Are we paying attention?
By Anna Jones
In describing the Astanga method, we teach our students about Tristhana, the three places of attention: posture, breathing system and looking place.
As beginners we actively learn and understand that in order for something such as the Primary Series to become encoded as part of our experience, we need to have paid attention to it.
As we develop our personal practice, we need to move beyond this collection of asana to consider our internal world and the level of attention that we are giving on a subtler, more sophisticated level. This is the way we continue to learn and progress, rather than reducing the practice to ‘mindless’ aerobic exercise. After all, Pattabhi Jois was often quoted as saying “body is not stiff, mind is stiff!” So it’s worth thinking a little more about this.
In ‘The Organized Mind’, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains that, “attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism. It determines which aspects of the environment we deal with, and most of the time, various automatic, subconscious processes make the correct choice about what gets passed through to our conscious awareness. For this to happen, millions of neurons are constantly monitoring the environment to select the most important things for us to focus on. These neurons are collectively the ‘attentional filter’. They work largely in the background, outside of our conscious awareness.”
The attentional filter is described as one of evolution’s greatest achievements and has enabled the human species to survive. However, Mr Levitin goes on to explain that the processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at only 120 bits per second — and in order to understand one person speaking to us, we need to process 60 bits of information per second. This means a human can barely understand two people talking to him/her at the same time and therefore it’s no wonder that the world is filled with so much misunderstanding.
We know that attention is a limited-capacity resource – just think about your email inbox and how it makes you feel. In order to really excel at something, it’s vital that we narrow our attentional filter to that which is right before us, such as our yoga practice rather than letting our minds “run wild and cycle through a plethora of thoughts about the past and the future […] Did I turn off the oven? What will I do for lunch? When do I need to leave here in order to get to where I need to be next?”
Mr Levitin describes two of the most crucial principles used by the attentional filter as being change and importance. For the first one, it’s the way you notice the change of a bumpy road and immediately register it – or the way a yoga teacher will suggest you make a change to your practice that day. For the second one, it’s why an advertisement will catch your eye if it features a band that you like, while other adverts will go ignored. Due to the attentional feature “we end up experiencing a great deal of the world on autopilot, not registering the complexities, nuances and often the beauty of what is right in front of us”.
A further challenge is that the human brain has evolved to “hide from us those things we are not paying attention to. In other words, we often have a cognitive blind spot: We don’t know what we’re missing because our brains can completely ignore things that are not its priority – even if they are right in front of our eyes.”
As a consequence, humans are hardwired to impose structure on the world, which might explain why the Astanga yoga system is so popular.
The skill of an experienced Astanga yoga teacher however is often to break through and challenge this autopilot with a student, which at times might feel uncomfortable on either side – particularly if the student doesn’t want their knowledge of the existing structure to be challenged! The teacher refocuses the student’s attention, and new learning occurs.
Occasionally this might feel uncomfortable for the student because, for example a Mysore teacher, might have temporarily interrupted the student’s ‘flow’ (although more often it might actually be an interruption of a lack of attention, judging from the grumbling sounds coming from the student on the mat!)
So what do we mean by ‘flow’? Often we think of dancers or artists at work. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined ‘the flow state’ as a term and it feels like a different state of being – according to Mr Levitin as ”a state of heightened awareness coupled with feelings of wellbeing and contentment” and almost without exception, the flow state is when one does his or her best work, in fact, work that is above and beyond what one normally thinks of as his or her best.
Think about your own yoga practice in this context and the difference between the grumbling and the groaning versus the feeling of being at ease with your body on the mat as you move through postures. Initially as you learn something new, flow will be more difficult. When you are more experienced, “what you think becomes what you do […] During flow you experience freedom from worry about failure; you are aware of what needs to be done but you don’t feel that you are doing it – the ego is not involved and falls away completely.”
So how can we redirect our attention and encourage flow? Daniel Levitin explains that “flow states can only occur when one is deeply focused on the task, when the task requires intense concentration and commitment, contains clear goals, provides immediate feedback and is perfectly matched to one’s skill level.”
Interestingly, high challenge leads to anxiety and low challenge leads to boredom – again, something a Mysore yoga teacher will often observe in a student and need to take action.
Flow is not always good because it can be disruptive if a person ‘checks out’ in the pursuit of it – for example a yoga student focusing only on yoga at the expense of living (as David Swenson jokily puts it ‘Don’t let yoga run your life!’)
But to encourage flow, creative people often arrange their lives to maximise the possibility that flow periods will occur and to be able to stay in flow once they get there. Might be that final incentive to get yourself to class on a regular basis!