Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

The incredible shrinking attention span

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It was a beautiful summer afternoon and we were sitting outside at my parents' house with my extended family, having some ice cream. Someone got the idea to put on some music, so my brother cued up a few songs. I leaned back in my Adirondack chair, tapped my toes, and nodded my head to the beat with a grin as an old Smashing Pumpkins song came over the speakers. With a light breeze blowing, the sun going down, and good music and good company blending together, all at once I felt as relaxed as if I were on a nice long vacation.

Then the record skipped, figuratively speaking (and nearly literally). The song abruptly changed to some pop song about about rocking in a club all night. After 15 seconds or so, it changed again to a song about a red solo cup. Then again to something else that was subsequently changed so quickly I didn't have a chance to identify the melody or lyrics. All the while, my kids and their cousins were yelling over each other as each new song came on - 'I love this one!' - until finally the grown-ups groaned, 'Just let one song play all the way through!"

I had a knee-jerk 'Kids these days....' reaction, lamenting the fact that our fast-paced culture is ruining our children's attention spans. But when I took an honest look at myself and my own habits, I could think of more than one occasion in which I opted not to read an online article because it was more than three pages long. I could even come up with a few instances where I clicked on a link to a youtube video someone had forwarded to me and decided after watching 1 minute of the 7 minute video that I pretty much got the gist.

It's exciting to hear the first few bars of a song and say, "I love this!" or "I hate this!' But listening to the whole thing requires getting past the initial burst of excitement over the song and the rush of dopamine, in order to stick with it long enough to see it through.

While our incredible shrinking attention span may not be one of the great societal dangers of our age, the ability to concentrate and pay attention for a sustained period of time is a "Use it or lose it" proposition, and unfortunately as a society we seem to be well on our way to losing it.

Sound the trumpets: Yoga can help! Studies have shown that practicing yoga can improve concentration. Each time you practice a pose like vrksasana or tree, you are not only working your legs and hips, you're also practicing sustaining your focus in order to maintain balance. When you lose concentration, the feedback is instant: you wobble and perhaps even fall out of the pose. Wobbliness is inevitable, no matter how long you've been practicing. The real work lies in learning to refocus and come back into the pose. The real challenge is to go back and see it through once distraction (or loss of balance) has taken hold.

Since that lovely summer afternoon, I've been practicing sustained concentration on the mat by slowing down and paying closer attention to my breath as I move and hold poses. When my mind wanders off, seeking new excitement whether via thoughts about what I'm going to do later or ideas about a more challenging pose that I might try, I consider it a growth opportunity. Like in tree, I refocus and come right back to where I am and know that the simple act of paying attention to my body and breath is a concrete way to undo all the daily damage of quick-fire song changes and communication in 140 characters or less.

My hope is that when the next 4+ page article comes my way, I can draw upon my experience of staying present on the mat in order to resist the lure of the email that just landed in my inbox or the text that just came through or the song that beckons from the cue, to simply see one thing all the way through.

Kerry is the Founder & Director of Bloom Yoga Studio, voted Best Yoga Studio in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and Citysearch. As a practicing yogi, writer, and mother of three, Kerry is all about making the principles and philosophies of yoga real and accessible for day-to-day living. You can find Kerry on Google+.