You’re sunk heavily into your office chair, the hot air is making it difficult to breathe, blinds darken the office and your fan is the only object that seems to offer even the slightest hint of salvation. Through all of this, you’re trying to stay focused and unsurprisingly, it’s not working. We all know it. Summer heat gives us brain fog, our minds wander, and we just can’t seem to concentrate.
Heat decreases cognitive performance
I recently moved to Shanghai for three months as part of my Functional Trainee program. The climate here is very humid and at the beginning I admit I was struggling to stay focused. These conditions pose a distraction for our minds and we lose focus.
A recent Harvard study shows that heat can sap productivity by slowing down our thinking. Students who didn’t have air conditioning in their dorms performed worse than those who did. In these instances, their memory, selective attention and processing speed decreased.
Over the first few weeks in Shanghai, I tried to maintain my usual routines and exercised during my lunch breaks to refresh my mind. But with the humidity and high temperatures, exercise was sometimes counterproductive as it only increased my body temperature even more.
Learnings from yoga
I decided to use this restrictive climate as an opportunity to join the ‘mental gym’ – to explore ways to exercise my mind, my brain muscles, like I exercise my body: with breathing techniques, yoga and meditation.
I wanted to dig beyond the mythological benefits of it and searched for evidence-based answers why a yogi way of exercising improves focus. After doing some research, and experimenting with different approaches, I hope sharing my favorite tips and learnings will be valuable for you to keep your focus this summer:
1. Standing forward bend
Standing forward bend cools down our body and revitalizes our mind in a natural manner. Why? It is one of various inversions, such as head stand, downward-facing dog, or shoulder stand: positions in which the head is below the heart. Inversions use gravity to impact blood circulation and let more oxygenated blood flow into the brain.
In a normal standing or seated position, blood supply to areas above the heart is curbed. When we fold our upper body over our legs and extend our head toward the ground, we reverse this.
Besides: being upside down is fun, try it.
2. Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a technique based on the interplay of deeply inhaling and extending your exhale, alternatingly through left and right nostril, while briefly holding your breath in between.
After trying it the first time, I felt energized and my focus was sharper. How come? The answer lies in the conscious, deep and rhythmic nature of this breathing which is contrary to the way we usually breathe: flat, incomplete and fast.
It increases the supply of oxygen in our blood and the removal of carbon dioxide. By curbing and extending the exhale, we regulate our breath to a natural rhythm and lower our heart rate and this is why we feel relaxed.
In the age of digital communication and social media, we tend to drown in a sea of distractions. As a counter movement, the hype around meditation to improve concentration is huge.
Practicing to focus on your breath is one of various types of meditation, aimed at reducing mind wandering and enhancing selective attention – the capacity to focus on one element. But can neuroscience back this up?
To my astonishment, it can. I stumbled across ‘Altered Traits’, a recent book in which Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson present years of research that provides scientific proof of the benefits of mediation.
While researchers found that meditation boosts many aspects of attention, lasting benefits require ongoing practice. For long-term meditators, those who have done about 1,000 hours or more of practice, benefits include stronger selective attention.
The brain states at rest for yogis who have done an average of 27,000 hours of meditation within their lifetimes resemble the brain states of others while they meditate – their meditative state has become a trait. The result of this is that those yogis are effortlessly conscious and focused, at all times.
After just two weeks of practicing mindfulness, a specific kind of meditation, improvements in attention include “better focus, less mind-wandering, and improved working memory”. Moreover, even “beginner’s brains show less amygdala reactivity to stress”.
Adopting a holistic understanding of fitness
The most meaningful realization I had after these experiments is that mental exercise is just as valuable as physical exercise.
I am now integrating mental exercise into my fitness routine, because we all know: if we don’t continuously train, no gain.