On the mat, my goal is to mentally reach a place where I'm steady and focused. To me, steady means that I'm not jumping around in my mind to all the various stuff I have going on and that I'm relaxed in my mind. Focused, to me, means that I'm present and fully involved in my practice. I'm aware of my breath, conscious of my alignment, and absorbing the experience. This is why yoga is so beneficial - having a break from all the other crap for an hour is so much needed!
Of course I have off days. Sometimes it takes me 40 minutes to get there. Sometimes I'm in and out the entire time, and sometimes I never really get steady or focused. Sometimes though the stars align and I'm in it to win it. That's why we can do this practice for a lifetime - there's always more to learn. My goal in the future is to be able to make it to "steady and focused" every time regardless of what the stars are doing. After all, the breath and focus is what makes it yoga - otherwise, we're just stretching and doing aerobics.
This is really the goal of Yoga as a whole. Being equipped to calm to roaming tendencies of the mind. Yoga asana has a few built in practices that help activate a sense of steadiness and focus.
Drishti is one of my favorite things to cue in yoga. Set your gaze on one fixed point. Could be a light switch, a plant, a quote on the wall, whatever. Breathe as if your breath moves right to that spot and back. Drishti helps us eliminate the urge to look around the room and compare so our practice can be more our own. Drishti lets us concentrate our attention. Like a telescope, we're narrowing in closer and closer to our intention, almost developing a tunnel vision for it. Warrior 2 is a beautiful place to observe this - your front arm is literally pointing your attention to where it's headed. Set your gaze just over the fingertips, and breathe as if the breath travels straight down your arm and back up.
Drishti is a practice of pratyahara, or yogic sense withdrawal. It teaches us to be able to focus not just in a still, quiet room, but to focus in any condition. To not let the external conditions dictate our status. To really make the practice of yoga come alive, we will learn to be able to create focus and steadiness anywhere, not just on the mat when our conditions are perfect. Practice drishti on the commuter train home or when you're in the doctor's waiting room with a bunch of crying kids.
Pick a spot, set your gaze to it, and let your whole attention fall to it like you're moving through a funnel.
Ujaayi is another strategy for helping the mind focus. This breathing technique is sometimes called ocean breath (or Darth Vader breath, depends who you ask). It's done by gently constricting the back of the throat - same sensation as if you're fogging up a mirror but just with your lips closed.
Ujaayi breath has a sound that can be really effective at keeping our mind focused. Like a white noise machine helps babies sleep. However also, the sound reminds us to keep it up - when the sound stops, we notice that we gave it up. We have to breathe really intentionally to practice ujaayi and it keeps us from thinking about our to-do list.
Ujaayi also helps to move and cleanse prana, and it's also a heating practice. You might not choose it on hot days or hot classes, but it's one tool of many in your toolbox.
Sometimes at the beginning of class, an instructor might cue a body scan. It's one of those "put your attention at your head, jaw, cheeks, hands, knees, etc..." things. Whether the teacher cues it or not, use this as a tool later in practice when you are finding yourself getting distracted. Scan through your own body when you're in triangle or forward fold. It doesn't matter that you get all the correct points, just go through your major body parts and major joints. Establish communication from your brain to every area (i.e. remember your left elbow? check in with it to see what's going on). Notice what parts of your body are experiencing sensation. Approach it with a scientist's eye. What does it feel like?
Sometimes having something really tangible to focus on can be helpful when your brain is in all kinds of disarray.
Once you find the steadiness and focus
The steadiness and focus comes when you're no longer engaged in an inner dialogue with yourself. You're no longer running through your to-do list, you're no longer worried about yesterday. You're just there. You're peaceful and calm, you're present. It's not being zoned out or asleep at the wheel - it's way more active than that - you worked to get here, it didn't just happen by mistake. And it will happen. Some people call it a flow state - a period of time where you're just so involved that the mental chatter doesn't need to keep going.
When it happens, be subtly aware that you're in the steady and focused place. Don't be so aware that you're like "OMG I DID IT!" but ya know, aware enough to acknowledge that it's happening. It may last 13 seconds and that's totally fine! Again, you have an entire lifetime to build up this practice.
One of the biggest benefits of yoga is the mental break we get to take. Even if you only accumulate a total of 2 minutes and 47 seconds of your 60 minute practice in a steady and focused place, it's better than nothing! You got a break for 167 seconds where you could actually enjoy the quiet.
I always find that when life gets crazy, I think "god I wish I could just get a quiet moment." And then when I actually do, I don't get to enjoy it because I'm so busy talking to myself in my head, it wasn't a break.
This practice - this steady and focused place - is the break. It's a chance to soften, to relax and unplug. To be free of the burdens and information and responsibilities that bog us down. It's absolutely glorious there, even if only for short bursts at a time right now.