The Flow of Yoga

                                                                    Interview with James


Being in a state of flow is when many of us feel most alive. In these awe-inspiring moments, we flirt with the sublime, and can momentarily feel transcendent. We become filled with meaning, connecting to something greater than ourselves.

Flow is a subjective experience. Just as the tourist may see a boulder as just a piece of rock, the climber views it as something to be conquered. They immerse themselves in the challenge, and evaluate the countless possibilities of getting to the top of the cliff.  

Yoga is an activity that is almost synonymous with being in a state of flow. It is a moving meditation requiring one’s focus on the breath and the continuous movement of the routine. As noted in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,

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.

I’ve known James from high school, and we reconnected recently due to our mutual interest in yoga, spirituality and philosophy. His responses to the questions were insightful and illuminating.  I was particularly drawn to how he eloquently articulates the connection of being in a state of flow with the disappearance of the ‘ego’, and how the practice of yoga enables him to fully be present.

His full responses were provided below.


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1. How did you first get into yoga and how long have you been practicing?

The very first time I practiced yoga was 10 years ago. I followed some friends from university to a hot yoga class. I almost passed out during the session but remember walking out onto the street with a great ‘high’ that I had not experienced before.

I practiced on and off since then, but it was 4 years ago that I became dedicated. In 2015 I sustained a bad whiplash injury from bungee jumping. When I started my full time desk job, symptoms bubbled up in the form of back and neck pain to a point where I could not concentrate on anything for more than 20 minutes. Yoga presented a way to take charge of my own healing that other traditional medical routes could not provide. And it healed me.

2. What do you find most enjoyable about yoga?

What I find the most enjoyable about yoga is the way my body and mind feels during and after the practice. Stretching and moving the body is such a great way to undo tension and stress we sustain throughout the day. I see it as sort of a ‘shower’ routine for my body & mind. There is a real cleansing aspect to it.

3. You’ve said before that yoga is like a meditation for you. How does it feel to be in a meditative state?  Does this experience share similarities with the ‘flow state’? 

For me, a meditative state and a flow state share a main similarity which is the disappearance of self. In both states, “I” cease to exist along with any thoughts of who/what/where/how/when I am.

At the end of every yoga session, you practice a pose called ‘savasana’ which is Sanskrit for ‘corpse pose’. You lay down on your back, close your eyes, and let yourself go into a half-sleep state. The idea is that having exhausted your mind & body with the previous poses, you are able to let everything go and allow rest. And in this process of letting go, you sometimes experience a complete disappearance of your self. And when the ‘self’ disappears, you start to simply be. This state of just ‘being’ is the ultimate meditative state for me. It is a feeling of simply being and nothing else.

So both meditative and flow states share this quality of disappearance of self. But one difference that I see between them is that flow states have an active quality to it. My sense of self disappears in a flow state as similar to a meditative state, but in flow, I am also actively participating in something. I am in constant motion and creation. For example, in the ‘flowing’ part of my yoga practice, the sense of my ‘self’ has disappeared, but I am also still moving and flowing. And it’s not “I” that is controlling or directing this movement. My body just intuitively knows where to go next. Before ‘I’ know it, I am doing it. And there is no hesitation or pause. I flow through my movements without thought and it unfolds as the ‘perfect’ sequence of motions that I can take.

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4. Do you associate the state of flow with happiness, how is it similar or how does it differ?

I wouldn’t associate the state of flow with happiness per se, but more so bliss. Or perhaps contentment is more accurate. I typically associate happiness with gaining something. You get something that you wanted and you become happy. On the other hand, I see the state of flow as more of contentment with what already is; the lack of desire or need. Flow is being OK with the lack, whereas happiness is feeling good through some gain.

The Torchbearers of Flow: A Mind like Water

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Interview with Silvio

‘Mushin’ is a term in Zen Buddhism which roughly translates to ‘no-mindness.’ It shares similarities to being in flow in that it describes a state of consciousness in which an individual experiences full concentration and mental clarity. In this state one is liberated from emotion and thought, and fully awake in the ‘now’. The movie icon Bruce Lee expands on the importance of flow in martial arts: 

“Flow in the total openness of the living moment. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo.”

 I met Silvio in university, and after watching some of his karate performances online I immediately connected the dots between the practice of karate and flow state. Success in martial arts requires the delicate balance between surrender and discipline. Only through hard work and a dedication to one’s craft can a martial artist fully be present during their routine. Intuitive action and the flow of the routine relies on the muscle memory developed through extensive training.  

In this interview Silvio touches on the importance of karate in his life, how he approaches a competition and the connection between the flow state and his practice.

Silvio’s full responses were provided below.


  1. How did you first get into karate and how long have you been practicing?

I first started training kempo karate when I picked up on the fact that my father was always going. I naturally wanted to follow in his foot steps at 4 years old, and fell in love with the art ever since. I earned my blackbelts in both the styles of kempo and shotokan since then. I would train quite frequently when I was younger, on average 2-4 times a week. It was difficult to keep up at this pace during my university years, hence I would try to attend 1-2 times a week. My martial arts training has therefore expanded across 23 years.

2. What do you find most enjoyable about karate?

There are many aspects about karate I enjoy, however it really comes down to my personal journey of seek-perfection (the primary rule of shotokan karate’s dojo kun – rules of the training facility). I have used the skills and disciple of martial arts at various stages of my life, it just does not start and stop from one moment to the next. For example, the capacity to learn numerous katas (forms) is an incredible gift that allowed my mind to expand at an early age. Karate has also given me the confidence to break out of my bubble whenever the time has called. I have been blessed to also have lifelong friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds. Lastly, the tournaments are always a fun time where I can put my skills to the test, and travel across North America as I have done.

