfixed, at the stars? That, too, is focus.
Recent research has shown that the wisdom of the ancient yoga tradition is true—slowing your breath to release tension results in decreased anxiety and an ability to withstand whatever is happening in life with relative grace and ease. Science also indicates that early morning yoga can improve focus and that relying on time away from your deadline throughout the day in order to enhance your attention span. Whether you regard it as woo-woo or science, the reality is the same: you need to take yourself out of a state of tension to be your most focused self. These are the prerequisites for sustained attention.
Yoga can help create those conditions by turning your focus back to your breath and your body, if even for a few moments, to help you get out of your head.
Benefits: Helps you to center yourself, find peace, and quiet your thoughts.
How to: Sit cross-legged on a folded blanket with your hips higher than your knees in Easy Pose. Feel yourself supported. Stretch and lengthen through your spine and reach your head upward as you take support from the sky. Close your eyes and breathe deep, calming breaths. Relax your jaw, your tongue, your forehead. Now direct your attention to your inhalation and exhalation, slow and steady. Bring your focus to the experience of your breath in your body. Can you expand your side ribs? Can you draw your breath into your belly?
Benefits: Neck rolls increase mobility and stretches the soft muscles of your neck and throat. They also massage the thyroid gland, which can help balance your body’s energy.
How to: From Easy Seat, imagine drawing small clockwise circles in the air in front of you with the end of your chin. Then enlarge the circles. Do 15-20 turns, then change directions. The neck is sensitive, so practice the movements slowly, about 10 seconds per circle.
Synchronizing Breath and Movement
Benefits: This simple exercise will help synchronize breathing and movement. It stretches the sides of your body, softens up your shoulders and stretches your spine.
How to: Begin with your arms alongside your body. Inhale and raise your arms, palms facing upward, up over your head. Exhale and lower your arms with your palms facing down. Repeat this 5-10 times.
Benefits: This centering and stabilizing movement softens your hips and back, massages your abdominal organs, and can improve digestion.
How to: Place your palms on your knees as you slowly rotate your upper body clockwise, leaning forward from your hips to bring your chest over one thigh and then slowly circling. Let your chest lead and keep your head upright and centered. Inhale as you circle to the side and the front. Exhale as you circle to the other side and back. Do a few minutes in this manner, then switch directions.
Seated Side Stretch
Benefits: Side bends stretch the muscles between the ribs in your chest. It makes room for deeper breathing and can help release blocked energy and trapped emotions.
How to: As you inhale, lift your right arm up with your palm facing the floor. Press your left hand down on the floor for support and bend sideways to your left. Hold this for as long as feels good, then repeat on the other side.
Seated Spinal Twist
Benefits: Twisting poses massage your respiratory muscles and your abdominal cavity. It creates circulation in your bloodstream and lymphatic system.
How to: Inhale and extend your spine. As you exhale, turn your chest to the left. Place your right hand on the outside of your left knee or thigh, and place your left hand down behind your seat. Increase your torso’s rotation for 5 breaths. Rather than leading with your head, let your head follow the movement of your chest. Counter-rotate briefly to the other side. Return to center and pause. Now rotate to the right.
Supported Child’s Pose
Benefits: This calming, centering shape stretches your back, inner thighs, and the tops of your feet. It also stretches the muscles between your ribs and increases circulation in your chest, creating room for deeper breathing.
How to: Sit on your knees on a blanket. Your knees can be together or apart. Lean forward and place your forehead on a bolster, rolled up blanket, or pillows for support. Stay for 2–5 minutes. If you are resting your cheek to one side, change sides halfway through the time.
Benefits: Both Cat and Cow soften your shoulder blades and open your chest.
How to: Come to all fours with your wrists slightly in front of your shoulders, your knees a little behind your hips. For Cow Pose (shown), inhale and lift your head and heart as you lower your shoulders away from your ears. Allow your chest and abdomen to soften. As you exhale, curve your back into Cat Pose (not shown) by rounding your spine as you press your hands and knees into the floor. Alternate between Cat and Cow Poses in synchronicity with your breath.
Sequence of poses exerpted from Healing Yoga by Jennie Liljefors, 2019.