Let’s be honest: as we move through 2019 many of us can get easily distracted with notification after notification. We’re connected 24/7 to our smartphones and other tech devices that bombard us with information and reminders of the convenient pleasures of instant gratification.
With two-thirds of American adults (68%) using Facebook and 88% of 18-29-year-olds using any form of social media, the glitzy post-internet culture can make it hard for us to focus our undivided attention on a given task. Yet there is hope for a focused gaze and a concentrated mind. Scientific evidence suggests that a regular practice of yoga may counteract our wayward attention spans, calm us, and keep us grounded on our goals all year round.
In fact, practicing yoga has been shown to positively affect the level of naturally occurring gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in our brains, which is an important neurotransmitter that’s connected to our central nervous system (CNS). This GABA neurotransmitter is known to reduce neuronal activity throughout our nervous system, thereby inducing a chilled out, relaxed sensation.
According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the GABA levels of healthy subjects were tested via MRIs after subjects either walked or practiced yoga for three times a week for 12 weeks. As a result, the yoga practitioners experienced an increase in GABA in their thalamuses as their brain scans correlated with greater improvements in their mood and decreases in anxiety compared to a walking group.
Practicing yoga can strengthen your brain and serve as a healthy addiction. Not only can yoga naturally prevent anxiety and depressive symptoms, but it improves your mental clarity and concentration by building healthier gray matter in your brain. Located in the cerebral cortex and subcortical areas of your brain, gray matter is another major component of our CNS that plays a key role in our perception, movement, memory, pain tolerance, and cognitive functioning.
Interestingly, the volume of gray matter can be associated with how long someone has been practicing yoga. For example, this National Institute of Health study used MRI scans to show how long-time yogis did not experience the same age-related decline in gray matter as non-practitioners. As it turns out, yoga experience is directly connected with a larger volume of gray matter in your brain’s left hemisphere that’s responsible for controlling important cognitive functioning like analytic thought, logic, reasoning, writing, and math skills.
While it may be helpful for first time yogis to read up on all the different types of yoga, the following eight poses are especially valuable for cultivating more concentration and focus in all aspects of your life:
1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
This introductory balance pose may look less than challenging; however, it’s considered the “mother of all asanas” as it’s the base from which all other yoga poses emerge. The mountain pose enables you to bring your full awareness to your breath as you begin to strengthen your nervous system and center your focus. It will improve your posture, steady your breathing, and strengthen your ankles, knees, and thighs.
How To Do It: Stand on your mat with your big toes touching and heels slightly apart. Next, lift your toes with control and slowly place them back on the mat. Firm your thighs, lift your kneecaps, tuck your tailbone slightly, and keep your hips directly in line with your ankles. Focus on pressing the crown of your head toward the ceiling while you inhale and then drop your shoulders and reach your fingers toward your mat as you exhale.
2. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog)
As one of the most popular inversion poses, downward dog helps you to increase the flow of blood to your brain, thereby reducing your stress and improving your memory and concentration. In downward dog, your goal is to concentrate on bringing balance to your upper and lower body while finding proper alignment in your spine as you build strength and flexibility at the same time.
How To Do It: First, come on to your hands and knees with your hands shoulder width apart and your knees in line with your hips. Next, keep your pelvis in a neutral position, flex your toes to your mat, and push your weight into your heels as you lift your knees and spread your palms at the same time to create a triangle shape with your body.
3. Malasana (Garland Pose)
The garland pose, casually known as “the deep squat,” exercises your focus as you’re challenged to find mobility and stability in your feet, ankles, calves, knees, hips, and spine. Correctly holding this pose will lengthen your spine, improve your posture, and open your hips and pelvic region.
How To Do It: First, stand upright with your feet shoulder width apart at a 45-degree angle. Then, slowly and with control, drop into a squat with your feet flat on the ground or your heels slightly lifted if needed (you may also use a blanket or block for support). Place your hands together in prayer position and allow your elbows to press into your knees to open up your hips. Draw your shoulder blades toward one another and lean your torso forward with a straight spine.
4. Vrikshasana (Tree Pose)
Another balancing asana that will enable you to establish a clear attention is Vrikshasana or tree pose. This asana tests your stability by activating your ankle invertor-evertor and to a lesser extent your hip abductor-adductor muscle groups, which in turn brings balance and equilibrium to your mind and improves your concentration. Holding this pose will also elongate your spine, strengthen your legs and arms, and open your hips, chest, and shoulders.
How To Do It: From a standing position, drop your arms to the sides of your body. Next, bend your right knee and place your right foot high on your left thigh. Breathe deeply to find your balance and on an inhale gently raise your arms over your head and bring your palms together in prayer. Hold the tree pose on your right side while centering your gaze and then repeat this balancing pose on your left side when you’re ready.
5. Bakasana (Crow Pose)
This advanced balancing pose has you focus on mindfully lifting your full body weight on to your hands. As such, it takes courage to get over the fear of falling on your face in Bakasana, but with alternative poses and regular practice, this pose can strengthen your mind-body connection and intensify your focus by challenging your stability.
How To Do It: Begin in a low squat on your mat with your heels and big toes touching and your knees slightly wider than your hips. Next, lean your torso forward between your knees and stretch your arms out in front of you at shoulder-width apart. Then, drop your head and chest forward and keep your tailbone down for a rounded spine. Continue to take several deep inhales and exhales. When you’re ready, with control, flex your feet, shift your weight into the palms of your hands, rest your knees on your triceps, and hold the pose.
6. Sarvangasana (Shoulder Pose)
This type of yoga inversion pose is effective at increasing blood to your brain, thereby aiding your ability to think clearly. By adding gentle pressure to your spinal nerves, Sarvangasana also has a calming effect on your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It stretches your neck and shoulders and improves digestion as well as stimulates your thyroid gland and abdominal organs.
How To Do It: Start by lying on your back with your arms straight out at your sides on your mat. Then, slowly bring your knees into your chest at a 90-degree angle as you tuck your chin. Place your palms on your lower back for support with your elbows turned in and raise your legs and abdomen to form a straight line with your body.
7. Halasana (Plow Pose)
Similar to the Sarvangasana, Halasana shares many of the same inversion-related benefits in that it also induces a calming effect on your PNS. However, in Halasansa the stretch of your shoulders and spine will deepen. This pose is particularly designed to help you reduce and prevent stress, fatigue, headaches, and insomnia as it has a rejuvenating effects on your nervous system.
How To Do It: Begin by lying on your back with your arms straight out at your sides and your palms facing down. On an inhalation, press your palms into your matt and on an exhalation contract your abdomen and bring your knees toward the ceiling with your torso perpendicular to the floor. Finally, keep your arms extended out in front of you but interlace your hands for support as you slowly extend your legs out straight behind you with flexed feet.
8. Shavasana (Corpse Pose)
Corpse pose is all about maintaining the balance between relaxation and meditation. The idea is to mindfully integrate your physical practice with your awareness of your mind-body connection. Most importantly, Shavasana will empower you to allow your mind to settle and release tension so that it's easier to concentrate later.
How To Do It: Lie on your back with your legs spread out as wide as your yoga mat and your arms comfortably relaxed at your sides with your palms face up. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath as you naturally inhale and exhale. Allow your body and face to relax and feel heavy. Remind yourself that you’re supported by the ground beneath you. Beginning with your feet and ankles and moving up your calves, thighs, buttocks, lower back and all the way up to the crown of your head, take note of any tension you may feel in these regions while feeling into the support of the pose. Stay in the corpse pose for a minimum of 5 minutes or up to a half hour to reap the benefits.