Want to Be Happier? Stay Focused--and Try Yoga

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Once upon a time I knew a guy from New Zealand who was teaching English in Korea to save money to move to Australia and study energy healing. He was vegetarian. He had a peaceful soul. He seemed to radiate an almost tangible calmness.

I was battling anxiety, enjoying my youth, and indulging my every whim. I was miserable. I was constantly on edge. I had panic attacks regularly, drank too much alcohol and caffeine, and though I was losing weight and working out, I wasn’t the picture of health that I am today.

How the two of us ever crossed paths, I’ll never know.

One day, he held me. (Forgive me for venturing into the personal side, dear readers, but I promise it's germane to the story.) I was exhausted. I was defeated. For the first time in a very long time, a feeling of calm washed over me. I fought it at first, but I gave in. I stood still, my head against his chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart and the rhythm of his breath. My own pulse and breath slowed. I felt every muscle relax.

The last time I saw Gareth, it was across a crowded room the night that I left Korea for good. I’m told that, much later that night, he stopped by my going-away party, only to find that I’d already left for the airport. I never got to say goodbye, or thank you.

In January 2008, I wrote him:

"…you had an effect on me, and I wanted you to know that. I was terribly lost in Korea, in the middle of a quarterlife crisis and a serious depression. With you, for brief moments, I felt peace and calm. I've emerged, stronger and healthier than ever. I start yoga teacher training in March, I'm now a fitness and nutrition writer for a health website, and I went vegetarian two years ago. I'm living in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I'm currently staring out at about six inches of snow and ice, though my mind keeps drifting farther east, to the land of the morning calm."

He never wrote back, though I later heard he did head back to Australia to study the healing arts.

People enter your life for reasons unbeknownst to you. I believe he entered mine to encourage me to seek a solution to my anxiety. Before then, I felt powerless against my anxiety. When crossing Seoul, I had to get off crowded trains and flee to the restroom to catch my breath and let the panic subside. I found myself paralyzed by fear and indecision, and I wished away precious moments. I needed prescription anti-anxiety medication.

How did my life change? I wish I had a simple answer to share with you. I can say for sure that three things profoundly changed my life:
    1. Practicing yoga
    2. Eliminating and reducing stress by living in the moment
    3. Committing myself to a regimen of regular exercise and healthy eating.
These days, I live in the moment. I teach yoga, and my students tell me that I instill in them a sense of peace, which is a precious gift. I am healed, and life feels like a gift.

Last Friday, Coach Nicole and Coach Jen each shared a link with me that bolstered my confidence in that list.

First came the news that daydreaming may both help and harm your emotional well-being, according to Harvard researchers. While pondering the positive can help you learn to creatively solve problems or find happiness later on, letting your mind wander to stressful or neutral topics can negatively affect your overall level of contentment. In other words, my daydreams of returning to Italy to hike along the Mediterranean are beneficial if they help me find ways to actually do something. If I stare out the window and think about the massive piles of laundry that need to be folded, I’m just wasting time.

According to the study, which prompted 2,250 people of all ages from 83 countries via an iPhone application to measure how they were feeling and report what they were thinking at various times of the day, participants spent almost half of their day—47% of the hours they were awake—in a distracted state. Of the 22 tasks they could report doing, most only stayed on task while being amorous. They reported were happiest when making love, talking, or exercising. When their minds wandered, 42.5% thought of pleasant topics, 26.5% thought of unpleasant topics, while 31% were thinking neutral thoughts.

Even though letting the mind wander can be useful, the researchers concede, what’s better than daydreaming or stressing over your to-do list is to focus on living in the moment, they say.

That's easier said than done, but it can be done.

How You Can Live in the Moment
  • Keep distractions to a minimum. If you have trouble completing projects, reduce the number of outside influences. Turn off your phone, disable your Internet access temporarily, shut off the TV, or go into another room and close the door.

