The human brain can be a fickle thing. Some times you zip through tasks at lightening speed, or come up with brilliant flashes of creativity and insight. Other times, you feel like making a simple phone call is a tremendous effort, and hours of your time seem to disappear into nothingness, taken up by pointless distractions. In our increasingly overloaded world, how do you get from the second state of being to the first?
While you shouldn't expect yourself to function at your best all the time, studies have shown that yoga is one great tool for increasing your focus and productivity. I myself can attest to the sad state my brain gets into if deprived of yoga for too long.
If you don't have the schedule or physical flexibility for a traditional yoga practice--and even if you do--Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of yoga medicine and author of the new book Meditate Your Weight, offers some simple techniques that you can do anywhere, including at your desk.
"These are extremely helpful for CEOs and business owners with multiple layers of high stress issues requiring focus and efficiency at its peak," she explains. The reason these work so well is that they focus on the elements at the very core of yoga--breathing and meditation. Both have a powerful effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called "rest and digest," which brings up feelings of calm, focus, and peace. Whether you hit the mat regularly or never at all, give each of these a try. They can make a big difference, even if you only spend 5 to 10 minutes a day on them:
1. Counting your breath.
Sit quietly with your eyes closed or half open, clear your mind, and count your own breath without trying to change or control it. Count up to 10 breaths, then start over. Surprise! What you're doing is mindfulness meditation--this is all it takes.
"This is a great practice to do at the beginning or middle of the day to set the tone for mental efficiency during the day," Cruikshank says. "It helps the brain learn to process things more efficiently and to stay focused on one thing at a time." You'll see immediate benefits, she says. And if you can spend 5 to 10 minutes counting your breath in this way every day, you will see a lot more benefits as you become more productive and think more clearly.
2. Lengthen your exhale.
Count as you breathe. Inhale for 3 counts, hold your breath for a 1 or 2 counts, and then exhale for 4 to 6 counts. The important point is to make your exhale last longer than your inhale which is automatically calming. Continue for 3 to 5 minutes.
"This technique is especially good for the parasympathetic nervous system and very simple, making it easy to stick to," Cruikshank says. "It's one of my very favorites for improving cognitive function."
3. Breathe through alternate nostrils.
Gently close your right nostril and breath in through left nostril for 3 or 4 counts, hold your breath for 1 or 2 counts, then gently close the left nostril and exhale through the right for 3 or 4 counts. Next inhale through the right nostril for 3 or 4 counts, hold for 1 or 2 counts, then exhale through the left nostril for 3 or 4 counts. Continue this way, alternating nostrils, inhaling and exhaling for the same length of time, and holding your breath for a moment in between for 2 to 4 rounds, or 3 to 5 minutes.
The name of this technique is Nadi Shodanam and it's an ancient yoga practice that not only helps regulate the parasympathetic nervous system but also is traditionally used to balance the left and right sides of the brain. "It is said to have a balancing effect on the body and the mind," Cruikshank says.
4. Make it a habit.
These techniques are great for calming yourself down or regaining your focus when you're stressed or distracted. But to get real benefit from them, it's best to make them a daily habit. "I prefer to have my patients do these during the day," Cruikshank says. "Either set a timer to do these practices at what you know are peak stress times, such as 10 am and 3 pm, or pick one or two times a day to do them as needed."
Either way, she says, "It is important to do the practices daily to retrain the nervous system." If you do, you'll see immediate effects--and those benefits will build over time.