As winter has set in Portland, the inescapable Christmas craze has also begun to flurry. Christmas lights line neighbors houses, jingles sing out from every shop, and every where I turn, the signs seem to say buy, buy, buy! They seem to imply that only if we find the newest, shiniest, brightest gizmos and gadgets under our trees will we, or our loved ones, ever be happy.But I wonder about that inevitable feeling that January brings, when all the presents are unwrapped and all the rich delicacies eaten. When we begin to unstring the lights from our Christmas tree, will we be left with the sinking feeling that maybe couldn’t buy or recieve all that we were looking for?
Recently, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, to answer this question. He has spent decades studying positive psychology, happiness, and enjoyment. His research has shown that even though incomes (adjusted for inflation) have doubled since the 1950s, still, only about 30% of Americans describe themselves as happy. And further, that each increase in income above a basic minimum wage also does not contribute significantly to our happiness either.
Yet, he has identified one powerful factor that does contribute to happiness: Flow. He describes flow as the state of being “in the zone”, or so completely immersed in your challenge or activity that you lose your sense of time and self. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (2008), he argues that the experience of flow, across cultures, time and space, has been attributed to feelings of happiness and fulfillment.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi believes there are 9 conditions to experiencing flow:
1. There are clear goals every step of the way. In many everyday situations, there are contradictory demands and it’s sometimes quite unclear what should occupy our attention. But in a flow experience, you have a clear purpose and a good grasp of what to do next.
2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions. When you’re in flow, you know how well you’re doing.
3. There is a balance between challenges and skills. If a challenge is too demanding compared to your skill level, you get frustrated. If it’s too easy, you get bored. In a flow experience, there is a pretty good match between your abilities and the demands of the situation. You feel engaged by the challenge, but not overwhelmed.
4. Action and awareness are merged. People are often thinking about something that happened – or might happen – in another time or place. But in flow, you’re concentrated on what you’re doing.
5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness. Because you’re absorbed in the activity, you’re only aware of what’s relevant to the task at hand, and you don’t think about unrelated things. By being focused on the activity, unease that can cause anxiety and depression is set aside.
6. There is no worry of failure. In a state of flow, you’re too involved to be concerned about failing. You just don’t think about failure. You know what has to be done and you just do it.
7. Self-consciousness disappears. People often spend a lot of mental energy monitoring how they appear to others. In a flow state, you’re too involved in the activity to care about protecting your ego. You might even feel connected to something larger than yourself. Paradoxically, the experience of letting go of the self can strengthen it.
8. The sense of time becomes distorted. Time flies when you’re really engaged. On the other hand, time may seem to slow down at the moment of executing some action for which you’ve trained and developed a high degree of skill.
9. The activity becomes “autotelic” (an end in itself, done for it’s own sake). Some activities are done for their own sake, for the enjoyment an experience provides, like most art, music, or sports. Other activities, which are done for some future purpose or goal – like things you have to do as part of your job – may only be a means to an end. But some of these goal-oriented activities can also become ends in themselves, and enjoyed for their own sake. Csikszentmihalyi concludes by saying that “in many ways, the secret to a happy life is to learn to get flow from as many of the things we have to do as possible.” (From: http://www.meaningandhappiness.com/ )
Looking over these conditions, I realized that at its core, Yoga is structured to create the experience of flow. No wonder we call it Vinyasa ‘Flow!’ Yoga helps us bring awareness to our action, to continually seek challenge by playing our edge, and to tune into the feedback and delicious feelings created in the body. AT PYC, during our 2 hour YTT sadhnas, I could lose the sense of time and self, and become a part of the energy that pushed the endless waves to shore. And now, even as a yoga teacher with years practice, every time I show up to my mat presents a unique mental and physical challenge. And yet, as many times as I fall out of a headstand, or lose track of my breathing, I know that this is not failure, the ever present opportunity to keep growing. When I am able to put my full concentration on my breath, to ignore the self in the mirror and find the internal body, and use my drishti (focused intention); those are the days I walk off my mat with my body buzzing happily, my mind cleared and relaxed, and my soul overcome with the yogi glow of peaceful contentment, the experience of flow! For me, showing up on the mat is the best gift I can give to myself.
With Christmas so close, my challenge to everyone is to do your best to look past the hype—the glitz and glam, that will eventually break, get lost, or go out of style. What if this year, you provided the gift of flow—to yourself, and those around you? Maybe it’s buying a loved one a yoga studio membership, or blissful retreat to Pavones Yoga Center. Or maybe you find your flow by rekindling your love of piano, or painting, or underwater basketweaving! Whatever it is, let’s find ways to give gifts that will last beyond its battery life. True happiness- who could ask for more!