Cultivate the Art of Single-Tasking

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I used to think that when a similar theme arose in several different contexts in my life that it was a coincidence. As I have grown as a Mindfulness & Yoga Teacher (and as a human being) I have realized that those are actually lessons from the universe offered to me in many different ways; just to make sure I “get the message”. This past week it was about multi-tasking.

In our current culture we are clamoring for the latest technology that can make us more efficient, able to do more things at once and faster. There is a sense of empowerment that comes from being productive, from doing it all. As a busy mom who is active in my children’s school, I get that. As a human I get it too. However, as a Yoga and Mindfulness teacher  I see the pitfalls of multi-tasking both on a personal level and more globally.

At the beginning of last week, I had a conversation with the Principal of my son’s school. We discussed how the proliferation of smart phones has given us the illusion of freedom and efficiency but that it comes at a significant cost for both ourselves and our children. Kids are not learning how to focus in the same way we did; they are being pulled in many directions through their devices and their brains become easily distracted. The brain in some ways works like a muscle; it needs to be exercised in focus and mindfulness.

Later that same day, I was speaking with a close friend who was upset about an argument she was having with her college bound daughter. She attributed the conflict to the fact that she had been multi-tasking.. she had been texting her daughter while on the phone with a doctor and therefore was not giving her full attention to either important task.

The next day I went with my kids to an aerial adventure park. We spent several hours conquering courses that tested our strength, agility and most importantly; our focus. Moving through the different obstacles required a focus not just in the body, but in the mind. Each time we completed one part, there was a sense of accomplishment. I realized that the gratification that came from this experience was due to the practice of single-tasking.. moving through the steps mindfully, calmly and safely to accomplish a single goal.

That is what we have the opportunity do every time we step on our mats. Yoga helps us cultivate the important art of single-tasking. It offers the time and space to exercise our bodies and our brains in being focused and mindful.  The attention to the body and the breath help train us to stay present. In fact, the whole purpose of the physical asana practice is to prepare the mind for meditation (single-tasking); having one thought at a time and releasing that thought before the next one comes. With all of these experiences, my message from the universe and for my students was quite clear.

As we began our practice and warmed up our bodies, I shared with my students that their one job on their mats was to single-task; to think just about the breath and the movement in that moment. later they explored a challenging balancing sequence that required not only engagement of the muscles of the pelvis but the mindfulness muscles as well. From there they transitioned to Dolphin Plank and then to Dolphin Pose and even practiced Elbow Stand truly on the elbows (pictured above) which required intense single-tasking.  As they paired their breath and movement they began to notice each step in the process and recognize each transition as its own task that was completed. They also noticed how much they could accomplish when they committed fully to one action in the present moment.  Instead of rushing through to get to the end, they were able to experience joy and gratification along the way.

Off the mat, single-tasking can be just as satisfying. I know for myself that there are those days where I am rushing to get it all done. Often I get half of ten different things done and feel no sense of accomplishment for any of it. Single-tasking creates a sense of gratification in the mind. In fact, humans are actually not designed to multi-task. We are suited to single-tasking and our brain rewards us for completing tasks with the chemical release of dopamine; a neurotransmitter that is responsible for generating feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction and happiness. The dopamine does not get released when we do multiple things halfway or complete tasks without 100% focus. Our brains actually reward us for practicing mindfulness.

Back on the mat we began to slow down and the students transitioned into Pigeon Pose. I took this opportunity to share the final piece of multi-tasking inspiration I had received this week; it was a social media post (of all things) that showed up in my feed when I had returned home from the adventure park. It was the universe’s way of making sure I “got the message”.  It was written by Jack Kornfield who is a Buddhism and Mindfulness Guru.

Modern multitasking demands life at double time, and numbs us to our own experience. In such a state it is almost impossible to settle into our bodies or stay connected with our hearts, let alone connect with one another or the earth where we live. Instead, we find ourselves increasingly isolated and lonely, cut off from one another and the natural web of life. That is the most pervasive sorrow in our modern society. Not only have individuals lost the sense of their interconnection, this isolation is the sorrow of nations as well. The forces of separation and denial breed international misunderstanding, ecological disaster, racism, tribalism and an endless series of conflicts between nations. When we are at war in ourselves, it shifts to the outside and we become warlike people and warlike nations. Mindfulness and compassion practice can help us cultivate a new way of relating to life in which we let go of our battles. When we step out of the battle, we see anew. We see how our minds create conflict. We see our constant likes and dislikes, the fight to resist all that frightens us. We see our own prejudice, greed, and territoriality. All this is hard for us to look at, but it is really there. And underneath these ongoing battles, we see our feelings of insecurity, incompleteness and fear. Taking a breath, establishing a moment of mindful loving awareness, we can see how often our struggle with life has kept our heart closed. With mindfulness and compassion we can let go of our battles and open our heart with kindness to things just as they are. Then we come to rest in the present moment.” 

As students made their way into their final rest, I reminded them that this is where the true single-tasking begins. The body and the breath are not there to guide us any longer and the true work of one thought at a time in the mind becomes the practice. After Savasana, we sat together in our final meditation and I thanked my students for sharing all of their focused energy with themselves and with me. I wished them a day filled with the  joy of single-tasking. Namaste.