Reaching Flow

From reading this blog, you will soon work out that I am a huge Jim Kwik fan, a “kwikist” if you like. Each new episode of the podcast, Kwik Brain, is a boost of knowledge and inspiration and I would encourage you to subscribe!

The recent episode (13 July, 2020) on Optimal Flow State with Steven Kotler caught my attention. I want to share it with you as well as my takes on the science of flow as a yogi and a runner. It would be interesting to share others’ experiences, too, so please comment on this post if you are so inclined.

Right, flow! Kotler over his career as a journalist and author has researched and curated a vast knowledge of the science of flow, aka being in the “zone”. For me, running in a flow-state is embodied by feeling of a stretch and strength in my quads while striding out, feeling little else but the breath. Things come easily, without thought. You feel detached from time and space and immersed in it, all at once.

I could often tap into flow on top of the Swampy Saddle, near Dunedin, NZ. Having recovered from the steep climb up Flagstaff on the Pineapple Track, it’s just me and the mountain. Each stride through the tussock grass times with the breath. The breath eating up the distance. Fly down one side of the gully, like a tiger. Spring up with other, a mountain goat on its toes. This feeling is why we run!

Most sports people know this feeling, as do dancers, writers, and musicians. Steve Kotler has analysed the flow experience and determined some ways to maximise our chances of achieving the flow state.

The Flow Cycle

Kotler says flow is really a 4 stage cycle. An individual flow cycle takes around 90 minutes, but that 90 minute cycle also operates within larger, longer cycles of days and weeks. The minimum 90 minute flow state includes time for struggle, refreshing and recovery in addition to the flow state experience itself. So, the four stages are:

  1. Struggle
  2. Refresh
  3. Flow
  4. Recover

The four stage process is evident when you think about the training rules of thumb. Over the days of a week, a program will generally like this: Easy, Speedwork, Easy or rest, Speedwork, Rest, Race/Clubrun on Saturday, Distance on Sunday, Rest. Training pattern over the weeks tends to look like this: build distance, consolidate, add speed/tempo, consolidate, taper, peak/race, recover. There’s the pattern: struggle, refresh (sometimes circling back through these), flow/peak, recover.

In yoga, we warm up usually with some sun salutes or similar. Then, we will push our comfort zone a little. This will be followed by some twists and reclining postures. Finally, there is savasana. Where is the flow? Keep reading, I have a (perhaps controversial) theory which I shall expound in the last post of this series. On the basis of the 90 minute rule, though, many modern yoga classes may be too short for students to experience a flow state during that session.

Let’s look at each stage in turn.

Struggle

Sorry, everyone, struggle is a requirement of flow. Let’s call it challenge, that sounds like less suffering! The quality of challenge is important. If it’s too hard, the mind and body do not relax and flow is never achieved. The mind becomes fearful and you are less likely to succeed.

If the challenge is too easy, or not a challenge at all, then it fails to fulfill the purpose of challenge within the cycle. The purpose is to focus the mind on the activity in which we wish to achieve flow. To achieve focus, the task must be difficult enough that the mind cannot wander, we must immerse ourselves and concentrate, pushing all other considerations to the side.

Indeed, Kotler has identified a sweet spot for challenge, that is 4% effort. Less than a 4% increase in difficulty and the struggle is insufficient to kick us up into flow. More than 4% and it saps our energy and our confidence.

Flow has its own name in running: the “runner’s high”. When you run, you can usually adjust the struggle with relative ease, by changing the pace, terrain or elevation. Thinking on so many rules of thumb we adhere to, I wonder how many actually tend to the 4% difficulty target. My old technical coach, Jim Baird at Hill City Harriers and Athletic Club, used to say you can’t expect to trim more than 10 seconds per kilometre off your pace in a race – that is, if you want to race at 4:20 mins/km, you need to train at 4:30 mins/km or faster. I wonder if that 10 secs/km approximately corresponds to a 4% difficulty threshold? Other rules of thumb, such as how much mileage to add per week or how much you need to train in a week to run an ultra in a day, how do they measure against the 4% struggle?

“If you’re not skiing on your head, you’re not skiing”

– My Dad, purveyor of helpful advice!

Where is yoga in the 4%? In yoga, as in running, the intensity of the challenge is easily adjusted by the practitioner. Knowing to aim for a 4% struggle may help shape your practice – always extend yourself, but don’t over-reach. The ways in which we can find challenge in yoga techniques are many and varied: balance, flex, strength, aerobic fitness, bravery: one more sun salute, try a slightly more advanced modification, pull your hip back a little more in Warrior II, 2 more breaths in Dancer. Every practice should help you extend your comfort zone in some way. Try to find the sweet spot for your own struggle for your body and mind, today.

Finally, of note is the reason for struggle: to focus our attention. Um … isn’t that what yoga is all about: practising embodied mindfulness. So, if we can achieve sufficient focus via practising embodied mindfulness in yoga (or tai chi), is the 4% challenge still required for flow? Or is the 4% challenge required over time to achieve the practice of embodied mindfulness, which is itself followed by flow? At this point, I’m not sure if the science of flow has asked these questions, let alone answered them, but it would be interesting research. If any readers are aware of research on point, please share in the comments!

Side-stepping: lateralisation

Sometimes, no matter how you adjust the steepness of the slope ahead will always be greater than 4%. This is where cross training, what Kotler calls “lateralisation”, can come in handy. This is where you can utilise strength and ability gained in an alternative activity to reduce the struggle in your target activity to attain that 4% sweet spot.

For example, tightness in your body makes running too painful: the struggle is more like 10% than 4%. You might learn some yoga to lengthen your tight muscles and experience less pain, bringing you into the zone and the ability to experience flow. Or you might lack the upper body strength to manage sun salutes in your yoga class. You might do some wall push-ups at intervals during the day or intermittent kneeling salutes with mini-cobras until the full sun salute is open to you.

In this context, lateralisation is cross training specifically aimed at lessening the struggle in the activity in which you wish to experience flow. So, you need to identify the particular aspect of your chosen activity that you find especially difficult and see if there is some other activity that can build strength in that area.

Yoga is a particularly good lateralisation tool to enable you to step up another activity when you may have hit a wall. Dare I venture that it may be the ultimate tool? Why is that?

Stamina, strength, flexibility, focus, breath and balance!

I mentioned above the many ways in which you can extend your 4% struggle within the yoga practice, challenging stamina, strength, flexibility, focus, breath and balance. Within a yoga session any of these (or combination of these) can be built upon to lift you up in any other activity (and not just physical activities). Further, the yoga practice is likely to be a complete flow cycle in itself, helping your body learn about and yearn for the flow state. But I get ahead of myself – more on that later.

In the next post, we’ll talk about the second stage in the cycle, Refresh. See: Reaching Flow, Part II

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