The first part of this series introduced the science of flow, the flow cycle and struggle, and this series comprises my reflections on some of Steven Kotler’s and Jim Kwik’s writing on flow. This post will discuss the second stage in the flow cycle – refresh.
Stage 2: Refresh
It is tempting to overlook the importance of TAKING A BREATH. If we just keep striving and striving in the struggle stage of the cycle, the flow state we seek keeps pushing further over the horizon until we burn out. That moment of refreshment, giving yourself a break, may seem like you are doing nothing. Actually, it’s critically important.
What is the refreshment? It’s not task switching – not checking your emails or doing something different. You need to retain that focus you build through the struggle stage to bridge into the flow stage. It can be literally taking a few breaths with your eyes closed, or appreciating the view from the top of the hill. It can be getting up from your desk for a walk – around the room, not around the block.
You’re looking to consolidate the struggle phase so your brain recognises your achievement of the 4% and moves forward with the confidence to achieve your goals in the flow state. This is where yoga can be particularly helpful. Recognising the flow of Prana through the body, taking the time to not only breathe but watch the breath, these moments deliberately practice refreshing oneself.
In my yoga classes, we take frequent savasana (mini breaks) so the body and brain can recognise the work, recover and harness the energy built up. These breaks are different to the guided meditation at the end. Even a fast vinyasa will have you take a moment in tadasana, mountain pose, to breathe and watch, and ask you for 5 breaths in Face Down Dog, a recovery position. How many times have you struggled to achieve a modified technique, rested, then achieved the next advancement?
In running, often I reach a flow state having come down off a hill. The Swampy Saddle run I described in the first post of the series is one example. After the struggle up the Pineapple Track, take a breath and a drink, maybe eat a Jetplane (A type of chewy lolly in New Zealand) and look out over the harbour, then let yourself go down from the summit to cross the saddle. By the time you’ve reached the undulating saddle you feel rested and strong. Races I enjoy most, e.g. the Karetai Challenge, the Pyramid Challenge and King of the Mountain as well as the 3 Peaks (featuring the Swampy Saddle), have courses where a climb is followed by a downhill recovery, followed by a striding out to the finish! Maybe the “second wind” is where flow resides?
Learning to recover on your feet, to settle the mind, settle the breath, particularly during an event or in the public space of a yoga class, is something that asks for confidence and comes with experience. It takes confidence to let go and let things rest for a few moments. The yoga concept of being “the Witness”, to observe without judgement is helpful here. If you beat yourself up for letting go of the challenge phase, then you will wear out and mastery will keep slipping back over the horizon.
“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river”– Lao Tzu
The first post discussed the longer training cycle of days and weeks and how this cycle mirrored the 90 minute cycle of individual flow. Those easy days after speed-work or adding distance, those consolidation weeks: they are refreshment. A yoga practice or other cross training can be lateralisation (see the struggle post for discussion of lateralisation) or it can be refreshment within the longer cycle. It can also be recovery, of course, and this will be discussed in the last post of this series. Are you using the alternate activity to avoid the target activity? Then it’s procrastination and you should look at whether you are actually passionate enough about your goal to keep with it or whether your challenge is greater than 4% and you have become fearful. Are you working at the 4% challenge level? Then it’s lateralisation and you need to make sure you spend some time refreshing so you don’t burn out. Are you consolidating your prior work, retaining your focus on the goal you wish to achieve? Then it’s refreshment.
Ok, we’ve taken a breath, it’s time to dive into flow itself … (coming soon)