  • Schedule your time. Whether it’s washing dishes or researching a grant proposal, budget your time. If you know you only have 30 minutes or an hour for a particular task, focus on doing just that—and nothing else—for the allotted time. Set a timer if need be.

  • Allow some time for the mind to wander. Even the most focused among us need to blow off steam now and then. If you spend long periods sitting, be sure to get up and walk for a few minutes every hour or so. Are you struck by afternoon doldrums that leave you feeling lethargic? Take some time to break away. Some of the tech guys at SparkPeople play a quick foosball match most days at 4 p.m., which gives their minds a chance to rest from the difficult and detailed work they perform.

  • Consider meditation. You don’t have to be a Buddhist scholar or a yoga master to meditate. Just think of it as focused relaxation. Sit or lie back quietly and comfortably, and let the mind clear. When thoughts drift in, allow them to float right on by, like a cloud. Do not allow them to take root. Start with a couple of minutes (set a timer if you prefer) and work up to longer periods of time. You’ll feel relaxed and refreshed.

  • Snap out of it. When you start to feel your mind wander—especially to negative topics—take control quickly. Breathe deeply, shake your head, close your eyes, or do whatever it is you need to regain focus.

Consider Yoga to Boost Your Mood
If you’re someone who’s also battling depression and anxiety as I did, that second link that Coach Jen shared might be of interest. (Of course, you should never stop treatment or start a new treatment without consulting with your health-care professional.) For the first time, scientists have found a connection between yoga and improved moods, using a brain scan. In fact, yoga might be more beneficial than walking or other forms of exercise when it comes to lifting your spirits.

A group was randomly assigned to either a walking program or a yoga regimen for one hour thrice weekly for 12 weeks. Those in the yoga program saw larger improvements in mood and an increase in the brain chemical that reduces anxiety.

To feel the effects of yoga, you needn't commit a large amount of time, and the only part of you that requires flexibility is your mind. Whether you stretch after a run or take a few minutes at your desk to move your body, you can feel the benefits of yoga. Yoga is Sanskrit for union, not contorting one's body into pretzellike shapes. "Yoga" in its simplest form can be a practice of uniting mind and body.

Do you or did you suffer from depression and anxiety as I did? What methods did you use to cope? Has a person ever had a profound effect on your life even if they were in it for just a brief time?

That's me in king pigeon pose on one of San Francisco's steepest hills. And that shirt? It's my favorite SparkPeople shirt.

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See more: yoga mental health


JWINKSLLC 7/15/2020
Yoga's the best. Thank you! Report
NEPTUNE1939 6/8/2020
ty Report
CECELW 6/5/2020
I enjoy yoga. I just seldom do it. Report
GGRSPARK 1/21/2020
Very interesting article. That pose looks daunting., Report
ANHELIC 1/15/2020
Thank you Report
ANHELIC 1/15/2020
Thank you Report
ANHELIC 1/15/2020
Thank you Report
GABY1948 12/13/2019
Great Report
Great article. Thanks for sharing. I have been trying yoga and meditation trying to calm myself down. Report
Loved your story. I need to try more yoga. I have only done a couple of the videos on SP. I will have to check it out better. Report
Wow, you've had some experiences! I'm doing a gentle morning yoga class 3 times a week, have been for about 2 years. I had to stop for about a month due to a foot surgery and the requirement to wear what I called my Franken-boot. I found myself getting cranky and unsettled. I missed my class and my yoga friends. I think my mood would have been worse if I hadn't been practicing my yoga for a while. I'm 65 years old and doubt I'll be able to achieve King Pigeon, but I can do Pigeon! I love yoga! Report
Yoga has been very helpful for me in the area of anxiety. Unfortunately it does not seem to be helping my depression, but it is still worth doing daily. I can't afford to go to a studio so I am doing CDs that I purchased on line. It is definitely worth doing. Report
Thank you for the inspiration to get back into yoga, I need to destress myself. Report
I periodically suffer from anxiety and depression. It is a struggle sometimes. Hopefully this will help. Report
You are so right - yoga is amazing! Report
I'm a beginner yogi :) I absolutely luv it this time. I tried it for quite awhile decades ago, always getting injured. This is a private loft, and small classes with great attention to form. I feel wonderful, already posture has improved.

