Yogis have known for a long time that the benefits of the ancient practice go far beyond the physical. And now, science has come to confirm the same thing! A recent study from the University of Illinois showed that practicing yoga for 20 minutes could actually improve brain function. The study, which had 30 people perform two tasks involving identifying shapes on a computer screen, found that yoga helped the subjects complete the exercises more than aerobic exercise or no exercise.
The researchers said that after practicing yoga, “the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information."
The researchers thought that yoga helped with focus by calming the mind and keeping distracting thoughts away. This would come as no surprise to yogic sage Patanjali, whose classic Yoga Sutras state: yoga chitta vritti nirodha. This famous verse can be translated as “yoga is the reduction of fluctuations of the mind,” meaning that we practice yoga in order to calm the mind.
In my experience as a practitioner and a teacher, these are 7 of the best postures and techniques for improving focus and concentration, and quieting the mind:
This variation of Tadasana is a great way to get in touch with your body and breath before moving on to other asanas.
To do the pose, stand up straight with your feet together or hips width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. Bring your hands to heart center in the Namaste position (Anjali Mudra). Check that your weight is evenly distributed through all four corners of your feet, that your calves and quads are engaged, your pelvis is in a neutral position, and your shoulders are relaxed. Breathe deeply through the nose, noticing any sensations in the body or breath.
2. Eagle Pose (Garudasana)
That balancing postures can help with concentration is pretty intuitive, but Eagle Pose is especially beneficial for cultivating focus. In fact, the pose gets its name from the Hindu god Garuda, known for his power, strength and focus.
To do the pose, stand with your feet together and hands on your hips, and find a steady focal point in front of you. Bend your knees slightly, lift your right leg, and cross it over your left thigh. Try to hook your right foot behind your left calf. Then, release your hands from your hips and bring them out straight in front of you. Cross your arms in front of you, left over the right, and bend your elbows. Wrap your arms around each other and try to bring your palms together. Keep your back straight and gaze focused like an eagle as you breathe deeply through the nose.
3. Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana 2)
To be a ‘warrior’ requires intense concentration, focus and courage, and Warrior 2 allows you to embody all of those qualities. The posture requires your full body to be engaged, and your gaze, or ‘drishti,’ to be fixed on one place.
To do the pose, stand with your legs about 3-4 feet apart. Stretch your arms out away from you, so they’re parallel to the floor, hands active, and palms facing down. Turn your right foot so that it’s pointed toward the top of your mat, and your left foot so it's angled inward very slightly. Bend your right knee and shift it forward so it’s over your right ankle. Turn your head to the right, and place your gaze on your right middle finger. Keep your torso facing the side (not front) of your mat. Breathe.
4. Crane Pose (Bakasana)
Arm balances are also excellent for cultivating focus and concentration, and crow pose is a great one to start with.
To do this pose, start with your feet hips width apart in a squatting position, or for more experienced practitioners, in a forward bend. Place your hands on the floor, about 1 foot in front of your feet, shoulder-width apart, with your fingers spread. Fix your gaze on a point on the floor in front of you. Then, bring your knees to your armpits or triceps and slowly begin to shift your weight forward, lifting one foot off the ground, and then the other. Breathe deeply, staying focused.
5. Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
Forward bends are known for helping to quiet the mind and relieve stress — both of which can really come in handy when you’re trying to concentrate on something.
To do this pose, sit with your legs extended straight out in front of you, toes pointing up. On your inhale, open you chest and lengthen your spine. On your exhale, fold forward from the hips and take hold of the outsides of your feet, if possible. You can also rest your hands on your shins, or use a strap. Remember to breathe deeply, allowing your exhalations to take you further into the posture.
6. Nadi Shoddana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Five minutes of Nadi Shoddana Pranayama always helps me reach a more calm, clear, and focused state of mind. In yoga therapy, this breathing practice is sometimes called a ‘cure all,’ as it can boost your energy when you’re feeling sluggish, as well as relax and center you when you’re feeling anxious or wound up.
To practice Nadi Shoddana, start by finding a relaxed, comfortable, seated position. Begin by pressing your right thumb against your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril. At the end of your inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril. Continue with this pattern, inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril. Practice for at least 3 minutes. When you finish, take some time to allow your breath to return to normal, noticing the changes in your breath and mind.
Note: As you develop in your practice, you can try matching the length of the inhale and exhale by counting or inhaling to a count of 4 or 5, and then doubling the length of the exhale.
Meditation has also been studied extensively for its focus-enhancing and brain-boosting benefits. Mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing on one point (like the breath) is associated with better focus, as well as reduced stress and anxiety.
To practice this, simply sit or lie down in a comfortable position (like Half Lotus or Savasana) and breathe naturally, without trying to manipulate or control your breath. Just relax. Notice the flow of your breath as it enters and exits through your nostrils. Notice its temperature, speed, strength, how your nostrils expand or contract when you breathe, and any other sensations that arise. When your mind wanders, simply bring it back to your breath. That’s it! Practice for at least 5 minutes.
So whenever you’re feeling frazzled or scatter-brained during your busy day, treat yourself by taking a break and practicing one or all of these to clear your head and refocus. Then let me know how it goes!