Concentration. It’s necessary for just about everything. Think about how it is when you are engaged in doing something you love. All your attention and all your energy is there. Concentration is one of the first things we work with when we start a Yoga practice. Because we are putting our bodies into challenging positions and asked to breathe deeply we have to bring all our awareness to that one point. And what happens? Eventually the mind relaxes and we feel calm, light and relaxed.
What we learn in Yoga is that deep focus leads to deep relaxation. So what about when we are stressed? That requires concentration as well. We have to identify with the stress to perpetuate it. The classic example in Yoga is the story of the Rope and the Snake. You’re walking along the road, it’s dark, you see something that looks like a Snake, you panic get out your flashlight and shine a light on the supposed Snake, which turns out to be Rope. Your panic turns to relief. For as long as you thought the Rope was a Snake, the stress perpetuated itself.
Concentration is the first and most important step to meditation. Students often share that they can’t meditate. You might even be thinking that right now. So I’ll let you in on a secret; in Yoga when we’re practicing meditation it’s actually concentration.
The word for concentration in sanskrit is Dharana. Any technique you learn in a Yoga class is a Dharana technique. It might be watching your breath or counting your breaths. Breathing while you are in a pose. visualising a light in between your eyebrows, chanting the sound Om. All these different practices are there to teach your mind to concentrate. Why? Because when the mind is occupied it lets go of its preoccupation with thoughts. In other words it stops concentrating on all the myriad stresses, worries, expectations and beliefs. It’s the same when you’re focussed on doing something you love. It’s relaxing and freeing. You feel completely open, happy and time disappears.
My favourite way to concentrate is to work with repetition of sound, In Yoga it’s called Mantra. I have always loved to sing, was an avid member of the choir and played the lead in several high school musicals. I began writing songs in my early twenties when I married a singer songwriter. While in a Yoga class with my teacher in New York City I discovered devotional chanting. Often at the end of a class our teacher would chant a series of Sanskrit words to a traditional tune. The sounds were soothing and uplifting and inspired me so much that I made it my mission to learn the meaning of the words and to add them to my own classes. I found that making up my own tunes to the Mantras was a great way for me to remember them and improved my concentration.
One of the first things I did after my diagnosis was to work with Mantra. It didn’t matter what the Mantra was, it was the repetitive nature and my intention to let go of my need to identify with every worrisome thought, that brought me back to a calm frame of mind. The science behind it comes from a study done by Herbert Benson, who coined a phrase called the Relaxation Response. his studies demonstrated that when patients suffering from a variety of ailments were given sounds or phrases to repeat, from any religion or tradition, their nervous systems switched from the flight or flight response to the relaxation response, which in turn promoted pain relief, stress relief and immune system recovery.
I have always had a devotional nature so incorporating devotional singing and repeating mantras is food for my soul and something I do every day in my morning practice. Not everyone feels comfortable repeating sounds in an unfamiliar language. So below is a simple mantra practice which you can adapt and adjust to your liking and belief system. The main component is the repetition of a word or phrase with the intention to let go of the preoccupation with the thoughts.
You may find yourself thinking during the practice, it’s not about stopping the thoughts. No matter what thoughts come, go back to the word or phrase you have chosen. Working with the practice for 40 days is enough to establish the habit of concentration so if you can set time aside every day, even 5 minutes you will notice a profound difference. With great respect…Rachel
And…here’s one of the Chants I recorded with my band the Subway Bhaktis if you’d like some inspiration
Sit quietly observing your breath for a few moments
Bring your awareness to the centre of your chest
Think of a word or phrase that is meaningful to you it could be Love, Peace, Joy, It could be a prayer in your faith. Choose something you would feel comfortable repeating. It does not have to be a positive affirmation. The purpose of the practice is to bring the mind to a one pointed focus and draw it out of its preoccupation with thought.
Once you have chosen the word or phrase repeat it initially for 2 minutes, then increase to 3 minutes and work you way up to 5 minutes over 40 days. You can use a timer on your phone with an alarm or if you have a Mala or Rosary you can count the repetitions. 27 repetitions takes about 2 minutes, 54 about 10 minutes and 108 takes 20 minutes