Last week’s column I offered some ways to empower your yoga practice regardless of teacher, style, level or other variables. I wish I could say those tips are fool proof, but frankly, we humans aren’t perfect (nor should we be, truth be told!), and sometimes our best intentions for a yoga practice can still be put to the test on the mat. This certainly includes those times when life throws us curve balls ranging from daily frustrations to life-altering shifts, but for today’s column, I’ll draw from some lighter examples as I think we’ve all encountered similar distractions right in the yoga room, the kinds that might make us humble yogis grit our teeth instead of OM with monk-like understanding.
Is This The Yoga Room Or Times Square?
The distractions I’m talking about can include those classes when the temperature is either too hot or too cold, you find out your mat’s stickiness is no match for things like sweat, or you forget your towel. And there are those classes when the teacher’s iPod seems to be on an awkward shuffle or the neighbors to your right seem to think it’s okay to have a conversation during class. You might have also have been slightly afraid for your safety in a class where you’re next to a yogi who sounds and moves more like a bull in a china shop. And there’s my personal “favorite,” when a cell phone rings in class and NO ONE gets up to turn it off. Ultimately, as sacred a space as the yoga room can be, it can also be filled with a heck of a lot of distractions, too. So much that it might make it a tad difficult to get your yoga on.
It Doesn’t Help That The Mind Is Also Like A Puppy
This is a favorite analogy for most yoga and meditation teachers because we know how challenging it can be to still the mind, much like a precocious puppy, even after years of practice. Many of the students who come to my classes have come to me afterwards to apologetically say that they were still thinking about their grocery list, a business phone call, an exam or anything else during class. This is not unusual, and truthfully, all yogis, from beginner to advanced, can still get distracted on their mats. This may not change, although one hopes these moments become fewer and fewer as we get wiser and wiser, but I suspect yoga wouldn’t be the mind-blowing practice it is if we didn’t get tested now and again.
Thankfully, You Can Create A Training Checklist
So what can we humble yogis do when we feel like our mat is surrounded by the high school marching band? After chatting with a few teacher friends, I’ve started a checklist of options to tune your focus.
When my mind wants to be anywhere else but on my yoga mat, I try to bring my awareness to my breath. This can range from simply challenging yourself to maintain a steady rhythm through sun salutations, counting the breaths to get comfortable in a particular pose, or trying to observe which part of the breath cultivates the most power or freedom in your movements. When you focus on the breath alone, it can bring your attention to what’s driving the practice on your mat, and not on the mat next to you where the yogi is huffing and puffing like a strangled animal.
Whether it’s sharpening an internal gaze when you observe what’s coming up for you in the practice, or your external gaze, when your eyes land on a specific point, setting a drishti, or a focused gaze, can help refine your concentration. It can also offer the best kind of tunnel vision, the one that saves you from noticing that the yogi in front of you is wearing polka-dotted undies underneath sheer pants.
Sometimes I also like to visualize my body’s skeletal and muscular systems as I’m moving on my mat, like something out of the pages of an anatomy book. This can often help me to align the pose from the inside out; if I feel discomfort I imagine a red light hovering over that part of my body, and I can maneuver my pose to find the most true and comfortable alignment. This might feel like a nerdy game, but it can certainly take your mind off the soundtrack from The West Side Story that the teacher seems to love that week.
One of my friends mentioned that when she was going through a challenging time and finding it hard to concentrate in class, she’d often practiced near a window so she could focus her attention on the tree outside of her studio instead of anything happening around her. Over time the tree had become a supportive friend through that rough patch. This reminded me of the option to set a dedication at the start of your practice, whether it’s to a tree, someone special, or in honor of world peace. Setting a dedication can lift our spirits, cultivate our compassion, and move our attention toward a more worthy focus than to the neighbor who just flung a pint of sweat on your mat a few moments before.
This checklist will vary in effectiveness from person to person, of course, and my hope is that this list will grow and evolve as your practice grows. And these tricks may even be of service when the distractions are less mundane and simple. Good luck training the cute puppy!