How yoga can help improve your focus
It’s no secret that yoga is a popular form of exercise — yoga classes, workout videos and books are everywhere, and “yoga pants” are a contemporary fashion staple. Meditation — in its many forms — also has a large, devoted following, and some other types of popular recreational activities include a meditative component (yoga is in itself a meditative form of exercise, for example). But have you ever considered that yoga and meditation can actually help improve your study habits?
We don’t usually think of yoga, meditation, and studying in the same sentence, but it’s no secret that many forms of exercise — both mental and physical — can contribute directly to improved mental focus and concentration. Both yoga and most forms of meditation include an increased focus on long, deep, slow breaths, as well as the coordination of mental concentration with some kind of structured activity, such as yoga poses, breath patterns, chanting or even just focusing your gaze on a specific spot. All of these activities have been shown to help increase the body’s relaxation response and to reduce the production of adrenaline (our bodies’ chemical “fight or flight” response to stressors). Since adrenaline and the stressors that cause it can contribute directly to anxiety, nervousness and the distracting “mental chatter” that can build up when we are stressed out, any activity that can help combat these issues can also help improve your overall mental focus.
Yoga and meditation essentially have a biochemical effect on the body that resembles the benefits of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. In addition to reduced adrenaline production, yoga and meditation result in decreased production of the neurotransmitter dopamine (lower dopamine levels produce an overall feeling of calm), along with an increase in the hormone oxytocin, the so-called “bonding” hormone (secreted by new mothers and newborns, for example), resulting in an overall feeling of well-being and trust in others.
Even if more traditional forms of yoga or meditation don’t interest you, there are multiple ways to obtain the same neurochemical benefits — some of which you might already be doing. Diane Lang, MA, is a New Jersey-based psychotherapist and university professor who incorporates various meditative activities into her coursework. “In my classes I require all my students to do two random acts of kindness per day, and then report on it,” Lang says. “Socialization and interpersonal communication is becoming a lost art today due to the explosion in technology, and that contributes to anxiety and a reduced sense of self.”
Another activity Lang recommends to both her students and her psychotherapy clients is something called “gratitude checks.” Lang describes gratitude checks this way: “Each morning and evening, you make a list of what you’re thankful for in that given day,” she says. “By taking a few minutes to do this each day, you can begin and end your day in a positive state of mind.”
Lang also recommends simple activities like daily walks and other regular exercise for mental well-being. “We know scientifically that if you walk, it reduces stress hormones and increases endorphins, resulting in mental wellness,” she says. “Exercise produces a lot of happiness and has a calming effect, and so can things like gratitude checks and similar activities. All of these things are excellent for mental focus and well-being, the trick is finding what works best for you.”