3. The flow state, other wise known as being ‘in the zone’, requires a delicate balance between surrender and discipline. With the high pressure of your routine, how do you exercise control and remain grounded in the present moment?

The more work and preparation I have put into performance has always produced great results. One has to accept standards, and work towards the level of basics that is needed to go beyond them. I like to work backwards and vision the goal ahead of time. I build on the foundation from there because the work you do prior to being in the zone will show. Whether it is a day, week, or months, your time and practice will speak volumes and says a lot against more naturally gifted individuals when the time arises. The practice of control and grounded naturally come the more and more I train, similar to anything.

4. When your in peak performance, and everything goes according to plan, how does it feel both during and after your routine? Does this relate to any of the ‘flow state’ characteristics?

Absolutely amazing to know I performed a strong, well-balanced routine with the right amount of kime (power), which has developed from the last performance as well has an abundance of energy and confidence. This can be related to many of the flow characteristics:

 Challengeskills based: My martial arts performance seems most relatable to this flow characteristic because it is important to accept the challenge (ie competition), and not feel overwhelmed by who is there. It is also engaging to test oneself against senior, advanced students as a way to improve.

 Clear Goals: It is very natural to have both short and long term goals in karate. One could be achieving different ranks of blackbelt, while striving to always get better at competitions. Regardless, one has a good awareness of what to do next if these goals do not go according to plan. 

Unambigous feedback: Unambiguous feedback, is quite common a lot because the sensei (instructor) are there to teach, provide feedback as one progresses. There are also judges at competitions that can provide feedback and what to improve on following the end of the competition.

 Concentration of the task at hand: Martial arts involve a great deal of concentration at the relevant moves and their appropriate application. It is common to see one who does a move and understands the purpose behind it, compared to one who does something for the sake of just doing it.

 Autotelic experience – It is not unusual to get lost in one’s performance. It is easy to understand whether one is just doing it for the sake of doing it, while bringing an abundance of energy and power to their routine.


Many thanks to Silvio for sharing his experiences. I have a couple more interviews in the “Torbeaers of Flow” series coming up soon.

Till next time,

AA

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Reverse Engineering Bliss: Hacking the Flow State

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High stake situations require complete and utmost concentration. Any distraction or lapse of judgement can shift your attention away from the present moment, hindering your efforts to achieve a state of effortless flow. This could make all the difference in the final moments of a championship game or dictate whether you are in peak performance mode when giving a big presentation at work. In the case of extreme sports, there is no room for error. For athletes such as free solo rock climbers, being in a flow state is a matter of life or death. Scaling a boulder thousands of feet above the ground demands one to be immersed in their climbing, and plunge into the here and ‘now’.

We do not need to perform dangerous or extraordinary feats to achieve a state of flow. Many of us at some point in our lives have achieved these states of consciousness in one form or another. We all have interests and passions that we pursue for there own sake, irrespective of any attention or other benefits we may gain from them. We engage in these activities in which we experience moments which distort our sense of time, optimize our performance, silence our ego and make our actions feel effortless.

For me as a musician, these flow states occur when I ‘let go’ of over analyzing what I am playing, forego the fear of failure and channel my emotions into my guitar. This is why I admire the late great guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. His live performances and remarkable solos are an exemplar of what is means to be in flow. Describing his 1969 Woodstock performance, David Moskowitz in his book The Words and Music of Jimi Hendrix writes,

The guitar solo in the middle of the song illustrated how lost in the music Jimi could be. He played for several minutes with his eyes tightly shut and the solo reached a climax with Jimi returning to his old trick of playing with his teeth.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jimi-Hendrix-1967-Helsinki.jpg

The question thus remains – are these just spontaneous fleeting moments that we experience at random? Moreover, can we attain these states in any sort of systematic way?

Building off the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Steven Kotler’s research identifies four triggers that can help you get in a state of flow.  

  1. Clear Goals:  In order to achieve a state of flow, one must have a concrete understanding of what they want to achieve. Having a clear set of tangible goals provides purpose and structure to your efforts and ambitions.  
  2. Immediate Feedback: Just as a musician knows if they have played the wrong note or the surgeon is constantly aware of status of their patient, immediate feedback is a significant requirement of flow. It enables us to continually alter our actions in response to the situation to achieve our desired result, and meet the necessities of the current situation.
  3. Concentration in the Present Moment: To be in peak performance mode, we must be immersed in the activity. High levels of concentration effectively narrow our attention on the task at hand. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in his seminal  book Flow, during these states of consciousness:

Only a very select range of information can be allowed into our awareness. Therefore, all the troubling thoughts that ordinarily keep passing through the mind are temporarily kept out of abeyance. 

4. Challenge /Skill Ratio:  The flow state exists between boredom and anxiety. That is, it occurs when an individual is pursuing an activity that has the appropriate level of challenge for their skill level. For instance, a tennis match is most enjoyable to play when the two players are evenly matched. When a skilled player competes against  an amateur, they get bored as they lack the challenge and competition. They fail to utilize the full capacity of their skills. On the contrary, the amateur is filled with anxiety as they are stretched beyond their present level of competency.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lucgaloppin/6324319992

We all strive to experience moments which send shivers down our spine. Moments which provide us with temporary respite from the daily grind – the rat race. Experiencing flow puts you in a meditative state, jolting you into the ‘now’, silencing the nagging thoughts and trivial problems that we ruminate on throughout our day-to-day existence.

We can get to these optimal experiences and experience flow through pushing our boundaries. By pursuing our unquenchable thirst for new challenges.  Through learning new skills, and continually seeking novelty and unique experiences.  

It all begins with finding what activities resonate with you. The sort of things that you pursue because they have intrinsic value to you – activities that you engage it not primarily for fame or fortune, but because you deeply love and admire them.

So, what gets you in the state of flow?

Till next time,

AA