Thank you for bringing up this topic.

KCbytheC Report
I love yoga. I also get panic attacks and my husband calls me a nervous nelly. I'm just a constant worrier....worried that this will happen, or that will happen, or even that I'll embarass myself or someone else. I'm also a bit of a hothead But, yoga has really helped me to calm down. Yay for yoga! Report
I have practiced yoga on and off over the last 17 years (off more than on of late), and in the past 3 years began utilizing Reiki (I have my Level 1 certification). Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress and relaxation that promotes healing. This 'laying on of hands' is a simple, natural ancient healing method and is a system of energy transference that is based in the belief that pain and disease is caused by a depletion of energy in the body, which threatens the natural immune system. Many thanks to Simone, Reiki Master of Maya Healing Arts (Ontario, Canada). This article has made me realize that in my hectic life (now more than ever) I need to make the time to revisit both! Thanks for a great article!!!
Wow,this really hit. Something to give thanks for Report
This is one of the best blogs I have read here on Spark. I have recently started meditating and have already experienced some of the benefits. I would love to really get into yoga. I tried it once before but gave up due to my lack of flexibility. Your blog has inspired me to try once again. Report
when I used to do yoga and meditation a lot, i was a lot more relaxed. I think i'll have to pick it up more. I think this is like the idea that the more you take care of yourself, the better you feel. Report
I had/have anxiety issues as well. I needed meds to function normally. Then, after working at home for a while and amping up my workout routine, I started feeling much better able to handle things. I also practice yoga for about 15 minutes, 3x a week (I use Wii Fitness Coach, she runs through a few flows, then poses, then always ends with corpse - my fav pose!). I now make an effort to include yoga in my weekly routine.
In fact, I would really love it if SparkPeople would add a few 10-min. yoga videos! Sometimes I just need a quick pick-me-up, or a calming series, or just something quick to add into my routine. Get Coach Nicole on board! Report
I first saw Richard Hittleman on Saturday afternoon on Channel 11 in St. Louis, when I was about 10 years old. I remember buying his book YOGA FOR HEALTH by RICHARD HITTLEMAN (Paperback - Jan 1, 1961 when I went to St. Louis shopping. I used Christmas money that I had gotten to pay for it.
My mother was very upset since she thought YOGA was a part of the Hindu religion. To me it was a 5,000 year old practice developed by people who had very little food to eat & no doctors, so they had to learn to stay healthy. I have loved it ever since. Report
After not being interested in yoga most of my life, at age 65 I became interested in it. Now I practice 3 to 5 times a week and I love it. I feel so good. I am stronger. I have more core strength. I don't feel my age. Report
I'm just not a fan of Yoga. It's one of those things that I just don't "get." Tried multiple times, because I love the idea of it, but most of the time I end up being even more angry and stressed out then I was before the class!

