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Yoga and “The Zone”

Have you ever been in “the zone”?  Athletes talk about it reverently.  It’s that magical place where things slow down, the ball gets bigger, vision gets sharper, where difficult things become easy.  Where that same shot that you’ve missed a hundred times now seems to just go right in eight, nine, ten times in a row?  When defenders just seem to clear out of your way and the ball seems to be moving in slow motion?  In interviews after the game, they talk about how it felt, how easy everything seemed.  Before the next game they say how they hope that they can get into the zone again.


Yoga says that the zone isn’t a thing that you have to sit back and hope happens to you.  It’s something you can actively invoke.  You can learn to use breath and awareness to get yourself to that place of profound calm where distractions, worries, even hopes fade away and you’re just left with what is.


The zone, at its essence, is a state of heightened relaxation and concentration in a stressful situation.  These are the same things we practice on our mat every day.  In yoga, we put ourselves in wobbly positions or those that test our strength or range of motion and then we practice getting calm.  Using breath and awareness to calm the mind and soften the body, strengthening those areas that need to be strong in order to maintain the integrity of the pose without creating the residual stress and clenching in areas that don’t need to be involved.  For example, in a challenging one-legged balancing pose, you may notice that your shoulders start to creep up around your ears.  This residual tension doesn’t help your balance, but is an unconscious reaction to the strain of maintaining the posture.  In yoga, we practice bringing awareness to this unnecessary tension and allowing it to soften and recede.  This in turn begins to soothe the mind and allow it to find its natural state of concentration.  Before you know it, you’re in the zone.


Many of us get caught up in the mistaken notion that concentration is hard, that we have to knit up our eyebrows and stare intently to induce concentration.  Through practice, we begin to see that concentration is the natural state of the mind and that rather than gritting our teeth and willing concentration into us, what we really should be doing is softening the mind and allowing all the distractions to fade away.  What’s left is your concentrated mind.  This concentration is more sustainable, and more pure, than the kind that comes with bulging veins in the forehead.  It’s an easy, open, receptive concentration. 


Think about a bathtub full of water.  You drizzle some bath oil into it and you’ve got a thousand little droplets of oil floating on the surface of the water.  But then two of them bump together and become one, and then that one bumps into another and they merge, and if you wait around long enough you end up with one big puddle of oil.  In order to disperse it you have to churn up the water with your hand.  Consciousness works kind of the same way.  If you want to get your mind focused, you don’t have to scrunch up your eyebrows and try really hard to concentrate.  All you have to do is quit churning up the water and let focus happen.  Yoga is about letting the mind relax and settle, allowing all the little distractions to drift away and bringing your mind back into its natural state of focus. 


With regular practice, you can train your mind to fall naturally into this state of concentration, and to sustain it for long periods of time.  Your neural patterns can be reprogrammed to react to stressful stimuli with calming physiological responses.  As a result, your mind remains focused and responsive and your experience is one of greater control and performance.  Athletes call this “the zone”, like it’s a special place you have to achieve.  Yogis call it dharana, and consider it to be the natural state of awareness.  All you’ve got to do is let all the habits, reactions, fears, daydreams, etc get out of the way.


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