The thing about about yoga is that it has a lot of limbs. Eight. Quite a bit of work.
You start with your “do’s” and “don’t” (#1 and #2, Yama Niyama) and then you do your (#3) “asana” or poses every day, then you continue on with (#4) pranayama -or breath extension- and if you are lucky you make progress over a very long period of time, much longer than what your mind pictures “long” to be.
And those are only the first external four, the “easy ones” so to speak as at least they have a practice, something that can be “done” about them, a measurement that can be tracked and a feeling of progress experienced.
Then comes the real challenge of the internal ones, (#5) pratyahara or sense withdrawal is a whole new challenge in itself, and it is supposed to lead us right into the next one: (#6) “concentration”, finally!
As I write this somehow I get the feeling that reaching a level of concentration cannot be that hard.
That is: Until we try…
How long can you keep your mind focused on, say, reading this post? How about concentrating for an hour on just the feeling of the air entering and leaving your nostrils? I know, me too. So I started thinking of ways to help concentration come along, easy methods that can be accessed throughout the day.
Here are 32 ideas:
1.- Upon waking up, use that precious first moment on not quite knowing every thing just yet, close your eyes while still in bed and connect with your breath. Be in silence for a few moments. Before you come up tell yourself that you will practice pratyahara during the day. Deepak Chopra once told me that dropping an intention when the mind is clear, without attaching any thought to it, is said to aid in its manifestation.
2.- While in the middle of a difficult task take a deep breath and and clear the mind. B.K.S. Iyengar says that the concept behind the famous expression “take a big breath” has more to do with the excel than with the deep inhalation, as it is on the excel that we release the toxins. He goes one step further and says that once you excel, excel a little more.
I tried this when I was taking a 3 hour test a few years ago, and it worked very well at re-focusing me with renewed energy.
4.- Learning a new language, Sanskrit is a good recommendation as it is said to be the language of the Gods and you do not have to go much further than a yoga class to start as instructors will sometimes name some of the poses by their Sanskrit names. By the way, the names can be fascinating.
5.-When doing the dishes, by paying full attention to the feel of the water, the texture of the plates
6.- Cleaning the bathroom, while paying attention to leave no hairs anywhere, not on the floor, not on the tub. Anyone living with you will be very grateful as well and you will generate good karma.
7.- When doing yoga, by focusing on the breath and following the drishti (set eye point focus). Each pose has a focus point attached to it, for example: while in warrior the eye-focus goes into the thumb finger of the hand facing front (Angusta Ma Dyai Drishti is the name of it, there you go! Sanskrit).
See if you can stay with it and as Bryan Krest says: Keep the eyes there regardless of what happens to you and remain in equanimity. (I am paraphrasing I used to practice to his DVD a long time ago, much longer than you imagine “long” to be)
8.- When we are listening to music we do not like we can focus on what is it that we feel and how we react, yet not react. This is called “remaining in equanimity”. I have tried this sometimes and confess that it is hard for long periods of time as some music, like the one produced by the kids’ video games, can be way too irritating. So I keep the practice simple.
9.- Notice your vocabulary, pay close attention to what words you use during the days. Make an effort to speak with eloquence, to use the most appropriate word, to convey a concept in a more specific manner. Choosing words carefully requires exercising all concentration muscles.
10.- Noticing our physical and emotional reactions In the middle of a heated argument, by excusing ourselves and walking away for a breather, then re-focusing and re-grouping. Anger provides the biggest challenge for concentration because it is like a lethat weapon designed to rob us of it. It is not fun, but a good moment to really practice. Here are 32 suggestions for dealing with anger
11.- Before making a big commitment, by giving ourselves time to think it over, and focus on the pros and cons, making a list of them even. Big decisions (i.e.: getting married, moving to another city, taking a new job) require deep concentration and time to reflect. Great opportunities for concentration!