Kickboxing, dancing and pilate-ing it out work the best for me. Do whatever works for you! Report
There is more synchronicity in my life these days, and reading your blog this morning was another sign. I practiced Yoga regularly over 30 years ago, and sporatically since then. I've known it was time to get back to it, but now I'm ready. Thank you. Report
I did suffer from anxiety, and decided to do yoga, many years ago, to help calm me down. not only did I calm me down, I lost forty pounds, into the bargain. Awesome exercise. You never get bored, as the routine changes constantly, and you only compete with yourself. Report
I moved recently and need to find a new yoga class. I really miss it! Report
I started practicing yoga 1 year ago today. It was at the suggestion of my neurologist. I was suffering unbearable cervical spine pain. After a few weeks of yoga I was able to sleep again. Today I am pain free!! Yoga has been a lifesaver for me. Report
Stepfanie: I enjoy reading your blogs so much. Thanks for another great one. As I believe I've told you before in my comments, I tried yoga several times and did not particularly enjoy it. I find it difficult to either focus or let my mind relax in the class. My mind wanders.
I wonder what time it is, how many calories I'm burning, how long I can keep up this pose before I fall over. :) BUT you've convinced me to keep trying. Maybe I need to try more different types of yoga. Maybe I haven't yet found the instructor that would instill a sense of calmness in me. They have free yoga in the park near my house, which sounds like fun. But now it is getting too cold and I think it will be moving to an indoor location for the winter. But I will check it out.
Yes, I have battled depression in the past. In 2005 and 2006 I was miserable. My grandmother passed away, I was working a stressful job with a 2-hour commute each way. I was eating junk and wasting away my gym membership. I found SparkPeople in 2007 and it changed my life in so many ways. I truly believe that exercise, and the sense of accomplishment that goes along with it, is a cure for depression. At least in its milder forms.
Have a great day! Report
GREAT BLOG! I am in love with yoga. I have been dabbling for two years and since September have been practicing regularly 6-7x a week because it has helped keep me injury free (My IT band can get testy) as a side to my running. Recently, I have started loving it on its own (meaning, not just for the benefits to my running) and my passion is growing. I am looking into taking classes and deepening my love for it and becoming a yogi!

Can I say how cute/funny it is that 2 of our Spark Coaches are on the opposite sides of the yoga/pilates debate? You prefer yoga while Coach Nicole is a pilates fanatic.. I love it, it's like the Team Jacob/Team Edward with the twilight craze. :-P

While I love Coach Nicole (her first 5K blog is my favorite Daily Spark blog!), I really don't care for pilates...

I cannot say enough about yoga - you are so right! I am now taking classes 4 times per week and it has improved my ability to relax/de-stress like nothing else. On top of that my balance and flexibility have improved incredibly. It really boosts confidence at the same time as it creates inner peace. Namaste!! Report
I just started a begginning Yoga class. It is through our community education program. It is a class that only runs in 6 week sessions. Right now is the Holiday break so no more class for me until January. Although I learned alot I can practice at home, it is not the same as having a patient confident teacher. I absolutely know Yoga helps 100% with my mood and attitude. Report
After taking a chair yoga class, I found that yoga breathing is the best thing for me to deal with anxitey or worry. I have also found that I can lower my blood pressure by using my yoga breathing. Many times in going to the doctor, the first thing they do is take your blood pressure. If it is high, I ask them to give me a few minutes alone and it always is lower. Report
Meditations you mentioned works wonders for me with lowering blood sugar levels. 10 minutes of peaceful relaxsation & my sugar level has come down from a 12 to a 7. Amazing!!! Report
Thank you for the great article! I love yoga, but now I will go for an hour(scheduled time). Namaste :) Report
I started my healing journey by taking a class called the mind body connection, which teaches cognitive therapy to people with chronic pain. At one of the sessions, a guest speaker came to talk about the benefits of Yoga. Her name was Carol L. Winfield. She had a profound effect on me. At that time, she was 91 years old and full of life! She was calm, happy and centered. After lots of questions, stories and laughing, She showed us some basic poses. She was such an inspiration to me and became the most influential person in my life. She wrote a book "Yoga in the Morning, Martini at night". She pased away one year after I took that class, and I am so thankful for her influence on my life. The following Fall I registered for a Town Rec Yoga class.

