Staying calm and focused is something we all struggle with to some extent in today's world. With the rapid-fire world of the Internet available right in the palm of our hands, and Twitter/Facebook feeds becoming like a lifeline for a lot of people, it gets increasing difficult to keep our minds focused on one thing for too long. Concentration has never been my strong point and any attempts I made towards developing it had generally fallen flat. So I was surprised when hatha yoga -- the decidedly "body practice" of the yogic pantheon -- ended up really improving my focus, besides giving me a deep sense of inner balance.
My knowledge of yoga for most of my life has been nil, though I have flipped through the occasional yoga magazine here and there. So hatha yoga was a practical terra incognita for me when I stepped through the doors on day one. Some of my friends had been practicing for years and while they shared about the benefits they gained, I never pressed them for details. Then one day, I happened to see a brochure from the Isha Hatha Yoga School and thought, "Why not?" and eventually enrolled for the program.
Initially, I decided to be inconspicuous and planted myself resolutely in one of the back corners. But as the program progressed, I started to inveigle my way towards the front, despite my earlier reservations. One reason was to get a better view, but probably the more powerful impetus for me was that I was really connecting to the hatha yoga practice. Not all of it was easy, mind you. I remember my first experience with Konasana, which I labeled "torture asana" before I knew its official appellation. As soon as I got into the asana, which for me was still only halfway down to my knee, my face would start burning like a red-hot fumarole, in a shade I imagine was a deep garnet. When the instructor uttered the merciful lines, "Now slowly come out of the asana," getting out slowly was the last thing on my mind.
My teacher spoke to me later and told me the reason I found the asana so difficult was because I was holding my breath in the posture. I was pretty embarrassed that I hadn't noticed this obvious solution earlier but she told me not to worry, that most beginners unconsciously hold their breath when they get into difficult postures. This experience led me to become more aware of my breath throughout my hatha yoga practice, and the effect was striking. I felt a deep state of calm and stillness and found myself not wanting to come out of the asana even when the "mercy signal" was given.
I think it was around this time that I started noticing some very culpable benefits from the practice, the first one being that my memory improved. I'm always the type of person who will leave my keys in the kitchen and then go around looking for them everywhere else. Sometimes I catch myself beforehand and put them in the allocated place. But more often, I put them down without thinking or I just tell myself, "That's okay, I'll remember they're in the kitchen," only to have to go through the usual rigmarole. After hatha yoga became a part of my life, I could easily remember these things, which also included where I parked my car or some fact I had read online. It gave me a greater sense of ease in my day.
Perhaps this is just an off-shoot of a more important benefit -- an increased level of focus and concentration. Particularly in my work, I noticed I became more effective in what I was doing. What usually was work interrupted by many breaks, became a period of steady focus, which sometimes lasted for several hours. At times I would finish several days work in a single day, which my boss was quick to notice.
I found this improved my personal relationships as well. I generally think of myself as an empathetic person, but after starting yoga I observed that I could stay with a conversation steadily, without constantly checking my phone in between. I started noticing small details about my friends and family that I hadn't seen before. I think this allowed me to be more sensitive to their needs and to reach out to them in ways I wouldn't have been able to previously.
Basically, I felt "on the ball" much more often and that focus became a regular part of my day. Whatever I was doing, I was just much more "there." I could definitely relate this back to hatha yoga because focus is so much a part of the practice. Maybe the initial pain of the posture drew my attention at first but not long after, just being aware of my breath in the asana became a very powerful experience. I feel like there's a certain inner alignment which happens when you're in each asana, which creates a deep sense of balance and peace that lasts throughout the day.
I don't consider myself anywhere near to being labeled a "yoga expert." I don't think my demonstration of asanas will ever make it into a yoga magazine. But as the days have gone by, though perfecting the physical postures is still important, in my experience, that is just the peripheral layer of the asanas. I have read that hatha yoga is a meditative process, and I am beginning to experience this in some measure. I sink into it a little more deeply every time I do the practice. Rather than being a physical exposition, for me, hatha yoga is a way to tune myself to a higher level of functioning, where you can exist at a different level of precision outside, as well as within yourself.