12.- Writing to do lists when we are clear minded, maybe better in the morning. and then following up on our lists but without trying to run everyone over , just letting them happen throughout the day.
I find that just writing a list has an effect in my actually doing what I wrote.
13.-Studying scriptures (the Yoga Sutras, the Baghavad Gita). Going to the source of the yoga scriptures provides a wealth of information that is not easily accessible to us in any other form. The Sutras are not so simple to understand, they are like a code that needs deciphering, researching, studying, conversations. They are meant to be like this, short and with a lot of sweetness in them.
14.-Writing the things we learned in class, any class we may be taking. Taking stock of what we want to remember has an effect in us actually remembering
15.- Practicing tratak (candle flame gazing) at night, before going to bed, then having a glorious night sleep.
16.- Clearing a closet, and doing it mindfully, so that things will be organized and easier to reach. Just one closet at the time will provide so much more room in our minds we might want to continue with the other ones in the house.
17.- Sitting in a cushion, focusing on the breath for 20 minutes. Then increasing it to at least 20 minutes in the morning and 20 in the evening. This is the beginning of meditation you may argue, and yes it is. This limb of yoga “concentration” will immediately take us into “meditation” (which is the next limb) once perfected. So there! It is good to know what is ahead and start creating a practice that sets up the conditions.
18.- Chanting a mantra 108 times. With devotion and like we mean it. The Gayatri Mantra is a very good one to start with as it is said to contain all the wisdom of the Vedas, and to bring all sorts of blessings into the person who sings it, including blessings you may not know you need. Not bad ha?
19.-Memorizing a poem until we know it by heart and without taking a break while we are learning it. Pick one that has more than 10 lines. If you are a woman check out “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou, you may enjoy this one! If you are a man, please tell me in the comments which poem does it for you
20.- De-briefing in our mind the most important topics of a book chapter after we finish reading. Speaking it out loud as if we were giving a lecture, and in an eloquent way, without peeking back at the book.
21.-Playing a game of Chess, or Go, with the intention to win. It is said that these types of games teach us more about life and the ways of thinking of our opponents (and ourselves) than life itself.
22.-Adding numbers in our head before reaching for Excel, also subtracting multiplying and dividing. And since we are at it, why not get percentages, square roots and fractions. It is fun!. OK
23.-Learning a new game, better yet a game you never heard of before. Truco, an Argentinean game, is a great challenge and may appeal to the mischief archetype in you.
24.- Listening to kids talk while actively involved, attentively and as if it was the most important thing in the planet. Really try to decipher who was it that said what? and what was happening, be Sherlock Holmes. Your kids will love it and you will practice concentration.
25.- Remembering the names of everybody when we meet a large group of people. A good technique from my years as a computer trainer was to use their names in a sentence as quickly as possibly and while looking at them.
26.- Doing crosswords or playing scrabble while while commuting. Using that time to keep the mind active and on things that make it work rather than letting it relentlessly stress us over.
27.-Designing a weekly menu that will boost concentration (i.e.: including lots of greens and lean proteins).
28.- Coming up with 10 brilliant ideas to help specific issues that our planet (or village). Not just the ideas but also adding steps to their implementation. Letting the mind be of service is a good way to have it concentrate and on things that matter.
29.- Writing an article about the 10 things we just came up with, and sending a link to our representatives or whomever could take it to the next level.
30.- Listening to our parents without spacing out or judging. This is graduate level.
31.-Praying with divine focus and devotion. While at it, asking God to improve our concentration.
32.- Being grateful that our minds work. And while at it, being grateful at 31 other things in your life right now, like the chance to be reading, and the sit your are sitting on.
B.K.S. Iyengar says that when Concentration is perfected it will lead us straight into (#7) Meditation. From there he says, when we can stay in the meditative state for a long period of time we will eventually be led, by grace, into (#8) Final Liberation, complete peace and happiness, Samadhi! May we all get there!
Featured image from here. All other images link to their sources.