Yoga to Sharpen the Mind
Multitasking has become less of a skill and more the norm. We’re like those amazing jugglers who make colorful balls whizz through the air, only instead of balls, that’s just Tuesday. Somewhere along the way, less is more... has morphed into, more in less time. But at what cost? Inevitably, when it comes time to devote ourselves to a solitary task, it can be oddly challenging. We may even find that our head gets fuzzy and we experience brain fog. Here’s where Yoga fits it: as we pay attention to the breath, body alignment, and our thoughts, we naturally slow down… and notice what occurs each moment.
Yoga is a mind/body practice in every possible sense, one that combats our fear response (aka flight or fright) and generates a feeling of calm; stress reduction is linked to decreased inflammation that can lead to disease within the body, as well as strengthened immunity, lowered blood pressure and many other health benefits. More than simply relaxing us, it works the brain on multiple levels… A recent study illustrated that Yoga practice creates actual physical changes in the brain related to cognitive function, memory and awareness. The study examined 21 female Hatha yoga practitioners and 21 women who hadn’t done Yoga or any mind/body practices. Brain imaging was done on the women, and showed significant positive changes in the Yoga practitioners, verses those who had not done yoga.
Mindfulness simplified represents present moment awareness: as we move our body through asanas in moving meditation, we become clearer and more focused. Regular practice helps strengthen our capacity to become deeply attuned to the world around us… and within us.
Initially, I was drawn to Yoga, and become a Hatha instructor because I felt it would help with the inner balance, discipline and focus required in my writing life. And it did. Usually, I interweave Hatha and meditation breaks as I work. And while I’m convinced that Yoga in general helps achieve greater mental clarity, there are specific practices and asanas which seem to lean more in that direction.
Here are some of my favorites…
Recycling Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
Lie flat on your mat in corpse pose. Draw your knees to the chest and gently allow them to come down to the right side, touching ground. Then, softly turn your torso and head to the left. Stretch your arms out like a bird in flight. If you like, rest your left hand on the left knee, all the while your knees are still pointing right. Close the eyes and breath naturally. After several breaths, with your arms, bring your knees back to the chest, giving them a hug. Then release your arms. Now draw your knees to the opposite side and repeat the movement for the same amount of time.
Benefits: integrates right and left sides of the brain and stretches the entire spine.
Gazing Meditation (Trataka)
Find your meditative position. Place a lit candle in her eye line. Imagine a clear thread aligning your spine. Roll your shoulders back and down. Exhale through your nose, and draw your awareness to the flame. If at any point your eyes become tired, close them and visualize the candle flame. Keep your gaze fixed as you meditate for 5 minutes.
Benefits: strengthens focus, intuition, and mindfulness.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Suddhi)
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position. Inhale fully through the nose into your belly… Slowly exhale. With your right hand, form Vishnu Mudra, by curling your index and middle fingers into your palm, keeping thumb, ring and little finger straight. You’ll be using your extended fingers to funnel the air through each nostril. The breathing is gentle and quiet. Begin by resting your thumb on your right nostril, blocking off its air flow and exhale completely through the left. Then inhale through the left and alternate the movement by blocking off the left with your index finger, and exhaling and releasing the right. Keep breathing in this manner, slowly and gently.
Benefits: integrates both sides of the brain, calms the nervous system and improves energy.
Circular Eye Movements (Netra Vyayamam)
Sit cross-legged on your mat or in a chair. Slowly roll your shoulders back and down and relax. Envision a huge clock across from your eyeline. Starting at twelve and going to the right, trace each number with your eyes, creating a wide sweeping circle. Go at a medium pace… Keep your head centered and shoulders relaxed. Only move the eyes. Repeat three times… then center your eyes, close and relax. Repeat 3 times in the opposite direction… center, close and relax. Always follow with the Palming practice below. *If at any moment you experience eye discomfort, close and relax the eyes.
Part 2, Palming
Still seated, rub your palms together quickly until they generate heat. Gently cup the hands above the eyes with fingertips pointing toward the forehead. Let the warmth and darkness soothe and relax the eyes and all the muscles in your face. After a few moments, with eyes still closed, begin to lightly stroke your forehead, very gentle tap the tissue surrounding the eyes. Continue to massage the facial muscles… Work your way to the spot between your brows. Then make smooth circles at the temples. Take your time, working all the muscles in your face. Palming is a powerful practice and can also be done alone.
Benefits: stretches and tones the optic nerve, helps relieve eye strain. Additionally, palming assists with stress reduction.