Learning to Focus

Yesterday I wrote, “The subject is not the object.” I wanted to expand on the idea that the practice of yoga isn’t about getting better at yoga, it’s about getting better at being you. A regular yoga practice certainly made me a better me, helping me along with little tasks such as; fixing my marriage, helping me be a better daddy, re-sculpting my doughy, middle aged body, overcoming back pain, improving mobility, blah, blah, blah.

But, how? I’m an engineer, I don’t just want to know what happened, I want to know how it happened. I want to know the method, so I can describe it, and repeat it. And maybe go on Medium, and shout about it to the world. So, again, HOW?

In a word, focus. Last week I challenged myself to do the Inferno hot Pilates class followed by the 90 minute Bikram class. Pilates went great. The first 15 minutes of Bikram went great. Then it caught up to me and I realize I’m whooped. I’m also too damned proud and too damned stubborn to bail. So, what to do?

Focus. Focus on the form. Focus on the breathing. Focus on getting through the next 30 seconds. Thirteen years later, it was like my first class all over again, except I’ve had all those years to train my focus.

Yoga, done hard, done right, takes you out of yourself. It strips you of distractions, and forces you to focus. In the beginning it’s the minutiae of class;

  • doing the posture
  • doing the next posture
  • holding the posture until the teacher releases it
  • breathing
  • your pounding heart
  • trying to be calm enough, still enough not to distract your classmates
  • surviving to the end

As time goes by, you get the hang of the class, you learn the moves, the sequence. You learn your limits, physical and mental and you learn to push past them. But when you’ve got the basics, you have to start all over again, because there’s always more, always another layer.

The teacher is exhorting you to concentrate, to focus, and you do. You go inside and shut out the distractions.

  • Is the guy next to you a “breather?” Doesn’t matter, focus, shut him out.
  • Is the girl behind you fidgeting? Doesn’t matter, focus, shut her out.
  • Is the teacher snapping her fingers (Why would anyone do that in a class that’s supposed to be a meditation? Besides which it’s a revolting noise that should never be done in the company of civilized people.) to signal posture changes? Doesn’t matter, focus, shut it out.
  • Is the yoga teacher practicing in front of you doing this posture picture perfect? Doesn’t matter, focus, shut him out.

Once upon a time a friend told me he’d never be able to do hot yoga because girls in Lulu Lemon would make it impossible to concentrate on the class. Leaving aside the creep factor (the average age of the girls in class is about the same as his daughters), he’s never done anything like Bikram. Assuming you’re actually doing the class, you’re not going to notice the girls. That Pilates/Bikram double? I couldn’t tell you who was in class, much less what they were wearing.

It’s HARD. You need all your energy to do the postures, and all of your attention is focused on getting through this posture, to make it to the next, and the next, to the end of class. But the need for that focus provides one of the great benefits of the class.

I’ve written about how yoga works the body, how it stretches and strengthens you physically. But it doesn’t stop there, it stretches and strengthens you mentally. If your focus were a muscle, after a year of yoga it would look like a bodybuilder’s biceps.

So how does this make you a better you?

The same way strength training makes it easer to lift that heavy box in the garage. You go to the gym, you gain muscle, and that muscle is now available to you all day, every day. Same with focus. You go to the yoga mat and exercise your “focus muscle” and it is available to you all day, every day.

  • Need to focus on your job? It’s there for you.
  • Need to focus on helping your kid learn long division? It’s there for you.
  • Need to focus on helping other kid hit a baseball? It’s there for you.
  • Need to focus on your wife to help repair a wounded marriage? It’s there for you.

And the best part? You can go into the practice completely oblivious. You can go in expecting a good workout, a good stretch, and you will get that. You can go in expecting nothing more, and you can come out (a few months later) realizing that you got so much more.

Because, even without your knowledge, you learn to focus.