Are You Digitally Distracted?

We’ve all experienced it: the Pavlovian reflex at the ping of a new email, half-listening to the meeting going on around you while reading a text from a colleague in another meeting, getting lost down the rabbit hole of YouTube video links or celebrity gossip coming up in your newsfeed.

But as yogis, aren’t we’re supposed to striving to reduce distraction and cultivate mindfulness and equanimity? How do smartphones, email, Facebook, and Twitter fit into the picture?

“Digital Distractions and Your Practice,” the panel discussion at today’s San Francisco Yoga Journal conference, hit the mark. Made up of meditation teacher and YJ’s Wisdom columnist Sally Kempton; Executive Editor and co-counder Scott Rosenberg; Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH), author of “Mindful Nation”;  Gopi Kallayil, group product marketing manager for Google+, and moderated by YJ’s Editor in Chief (and former technology journalist) Kaitlin Quistgaard—yoga practitioners all—it was the right group of people to address a topic for our times.

That digital technology is and will remain an everyday part of our lives was a given. There were no calls to do away with our laptops or smartphones. In fact, one of the more surprising agreements from the panel is that technology serves many great purposes—for community-building and making connections (one inspiring example: the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu video conferencing from different continents and having the exchange streamed to millions of people on YouTube), leveling the playing field for access to information, as a tool for personal growth, and, yes, even for enhancing your yoga practice.

As Sally Kempton commented, technology can be viewed as an evolutionary tool, expanding our consciousness in completely new ways. Kallayil, furthering this theme, emphasized the the unprecedented opportunities we now have to connect with one another and support positive change on the planet. Using the example of the 7 billion cell phones in existence for Earth’s 5 billion inhabitants, he commented that “now the individual consciousness can be connected to the larger consciousness. That level of consciousness and connectivity has never been. That’s real power.”

Yet all also agreed that the experience of 24/7 connection and over-reliance on on your phone or computer (or Twitter feed, so on), presents a constant threat for distraction and overload.

Viewed through a yogic lens, however, the very things that pose this distraction offer great lessons for learning about our own habits and tendencies, and a platform for changing the experience.

Instead of falling into what Rosenberg called “email apnea,” the experience of holding your breath when answering email, he advises being mindful of what you’re doing, breathing consciously as you perform technological tasks. He also said that during meetings, he asks his staff to turn off smartphones and close computers, in order to stay mindful of the interaction they’re engaged in.

Kempton suggested that instead of operating “in the cloud” (which she wittily re-defined as functioning from the upper three chakras), move and breathe from the belly center while you work, well, in the cloud.

Kallayil, who joked that it was his job to “promote more things for you to be distracted by,” has rituals to stem the threat of digital overload: He does one thing at a time (no multitasking here); he commits to one minute of yoga and one minute of meditation per day, which typically lead to longer sessions (but trying to commit to 30 minutes a day of each just set him up for failure and self-recrimination, he said); and he puts weekly yoga practice—a class he teaches at Google headquarters—on his calendar as a non-negotiable standing appointment. It’s been five years and he hasn’t missed one.

Ryan got laughs when he advised not using your smartphone as an alarm clock, so that you don’t wake up  (literally) to the information overload that awaits. But he also warned that we can’t “beat ourselves up” over our reliance on technology; rather, we should strive to stay aware of how ever-present it is, and how humorous our dependence on it, as we find our own level of self-moderation, something that Kallayil referred to as “conscious and mindful consumption.”

Ryan also asked the audience if they would join him in committing to try and get a handle on email distraction, by logging in just a few times a day and grouping emails for more efficiency.

Technology. It’s not going anywhere, and it’ll most certainly become even more present in our lives in the future. But as today’s panelists illuminated, there are many ways we can enjoy the benefits of technology, and indeed celebrate its contributions, while keeping ourselves from getting distracted by it.

Here are some of the takeaway tips from today:

- Limit your personal consumption of digital technology, being mindful about what amount is right (and what is too much) for you.

- Do one thing at a time, putting your full attention to it. As examples: Read and answer an email before moving onto to another one; listen mindfully in a meeting without checking your text messages or email, etc.

- Pay attention to your breath as you work with digital technology. Are you holding it or breathing shallowly only into your upper chest? If so, breathe, yogis, breathe.

- Consciously move from your belly as you engage in technology to ground your energy.

- Create rituals around fitting your yoga and meditation practice—non-negotiable moments that you protect—into your life to balance the prevalence of digital technology all around us.


—Kelle Walsh