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A few weeks ago I was journaling about how I want to be and what I want to do in 2022, but my attention was being pulled in a hundred directions—to worries about the latest variant, news stories about political unrest, concern for neighbors caught in a snowstorm, prepping for an upcoming meeting… I just wanted my brain to stop spinning so I could focus, even for a minute.
I know I’m not alone in feeling scattered. A prolonged pandemic has left many of us feeling exhausted and burned out—which means a lot of us have lost the ability to train our attention on a single task, or remember what task we aimed to tackle next.
Even before the pandemic, we were contending with digital distractions, constant multitasking, and more. Our minds wandered 47 percent of the time, according to a 2010 Harvard study. With the additional stress of the pandemic, experts are telling us we’re more likely to lose focus. And collectively, we know something about stress. In a 2020 American Psychological Association poll, 67 percent of adults surveyed said they had experienced increased stress due to the coronavirus and more than 50 percent of respondents also named health care, mass shootings, and climate change as significant stressors.
To help make sense of my increasing distractibility—and explore whether or not my brain had broken—I talked to Casey Dixon, a life coach who specializes in helping professionals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) feel less overwhelmed and more productive.
Movement, particularly yoga flows, can help send more oxygen to the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain where decisions are made about what to pay attention to, said Dixon.
Dixon is also the founder of a program called Live Well ADHD and the creator of the website MindfullyADD, which provide movement, breath, and mindfulness tools for training one’s attention. I’m relieved to hear her validate my difficulties focusing, especially in meditation: “Sitting still can be really agitating if you have ADHD [or problems focusing],” she says. “Sometimes you need something soothing and nurturing to get into your body, and sometimes you need to put on some Lizzo and jump up and down to get energy out of your body before you can go to a place of self-awareness.”
A yoga sequence to help you focus
The following sequence, inspired by Dixon’s wisdom, is designed to help you destress and access the energy needed to find a little more focus. It combines the soothing elements of breath-based asana with movement to help you release anxiety and overwhelm, and ends with a moment of stillness so you can step into your next task with more clarity.
Most importantly, it provides an accessible, short mind–body break, which we all need to help us reset, improve cognitive function, and avoid burnout.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose), variation
Stand in Mountain Pose and press firmly through all four corners of each foot. Inhale and exhale through your nose. Without judgment, notice the pace, depth, and quality of your breath. With each inhalation, imagine roots growing out of the bottoms of your feet. Feel the support of the earth. Stay here for 10 breaths. On your last inhalation, root down, then lift your chest up and move into a gentle backbend. You can bring your hands to your lower back for support. Exhale, come back to standing. Inhale, extend your arms over your head and grasp your right wrist with your left hand. Exhale and side bend to the left. Hold here for 3 breaths, feeling space between each rib as you inhale. On your fourth inhalation, come back to center and switch sides. Finish in Mountain Pose, arms by your sides.
From Mountain Pose, start to gently move your torso to the right, then left. Continue a fluid twisting motion from side to side and add the arms, letting them move with your torso. Take 5complete breaths here. Take any other unstructured movements that feel good. Shake it out. Roll your shoulders. Stretch your neck.
From Mountain Pose, exhale into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Inhale and come half way up with a long spine into Ardha Uttanasana (Standing Half Forward Bend). Exhale back to Chaturanga Dandasana (or your version of this pose), then inhale up into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) or Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Exhale into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and hold here for 3 breaths. On your fourth exhalation, step forward into a Forward Bend. Inhale half way up. Exhale, fold. Inhale, Urdhva Hastansana (Upward Salute). Exhale back to Mountain Pose. Repeat 3 times to build heat and release energy. Make sure your movements are guided by your breath. Finish in Mountain Pose.
Exhale and step your right leg back into Warrior I. Root firmly through your feet and engage through the lower belly. Hold for 5 steady breaths. Remember your roots.
On your sixth inhalation, shift your weight into your left foot, find a \, or focal point. Wrap your right leg around your left and your right under your left arm. Lift your elbows to chin level, transitioning into your version of Eagle Pose. Stay here for 5 breaths.
On an exhalation, slowly unwind and move into Half Moon Pose. Inhale and flex your extended foot and stretch from head to heel. Hold for 5 more breaths.
On your sixth exhalation, step back to Warrior II. Inhale here, with your arms outstretched and your front knee over your front ankle. Exhale and come back to Mountain Pose. Repeat 4–6 on the other side.
Malasana (Garland Pose) with optional twist
Widen your stance and exhale into your version of Garland Pose. Bring your hands together at the center of your chest and use your elbows to push your knees open. Hold for 3 breaths, inhaling to lengthen your spine, and exhale to move your hips even lower to the ground. On your fourth inhalation, feel free to take an optional twist. Open your arms and twist to the right, reaching your right hand toward the ceiling. Hold for 3 breaths and exhale back to center. Switch sides. Come back to center.
Seated or standing mindfulness
Come to a comfortable seated pose, such as Sukhasana (Easy Pose), or return to Mountain Pose, making sure your spine is long and you feel supported. Try Dixon’s Elevator Practice breathing exercise to help you settle into your body: Bring 1 hand, palm up, in front of your belly. Rest your other hand, palm down, on your bottom hand. On your inhalations, lift your top hand to your collarbones. On your exhalations, bring your top hand back down. Track your breath as it fills your lungs. Notice, without judgment, the pace, depth, and quality of your inhalations and exhalations. Do this for 1 to 5 minutes.