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Focus, would ya?: YSP 1.5

YSP1.5 vrittayah pancatayah klishta aklishta

There are five activities of the mind. Each of them can be beneficial and each can cause problems.

Translator: Desikachar

Does my mind help me draw near to the yoga state, or does it carry me away?

Does what I notice distract me or inform me?

My family is a well-trained lot. They’ve learned that there are two times when it is unwise to bug the Momma. One, is when she’s sitting, standing, kneeling, lying on a yoga mat. Whatever it is, unless it needs an ambulance, can and will wait. The other time is when the Momma is sitting in front of the computer, hands on lap, spine straight, feet on the floor, head slightly bowed, earphone pieces in, listening to a guided meditation. Again, if 9-1-1 isn’t needed, leave the Momma alone. These are daily moments when I pull into myself. It’s MY time. I do not feel guilty about this. There is nothing that can’t keep for 45 minutes while I look after myself. Obviously, this works because my daughter is 14 and not 4. Nevertheless, this is only a short period of time; in total, all sessions, maybe 1-1/2 a day, 2 hours at the most. What about the rest of the time? Yoga is not just about what happens on the mat or on the meditation cushion.

Does my mind help me draw near to the yoga state, or does it carry me away?

My society worships ‘multi-tasking’ and truth be told, I’m good at it. It’s one of the psychological requirements for emergency services dispatchers. We’re required to make decisions rapidly on incomplete information derived from multiple streams. And did I mention, we need to do it quickly. It’s the nature of the job because we have no control over our work flow. Crime and accidents are just totally unorganized activities.

That said, I can promise you that multi-tasking is the fine art of doing many tasks, seeming simultaneously, very poorly. The quality of our work suffers when we ‘multi-task’. Actually, let’s call it what it is: inviting distractions. The University of London Institute for Psychiatry estimates that multi-tasking is the equivalent of a 10 point drop in IQ, roughly the same as missing a night’s sleep, or the double the cognitive equivalent of smoking marijuana.

It’s been demonstrated time and again that we function better when we bring our entire mind to a task, finish it and move on to the next task. We complete all the tasks in less time overall with a greatly improved accuracy. Multitasking reduces our productivity by an estimated 40 percent. The fact of the matter is we don’t ‘multi-task’ at all. We rapidly switch from task to task to task. We’re caught in this continual stop and go pattern of switch-refocus, switch-refocus, switch… We work much better on all meaningful measures when we uni-task.

So what am I doing right now? I’m obviously writing this column. I’m also planning what we’re going to have for dinner, deciding when I’m going to vote, who I’m going to vote for, remembering that I need to take tofu out of the freezer if we’re going to eat tonight. I’m drinking coffee, mentally reminding myself to transfer money to cover a cheque I need to write (and mail).

Oh right, I forgot to take my morning medications before I went for my walk. Hang on a second.

Back, where was I? Oh right… I just got a Facebook message from a co-worker and I’m semi-successfully ignoring a Russian language news broadcast on the television. What the hell? I don’t even speak Russian but the television is on from earlier today and now, it’s in Russian. Let me turn that off… right back.

Do you see what I mean? This stuff creeps up on me. I could have the most finely honed and perfected yoga practice on the mat. I could enjoy the most sublime and restful meditation practices known to human kind. And when I get up, I dive into that cauldron of distraction known as modern life and I can easily drown myself in the process.

A yoga/meditation practice is a great place to learn the skills of controlling the mind, but it’s just a practice. Why am I practicing? I’m practicing for those other 14 or 15 hours I’m awake and NOT on the mat because, let’s face it, that’s where I spend the vast majority of my time.

So my intention for today is to live off the mat a little more like I do on the mat, with that single pointed focus and mental attentiveness that characterizes my yoga practice. Patanjali tells me that when I harness the wanderings of my mind and bring it to a single point of concentration then I am in a state of yoga. In other words, I can peel potatoes in a state of yoga. I can drive my car in a state of yoga. Imagine what would happen to the accident rate if all drivers on the road were fully attending to the task of navigate hundreds of kilos of steel down a narrow stretch of pavement at speeds of 50-110 kph, fully attending to all the elements in the environment.

Granted, it’s going to take some practice. There’s that word again but I know from my experiences on the mat and the meditation bench that it can be accomplished. I can bring my full attention to a task and complete it before I move onto the next. Brain scientists tell me that some of the outcomes of ‘uni-tasking’ like this is I’ll feel less stressed, I’ll have better retention of new information, I’ll be less prone to rage, feel less aggressive and be better able to control my impulses. From the perspective of neuroscience, we’re starting to appreciate that the human brain was designed to focus.

In other words, I can harness the power of my mind to make my life better or I can make it worse. It’s up to me and that gives me something to think about. Thanks for reading and Namaste,


A general note: I write this blog to help me integrate the philosophical teachings of Yoga into my daily life. I’m not an expert on Sanskrit, Yoga or Life in general. My teacher Kathryn Downton provided an important part of my education in these matters but I read voraciously on these topics. I’ll credit her for the parts that I get right and I’ll own the parts I mess up. I try to acknowledge my sources where I can but frankly, I haven’t kept good notes over the years. These discussions are my perspective and not an intellectual treatise on the nature of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is exploration and not explanation.


About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

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