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Focus: the intersection of science, time, yoga & nature

Focus is an experience of convergence, our attention trained on a single point of interest, the center of energetic expenditure. Focus is a necessity of scientific endeavors, an objective of yoga, a gift of nature, and discipline of time. But how often do we really feel focused? Too often we experience a lack of clarity, the antithesis of focus, and the more stressed we are over long spans of time, the harder it is to focus.

Science has delved into the ways that the body & mind react to stress, and what we can do to relieve stress and regain calm focus. We all instinctively know that we feel more tense and hyper-alert when our environment is seemingly unsafe. The sounds of sirens, the smell of trash, a sense of being unprotected can create a state of anxiety that causes the sympathetic nervous system to react with fight or flight - stress hormones are released, increased heart & breath rate, muscle tension, and hyper-alertness. If the danger is real & present, this reaction can drive us to preserve our life and seek safety, to stay focused for the short-term while the danger is present. Long-term sympathetic nervous system mode is taxing on the cardiovascular system, and can lead to anxiety, depression, addiction & circulatory problems - it is a stressful state, so we need to train our bodies to be adaptable enough to handle the stress, when necessary. Our bodies & minds do not know the difference between real & perceived danger, danger of the present, danger of the past that replays in our mind, or danger of a future we fear - if a part of us believes we are not safe we will stay in sympathetic nervous system mode, so need to train ourselves to let go of the stress and relax, thereby switching to parasympathetic nervous system mode - rest & digest. So how do we access the stress-less parasympathetic mode and settle into steadfast focus? I draw upon science, yoga, & nature to rediscover my stable & relaxed focus.

Our minds and bodies have to know & truly believe they are safe to sink into parasympathetic nervous system mode. We need to do this regularly until “rest & digest” is a normal state of being, rather than a short break from “fight or flight”. We cannot trick ourselves (for long), or cover up the symptoms, we have to seek safety and allow our body and mind to truly relax. That is where yoga comes in - a long tradition of internal focus, mindful movement, releasing muscle tension, and slowing the breath. Many doctors tell their stressed patients to try yoga, not really knowing what yoga is & that not every yoga class is a fit for every body. But there is a yoga class for everybody, depending on what they are seeking. So many people use yoga as an exercise routine, and skip over the most important parts of the yoga practice. If the aim is to relax and destress, it is required that we slow down, focus on breath, and focus on our body. Doing a series of yoga poses can be exercise, meditation, &/or release depending on your focus in that time. I've been doing yoga for over 20 years and it took me most of that time to recognize that I benefit more from the slower breath-focused classes, because my type A brain needs time to relax and focus on my body & breath, not do more intense work. One of the 8 limbs of Yoga is called Dharana, which means concentration. It is the yogic practice of concentrating on only one thing and training the mind to focus and be steady. You don't have to do a yoga pose (Asana) to practice Dharana, you just have to take time to focus the mind.

An increasing body of scientific studies also points to nature as a way to relax and calm the mind (Bijnens et al. 2017, Park et al. 2010, Lanki et al. 2006). Any natural setting will do, as long as you feel safe and are able to appreciate the place you are in. Nature is chaotic, uncontrollable, and yet we relax in the realm of nature despite the chaos. Is it because we appreciate nature and give up the need to change and control it? Just listening to nature sounds can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or sitting outside and breathing fresh air, or taking a walk or hike beyond the realm of man. This too takes time. It is not instantaneous, you have to choose to spend time relaxing in a natural environment, or bringing the realm of nature into your safe space. I have found it is easier to clear my mind when I am in nature, and the practice of Dharana happens with no effort at all - science taught me to do yoga while in nature, and it works wonders.

In this new year I’ve been thinking about how we can regain focus and calm in the face of ongoing uncertainty. Certainty of the future has always been false, we have never known when disasters might strike, or what will happen next. That is beyond our control. Inner peace does not require certainty, only acceptance of reality and trust that we will react to change intelligently when we must. I draw upon modern scientific knowledge to attempt to stay calm in the face of chaos.

  • Learn to control your breath, so that when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in you stay connected to your body and the present moment, and therefore can react mindfully.

  • Seek safety and include the realm of nature. Whether you listen to nature sounds, hold a rock, sit in a park, or take a hike, focus on nature and your place in it and let go of all that you cannot control.

  • Exercise regularly to support your body’s ability to maintain balance even when in sympathetic - fight or flight - mode.

  • Prepare for stressful scenarios that you anticipate. If you anticipate the scenario, you are already thinking about what you will do in that stressful situation, which can turn on the sympathetic nervous system. So use that reaction and time to plan and prepare for that possibility. Rather than obsessing and worrying, what can you do to feel ready and capable of reacting to that scenario, so that you can feel calm if that possibility becomes a reality? When you've done what you can, let go of what you cannot control.

Uncertainty is an ongoing reality, preparation can only happen in advance, and learning to relax requires time. The effort never ends and the state of focus is often fleeting, but in my experience the rewards increase with time, and eventually focus becomes more easily available. Focus and relaxation benefits your mind, heart, breath, digestion, pain-levels, hormonal balance, energy levels, and confidence and helps you find a positive outlook on life. Take the time to relax, focus on your well-being and find your inner calm, you will never regret doing so. Maybe it is time for us to reframe the phrase “letting go of stress” into the mindful "activity of practicing focus & relaxation".

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