Back To School: Yoga To Increase Memory and Focus

In yogic philosophy, a sankalpa is a solemn vow, made in the heart and forged by the will.  A yogi sets a sankalpa to focus the mind and heart on a particular goal.  Like much of Hindu philosophy, the idea of sankalpa is complex and layered, but the Western practice of conscious intention-setting that has gained popularity in the past few decades could be considered a simplified conception of sankalpa, with the caveat that a sankalpa is meditative and process-oriented.  When you set a sankalpa, the effort you make towards your goal is as important as achieving it.

The beginning of a new year seems like the natural time to set a sankalpa, so why am I speaking about sankalpa in September? Good question. The world runs on a  wonderfully varied collection of calendars.  While most of us follow the Gregorian calendar in secular life, some of us also follow an additional cultural or religious calendar, and may find ourselves ringing in the new year twice. The Chinese New Year generally arrives in February, while many Pagans welcome a new year on November 1st.  For Roman Catholics, the liturgical year resets at the end of November with the advent of, well, Advent.  Many cultures observe a new year in the spring, which makes sense: as the earth literally renews itself, our communal measure of time does, as well.  But if you’re like me, there is one time of year that is indisputably “sankalpa season”—a few short weeks that make me eager for change in a way that no calendar-official new year can, and that time is back-to-school.

It’s been decades since I’ve actually returned to school at the end of the summer, but the early weeks of September still feel full of anticipation and promise for me in a way that January just can’t match.  An unofficial straw poll among my yogi friends reveals that most of us get the urge to shop for unnecessary school supplies around this time each year. If Reddit’s discussion forums are any indication, acute back-to-school nostalgia is a bona fide seasonal malady; the aspect of school that adults seem to miss the most is the feeling of working steadily towards a concrete goal, and I get it. As T.K.V. Desikachar says in The Heart of Yoga, “Taking an intelligent approach means working toward your goal step by step.” Perhaps the most enriching part of my yoga therapy journey so far has been the luxury of being a student again, and the satisfaction of vinyasa krama: learning via an organic, stepwise progression based on me, rather than learning as fast as I can to solve a problem or produce a result, as I do in my work life.

So I encourage you to reclaim this back-to-school season for yourself: one of yoga’s great charms is that there is always, always more to learn. This fall, give yourself the gift of a sankalpa: set an intention to broaden your yogic knowledge and fulfill it.  And whether you find yourself with a pen in your hand or a foot behind your head, keep in mind these facts about how your asana and meditation practices help you learn, both on the mat and off.

1. Meditation Can Increase Your Ability to Focus, Even If You’re Anxious

Life is fraught with stress already, and the challenge of learning something new can aggravate our body’s stress response, especially if we’re experiencing a doshic imbalance, or have a predisposition towards anxiety (remember: fall is Vata season). According to research performed at the University of Waterloo, just ten minutes of mindfulness meditation every day can result in meaningful improvements in focused attention, especially among those with a tendency towards anxiety. Mengran Xu, a Ph.D. candidate who conducted the study, noted that

"Mind wandering accounts for nearly half of any person's daily stream of consciousness...for people with anxiety, repetitive off-task thoughts can negatively affect their ability to learn, to complete tasks, or even function safely.”

Unsurprisingly, given that the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to notice our thoughts without attaching to them, Xu’s study demonstrates that daily mindfulness meditation helped anxious individuals divert their attention away from their mental chatter to better focus on the task at hand. (Xu might not have been previously familiar with sutra 1.2, “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha,” but he certainly demonstrated it!).  In addition, the down-regulating effects that meditation and restorative yoga have on the parasympathetic nervous symptom contribute to stress reduction, which in turn increases cognitive function.

2. Hatha Yoga Can Improve Your Memory

According to research published in The Journals of Gerontology, practicing Hatha yoga can improve your ability to sustain attention, which in turn improves your brain’s ability to recall information.  

In addition to recall, those participants in the cited study at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana who spent eight weeks taking regular Hatha yoga classes subsequently showed marked improvement in mental flexibility and task-switching, significantly outperforming a control group who performed non-yoga toning and stretching exercises for the same period.

The likely key to the difference in performance won’t come as a surprise to yogis: breath.  According to Neha Gothe, who led the study,

"Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate. It is possible that this focus on one's body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention."  

In other words, dharana and drishti on the mat lead to concentration and focus off the mat, which sharpens your memory.  This is excellent news, whether your sankalpa is to master the Sanskrit alphabet or the consistent location of your phone.

3. Yoga Is (Much) Better for Your Brain than Aerobic Exericse

Exercise has long been touted as beneficial for neurological and mental health.  But not all exercise is equally helpful.  In fact, when it comes to brain benefits, studies suggest that yoga isn’t simply superior to aerobic exercise, it’s in an entirely different league.

According to research reported in The Telegraph, participants who practiced twenty minutes of Hatha yoga demonstrated more gains in reaction time and accuracy on cognitive tests—including the ability to “focus their mental resources, process information quickly and more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information”—than after performing an equivalent amount of aerobic exercise (jogging on a treadmill).  Moreover, unlike the post-yoga testing, the post-treadmill testing showed “no significant improvements in working memory and inhibitory control scores.”  In other words, not only will you learn faster and retain information longer because of your yoga practice, you’ll remember to raise your hand before you speak, and you’ll be less likely to pass notes in class!

Considering all the ways your yoga and meditation practice boost your learning capacity, you’d be foolish not to take advantage of “sankalpa season” and resolve to learn something new this fall. Ayurveda, Anatomy, Philosophy, specialized yoga, such as pre-natal or trauma-informed: the possibilities are almost endless.  I’m so excited for you, I’m mentally packing you a sattvic lunchbox already!  Just remember, what’s true on the mat is true in the classroom as well: the effort you expend is as important—if not more so—than your goal.  

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A sankalpa is the first step in the deep meditation known as yoga nidra, or yogic sleep. More information on yoga nidra can be found here.

Online Sources

University Health News Daily

ScienceDaily.com

Yogapedia.com 

The Journals of Gerontology, Series A

TheTelegraph.co.uk

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Molly Goforth is a yoga and meditation teacher and a student at Prema Yoga Institute. She specializes in accessibility and trauma-informed yoga teaching and practice.