How to Find Flow in Yoga & Meditation
Yoga and meditation are noteworthy activities if we are interested in unlocking the door to experiencing flow. And even if yoga and meditation are not go-to activities for us, we can learn about processes that lead to flow through examining the relationship of yoga and meditation to flow experience.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Celia Roberts of the Biomedical Institute of Yoga & Meditation to talk about relationships between yoga, meditation, and flow.
In our interview, Celia and I talked about similarities between flow states and yoga that were referred to over 25 years ago by the founder of flow, Csikszentmihalyi. Writing about the flow state in different domains in his 1990 best-seller, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, Csikszentmihalyi described the similarities between hatha yoga and flow as being very strong. Referring to the order in consciousness that both flow and hatha yoga provide, Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “it makes sense to think of yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity”. Going even further, Csikszentmihalyi described yoga as “one of the oldest and most systematic methods of producing the flow experience”, citing the early writings of Patanjali, who set out the eight stages to hatha yoga in the years prior to 400 CE. Meditation is one of the latter stages of what is known as the eight limbs of hatha yoga.
The eight limbs of hatha yoga, as first described by Patanjali, and as practised widely by early yogis, lead the participant towards intense states of concentration, culminating in a sense of oneness and complete absorption. While the final stage, samadhi, branches out from the aims of a flow experience, the preceding stages are focused on development of control of consciousness, with deep levels of concentration being fostered through the practices.
For Patanjali, the eight stages of yoga were written to help guide people on how to live meaningful and purposeful lives. Flow is where we experience a purposeful and meaningful life in action. Csikszentmihalyi described how both flow and yoga “try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.”
However, whether or not you choose to engage in yoga or meditation, the process of gaining order in consciousness through focusing attention completely on the task is transferable to any activity. And to help you on your flow journey, Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues have set out three preconditions to achieving flow:
- Challenge-skill balance. Both challenges and skills need to be personally high for flow to occur. Thus, going into an activity with a motivation to extend yourself helps set the stage for flow. Central to flow experience is taking part in a challenging situation with a concomitant high level of belief in your skills.
- Having clear goals. Knowing, on a moment-by-moment basis, what the intended goal or purpose of your involvement is, gives the mind an internal compass to guide it to your intended destination.
- Tuning into feedback during your activity. Receiving immediate and clear feedback about one’s progress keeps one aware of how well one’s performance is tracking, and enables fine tuning to maintain a high level of performance.
Following these three steps isn’t a guarantee flow will occur, but it does make experience of flow more likely. Flow is an optimal state of experience because it involves an uninterrupted focus on the present moment. When in flow, we are not subject to the usual commentary of the mind about our performance, and with neither internal nor external distractions taking up mental space, we can find that place of effortless engagement that is part of our best performances.
Finding flow in what you do unlocks the door to optimal performance and high levels of enjoyment, as it harnesses body and mind together into purposeful, focused action.
You can watch my interview with Celia here: https://vimeo.com/308372913
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.