What is a flow experience? Athletes refer to it as being in the zone, religious mystics as being in ecstasy, artists as aesthetic rapture.
Coming from an acting background myself, my training at the Victorian College of the Arts was intensely physical and encouraged us to enter pure states of impulse and response rather than getting trapped in our heads – which is very easy to do! I recall these moments when I have been in total flow, completely free of inhibition, as being some of the most satisfying moments of my life.
However they were quite rare. Then I found yoga. For me, this was my way of finding that same liberation that was much rarer on the stage. Yes, achieving a headstand or arm balance excited me and boosted my ego, but it was the disappearance of my sense of ‘self’ on the mat and getting lost in the music and the movement at times that I found the most exhilarating. It was just me, the music, sweat, and an immediate feedback of information from the instructor and my body. Having never related too well to dancing due to self-consciousness, this was entirely new for me.
In Positive Psychology ‘flow’, also known as ‘the zone’, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterised by complete absorption in what one does. Your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you “forget yourself” and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now. The moment itself is often void of emotion but the after effect can be pure pleasure and exhilaration.
Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi, The Hungarian Psychologist who was one of the founding fathers in the study of Flow and its relationship to happiness, identified a number of different elements involved in achieving flow:
- There are clear goals every step of the way.
- There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
- There is a balance between challenges and skills.
- Action and awareness are merged.
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
- There is no worry of failure.
- Self-consciousness disappears.
- The sense of time becomes distorted.
- The activity becomes an end in itself.
Our perception of time changes, discomfort goes unnoticed, and stray negative thoughts don’t enter the mind. The brain is too busy focusing on one thing to keep track of all those other things. We see here an obvious link between flow and the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or the kind of attention involved in meditation and yoga. And Csikszentmihalyi argues that yoga is one of the best models to describe what happens when psychic energy is flowing along a single channel of consciousness.
He writes: “The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
In yoga one is not merely contorting ourselves into strange bodily positions: one may be achieving a deep flow-like state and hence a strong sense of inner control and harmony. After all, the ultimate goal of yoga is to achieve a state called moksha, a liberation from the self, described as combining three main qualities: sat-chit-ananda, or being, consciousness, and bliss.
Csikszentmihalyi studies show that how often you are in flow is directly related to your overall happiness. Some of you may have seen a wonderful story on Network 7’s ‘Sunday Night’ about surfing being used as a therapy for war veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There was a segment in which they actually studied the changes in positive brain waves during this flow activity. https://au.news.yahoo.com/sunday-night/features/a/31146633/surf-therapy-helping-ptsd-sufferers/
Being realistic, it’s true that not every single time we come to the mat we will be entirely free of stray negative thought, we may be distracted at times, or not have a totally pleasurable experience on the mat. However there is no doubt that when we come off the mat, we have benefited – even if there were only 10 seconds out of that hour class of flow, we may leave the room feeling more spacious, more alive and content.
The Super Flow workshop “Love The Way You Move” will be about how we can perhaps find more of this flow on the mat – both on a physical and psychological level, so that our practice can become even more like a form of meditation and liberation in our daily life.
If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between flow and how it affects the mind, this is a great TED Talk: “Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi Flow, the secret to happiness”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXIeFJCqsPs
Emily Thomas ~ Senior Teacher Kula Yoga
Join Emily Saturday September 9 for her ‘Love Your Flow’ Workshop.