There’s no place like flow

Some days life feels like The River Wild, like paddling upstream, chased by an unstable Kevin Bacon. Your vision narrows, and so do your options. It’s exhausting. You want to be anywhere but here.

Other times it’s Splash Mountain. Your eyes widen, and you realize, “I’m alive!” An energizing, invisible current carries you forward as time falls away, along with your limiting beliefs and worries. You don’t even care that you’re making a funny face when they take your photo. You have a sense you’re growing, stretching, deepening, becoming more you.

This is how many people describe their encounters with “flow,” a special category of extremely enjoyable experiences. While we can’t click our heels to magically enter the zone on demand, we can take steps to improve our chances of opening the portal that will transport us there. String enough of these experiences together, and you’ll not only create the conditions for flow to emerge more often, but a happy life as well.

Here are three tips to bring the degrees of separation between you and flow down to zero.

1. Pursue activities that spark joy

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Every person, no matter how unfit he or she is, can rise a little higher, go a little faster, and grow to be a little stronger. The joy of surpassing the limits of the body is open to all.”

Physical exertion is one avenue, but it isn’t required. The activity only needs to pique your interest and match your current skill level. If it’s too easy (for example, People Magazine crossword), you’ll get bored. Too hard (for example, New York Times Sunday crossword) and anxiety kicks in. Enjoyment is the sweet spot in the middle.

Practice suggestion: Marie Konda offers this advice in her book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. “The best way to identify what does or doesn’t bring you joy is to compare. In the beginning, unless your feelings are very black-and-white, it’s hard to decide if something brings joy when you look at it by itself. When you compare it with a bunch of other things, however, your feelings become clear.”

I tested her technique to help me identify a “breathe easier” stretch to add to my pre-meditation ritual. I tried on Gate pose and Boomerang on the floor, before deciding Boomerang at the wall was the best fit for me. For two simple reasons: A standing pose feels great before my sit, and having the wall as a prop gives me more control to safely explore the edges of stretch.

Boomerang at the wall – add a prop like a block or Coregeous ball for easier reach!

Does Boomerang at the wall spark joy for you too?

  1. Stand beside a wall, about a foot away.
  2. Touch the wall with your inside hand, fingers pointing up.
  3. Abduct your outside shoulder until your arm is beside your ear.
  4. Engage your core and laterally extend your spine toward the wall.
  5. Flex your raised elbow until your top palm lands on the wall, fingers pointing down.
  6. Look straight ahead, up at the ceiling, or down at the floor.
  7. Remember to breathe.
  8. When you’re ready, repeat on the other side.

Tip: If the wall is out of reach, hold a block in your outside hand to bring the wall to you (as pictured).

2. Exercise your “paying attention” muscle.

Attention is finite. The human nervous system can process only so much information at a time (approximately 126 bits per second). Think back to the last time someone was talking to you while you were checking your phone, and you’ll know this is true. When it comes to enjoyment, how you do it is more important than what you do. It’s the difference between hearing someone and actually listening to them, between letting sounds passively enter your consciousness and actively connecting with another person.

Focus can make challenges feel almost effortless. Focus leaves little room for regrets about the past or doubts about the future to cross our minds. Focus makes “flow” a happy place to be, a desirable vacation from our normal everyday worries.

Distractions are like a ripcord that pull us out of flow. By developing our ability to concentrate, we increase our chances of experiencing enjoyment and extending how long these experiences last. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, unitasking, turning off our phone notifications are just a few of the ways we can strengthen our “paying attention” muscles throughout the day. (Ultram)

Practice suggestion: Compare how differently a focused mind feels from a distracted mind with this contract / relax meditation.

What does it feel like when your mind is wandering? And when it’s focused? Is one mental state more enjoyable than the other? In this 10-minute meditation, you’ll have an opportunity to set the two side-by-side and compare. It’s a YTU contract/relax exercise for your brain — a psychic stretch that encourages even deeper focus and relaxation.

3. Set clear goals and get feedback

If a goal is like a destination, then feedback is Google maps telling you how to get there. Goals and feedback contribute to “flow” experiences by providing points of focus and a reason to celebrate. You can have short term goals (for example, “I want to focus more on my breath during this yoga class”) and long term goals (“I want to develop a more sophisticated yoga practice”).

I’ve been training with Peloton for the past year, and I’ve found that workouts structured around my max heart rate and average output are an express elevator to the zone. My goals are highly personalized, based on my current fitness level. Plus, the instructors constantly remind me not to compare myself or my numbers to other riders. When I notice classes start to feel a little easier, I retake the fitness test to keep my focus sharp.

Practice suggestion: Progress with Propellor Arms

Propellor Arms has all the ingredients for flow. It requires concentration, you can customize the level of difficulty to your current skill level, and the movement is downright joyful. The mental and physical challenge of cross-patterning (using the right and left side of the body separately) strengthens the connection between the two hemispheres of your brain. In short, the experience changes you.

  1. Stand strong with your head, ribcage, and pelvis in line. Keep your soft knees and unlocked.
  2. Engage your core to stabilize your spine as you swing your arms in opposite directions, like you’re on an energetic walk.
  3. Progression 1: Increase the distance yours arms move apart from one another.
  4. Progression 2: Swing your arms all the way around, one arm spinning forward, one backward.
  5. Progression 3: Reverse directions.

What does flow feel like to you? Do you have any tips for finding flow? Add a comment and let us know.

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