Struggling with too much stress? Take a few minutes to focus your mind
We’ve all had moments like these. You’re facing stress, frustration, and what seems like an insurmountable business problem. You feel overwhelmed and you don’t know what to do. The ancient practice of yoga can help–even if you never do a single pose or even get up from your desk.
“Yoga is much more than physical postures,” explains Brad Willis, a.k.a. Bhava Ram, founder of the Deep Yoga School of Healing Arts. “We think we’re going to become more balanced, lose weight, and become more flexible and stronger. Yoga will do all those, but it’s the complete science of how to be a human being. The fundamental underlying principle is mastering our minds.”
Bhava Ram knows something about facing insurmountable problems and learning to master one’s mind. A war correspondent for NBC, he worked to help children who’d been burned and maimed in the wars that ravaged Afghanistan. His mantra (which might sound familiar) was “I’m going to work longer and harder than anyone else.” It served him well and his career flourished. But for seven of those years, he was dosing himself with painkillers, muscle relaxants, and increasing amounts of alcohol, to fight the pain of an untreated spinal injury. That injury eventually led to a failed surgery that landed him in a back brace and ended his career. Then he was diagnosed with throat cancer and told he had two years to live.
The downward spiral ended when his son, then two, looked at him and said, “Get up, Daddy!” Inspired by these words, he decided he would die with dignity by eliminating the painkillers, alcohol, and other drugs he’d been using. He detoxed cold turkey–“All the demons in Dante’s ‘Inferno’ are real,” he says. After that, he was offered the chance to join an experimental program using yoga and other Eastern modalities to manage the pain, and threw himself into the practices of yoga, meditation, veganism, and fasting with the same diligence he had once brought to reporting.
“Two years later, I was healed and whole and never looked back,” he says. He took the Sanskrit name Bhava Ram, which he translates as “purest state of being in the heart.” And he detailed his experiences in his new memoir “Warrior Pose: How Yoga (Literally) Saved my Life,” soon to become a motion picture as well. “If someone as dark and broken as I was can get up, I think anyone can,” he says.
These days, he teaches these ancient modalities, especially mental calm. “We live in a culture that is incredibly over-stimulated and as a result we often have fragmented and busy minds,” he says. “Through a single point of concentration and a practice that develops our capacity to master our minds, we can be much more focused.”
The good news, he says, is that you can increase your calm and mental focus any time, even sitting at a desk, by taking five minutes to follow these eight steps:
1. Close your eyes.
Bring your attention inward, and notice that you are moving to internalized awareness. Set aside the distractions and stimulations of the day for the moment.
2. Listen to your breath.
Really listen, Bhava Ram advises. “Make it deeper, slower, smoother, and fuller.”
3. Feel your body.
Follow your breath as it reaches all of your body’s outer edges.
4. Feel the support beneath you.
That’s the chair you’re sitting on and the floor under your feet, but ultimately it’s the planet itself. “Feel the support of the earth,” he says.
5. Think “I” as you inhale and “am” as you exhale.
Continue repeating these thoughts as you breathe. This will deepen your calm and inner focus. “It’s implementing a yoga pose for the mind,” Bhava Ram says.
6. Bring your awareness to your heart center.
The “heart center,” which is the fourth chakra, or energy point in your body, is a spot right behind your breastbone. Focus your attention there “as though it were the light of a candle flame,” he says.
7. Stay in the moment.
Remember that you are here in the present moment and that you have everything you need to solve the problems before you.
8. Remember that we are all connected.
“All of us are connected with all that is,” Bhava Ram says. “And in this state of awareness, begin to contemplate the task at hand.”
This brief exercise will help you stay focused and in the moment, and help you make wiser decisions, he explains. And you can tap into that state quickly whenever you need to, he adds. “Any time during your day, if you’re feeling stressed in the workplace, all you need to do is close your eyes and take 10 deep ‘I am’ breaths. That will bring you back to focus.”
Though these exercises are built on the ancient principles of yoga, they work directly on our brain chemistry, he says. “When we are in a stressful state, which is often our work state, we are in the sympathetic nervous system. When we’re stressed, we produce adrenaline and cortisol, and if we’re over-amped on these in our regular work environment, it diminishes our immune systems, our ability to take in nourishment from food, and to act skillfully.” The sympathetic nervous system is what stimulates the fight-or-flight response.
“If we close our eyes and take 10 fuller breaths and anchor ourselves with this mantra, we move into the parasympathetic nervous system,” Bhava Ram adds. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates “rest and digest” functions, and releases the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin. “This is where everything reharmonizes,” he says. “Our thoughts create healing chemicals.”
That leads us to make better decisions. “A peaceful and calm response to the challenges of our day is always more productive than a stressed-out response,” he says. “When we become more balanced and centered, we’re more apt to act skillfully.”
By Minda Zetlin