Friday, August 15, 2008

The Mind Games

I haven't been able to watch much Olympics (just swimming, yawn), but I've been reading about them. The amount of training these athletes go through is crazy (I'm not even going to touch on the pharmaceutical aspect), but what I find particularly interesting is the mental work they do to get themselves ready to compete. They train and lift and run for years, but right before the event it all comes down to the voices in their heads--either listening to them, or turning them off. I think that's fascinating, although, as a yoga teacher, I shouldn't be all that surprised.

There was a really interesting article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about the brain chemistry behind inspiration and discoveries that come in an "aha" moment. Studies by several researchers found that a specific part of the brain in the right hemisphere becomes especially active about 30 seconds before the subjects had their moments, and that this fold of brain tissue communicates with the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that recognizes the problem has been solved); when a thought "just comes to you" the brain has actually been working on it for awhile. They found that this communication was especially efficient when they brain (and thinker) was relaxed and even thinking about something else when the connection was made. Think of all the times you figured something out or solved a problem when you were doing an unrelated task--that would be the relaxed mind at work.

I had an artist friend that used to put projects aside for a few days, when the creative juices stopped flowing--she called it "putting them on the back burner." She found that, upon returning to the projects after some time had passed, she was able to finish them to her satisfaction, as if the brain had unconsciously solved the problem while she was otherwise occupied. We used to joke about it, but now it sounds like that's exactly what was happening.

So, Pranayama. Calming the fluctuations of the mind. Make sure you spend some time breathing and releasing, in addition to your asana practice. I can't guarantee gold medals or masterpieces or (ahem) brilliant tenure packages, but the clarity and the focus that a quiet mind provides is fertile ground for all these achievements.

And you don't have to wear a goofy-looking wet suit...


Anonymous said...

The same goes for trying too hard to reach a certain goal with any given yoga pose. Try too hard, and it just gets harder. Back off a bit and take it easy, and you just might get there.

I learned this doing hurdles in HS track. I was good, but a coach decided to work with me one-on-one to make me better. He had me focus on every little thing. After two weeks, I was horrid. He gave up, and I went back to being good.

This is also the reason starting a term paper when you have not a minute to spare is not a good idea... I learned that in Hell Week in college...

YogaforCynics said...

The workings of my brain are an endless mystery to me--I tend to get ideas, and solve problems, in fact, when I'm off on a walk, or biking, and am making no effort to try and come up with ideas or solve problems, but simply let thoughts flow...of course this applies to asana practice, as my straining to stretch a bit further only makes me sore, but, at those times when I stop trying so hard, all of a sudden...I think "how did my head get all the way down here?"