As someone that once suffered from depression, anxiety, PTSD and panic attacks, Yoga has been an integral part of my recovery. I never thought I would be able to do it because I have always been the least flexible of all of my friends, coworkers and classmates. Then I discovered that I did not have to be flexible. The union of mind and body, that connection is a remarkable healing element. I no longer take my anxiety medicine. I have learned to stay in the present, thus reducing PTSD episodes. Yoga has made me a much happier person. Report
Wonderful blog. Thank you. Report
Yoga is just about the only thing that keeps my depression and anxiety attacks from being any worse than they are. I'm desperately working to get my own house so I can have room to practice properly. Report
Yoga is so amazing.
I started doing it about a year ago and noticed the improvements almost immediately. I stopped for a few months and returned to that negative place a lot.
Now that I'm back on SP and working on myself, yoga has brought back to me a sense of calm and serenity that I thought was lost forever.
Thanks for sharing. Report
Yes! Depression and anxiety. I still have trouble with both from time to time.

I'm actually really inspired by reading stories like this and especially by Operation Beautiful. I have gotten so down on myself about my appearance in the past, and I'm slowly starting to realize that we are all beautiful in our own way. Report
I began the practice of Yoga over the last year. I used to think that I would never get anything out of it, I thought it would be a waste of my time. Who needs all that stretching? What sort of exercise benefit would I get from Yoga?

Well, I has to step away from the practice for a couple of months because I was away for work and did not know where to find a class. Well, I found one on iTunes (it is now on my iPod) and I also realized that the yoga practice I was used to going to offered Saturday morning classes. You can bet I take advantage of that whenever I can.

I LOVE YOGA! Believe me, it is not only really good exercise for the body but my mind is always happy when I walk out of class! Report
Before I lost weight and started exercising regularly, I was horribly depressed and had very bad anxiety -- to the point where I had to take regular medication to manage it, or else I couldn't crawl out of bed in the morning!

Yoga was something I knew I'd like, but didn't really get into until last year. I signed up for a beginner's course at a local studio and met so many wonderful, kind people there that it was hard to not want to stick around! The studio has wonderful energy and it was easy for me to begin my practice and feel confident to work on pushing myself further without feeling embarassed.

Needless to say, I am maintaining my weight loss and still exercising regularly, and yoga is part of my routine! I also stopped taking any and all medications related to depression or anxiety, and have been med-free for about two years now. Report
I'm going to print this blog. It reminded me how much I miss my AM yoga practice! I've gotten into a good habit of taking our dogs out for a walk 1st thing in the morning, but I've abandoned my yoga as a result. I need to find a time to reintroduce yoga into my busy schedule! Report
yoga destress's my body, mind, and soul. Report
I started practicing yoga 3x/week in Feb '09. I DON'T KNOW WHAT TOOK ME SO LONG!!!!! I practically have no fibromyalgia symptoms anymore, sleep like a baby; and, I've been able to resume my running routine without feeling like I've broken something in the process. Yoga does for my mind and body what running can't ..... AND VICE VERSA!!!! I feel normal again for the first time in YEARS!!!! I think I've finally convinced my 62 year old mother to give it a try! Report
Your article inspired me. I've never truly been able to "get into" yoga, despite my psychiatrist harping on it. I have not allowed myself to be open and receptive to it. Now is the time to embrace it. Report
Yoga and walking (though both not at the same time) do it for me.

[Although some yoga practices I've done incorporate the mindful walk ...]

I wore my SparkPeople.com tee shirt to hatha yoga class this past weekend. I wonder if my teacher that day, who I will call The Cool Yogini, had expected an awful lot from me during the practice because of that shirt. I should like to think so. Even if she doesn't know what Sparks is, it's a cool shirt! Report
Of all the gifts I have been given in my blessed life, yoga has been one of the greatest. Not only was it something that I was able to share with my Father but my recent commitment to daily yoga is working wonders with my peace of mind and my weight loss journey. Report
I've had anxiety and depression since I was 13 or 14. I've tried everything. Unfortunately I have sever OCD and am bi-polar with panic attacks. Therapy helped me along with medication. I supplement with yoga, proper nutrition, exercise, regular doctor visits, supportive friends and SparkPeople!

One thing that really helps is giving of yourself. When your mind starts to wander or you get depressed, do something nice for someone. It really does help.

I'm so much better now that I'm hardly the same person. Report