In Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents “flow” as integral to the creative process. He describes flow as an experience involving risk and novelty in which an individual embodies an “almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.” Second to focus, this fluid attention so conducive to creativity requires enjoyment. Computer science pioneer Margaret Butler stressed, “Unless I also enjoy the task, my mind is not fully concentrated… split attention, o[r] half-hearted involvement, is incompatible with creativity.” (Csikszentmihalyi 76).
In advocating yoga to increase creativity, this article adopts the widely-accepted notion that flow – as defined as fusion of present enjoyment and singular attention – facilitates creativity. For the skeptical, further research on the effects of flow on creativity can be found in the following linked articles in The Scientific American, Nature and Psychology Today, and an organized effort to “decode” flow is explained in The Flow Genome Project.
Yogis call the holistic concentration Csikszentmihalyi conceptualized as flow “dharana” and the resulting oneness with the object of concentration “dhyana.” While ancient writings on dharana and dhyana never mention creativity as perks (because the objective is oneness with divinity not creativity, though some see them as one in the same), both are vital to the creative process. We see them in each of Csikszentmihalyi’s “nine elements of flow” outlined in Creativity and below.
In the physical realm, linking breath to movement and meditation to action – known colloquially and aptly by many yoga traditions as “flowing” – also fosters flow and, therefore, creativity. Of course, like sitting down at an easel, computer or any workspace, stepping on a mat does not guarantee flow and impending creativity; it is not possible to “flow on command.” Thus, while flow requires the training, preparation and finesse of any worthwhile endeavor, according to Csikszentmihalyi it looks like this – and so, I argue, does yoga:
“There are clear goals every step of the way.” In most modern schools of yoga, the goals of “asana”— the physical posture or pose— are literally picture-book clear; the spiritual foundations, too, are outlined in a series of numbered “limbs” and “laws” which, though infinitely harder to attain than asanas, are nevertheless obvious in their intent.
“There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.” Regardless of external affirmation from yoga teachers, even a beginner student receives bodily feedback telling her what feels right, where to go deeper and when to back off; advanced practitioners heed their intuition over external instruction and are thus even better attune to the intuitive feedback of their actions both on and off the mat.
“There is a balance between challenges and skills.” When we detach from what a pose looks like—as flowing in the first place requires release of fixation on anything but the task at hand, including its result— we find it’s easy to influence difficulty with our already-present skills and shape. While the ultimate goal may be beyond us in a given class or lifetime, our progressive steps toward that goal are so ingrained in the incremental practice of yoga that each motion, even if modified, within a flow state is optimally challenging.
“Action and awareness are merged.” The synching of action with awareness is at the heart of any mindfulness or yoga practice. When flowing on the mat, we can be constantly moving but feel the still witness of our consciousness within us. In this way, we are both active and aware—successfully embodying the basic tenants of flow.
“Distractions are excluded from consciousness.” Yoga uses breath, “drishti”— our focused gaze– and postures, among other devices, to take focus inward. The result is a withdrawal of the senses known as “pratyahara” and a subsequent obliviousness to external distraction.
“There is no worry of failure.” Though flow can bring happiness in the long-term, during flow even happiness is on the far periphery of consciousness; only the task at hand is active in awareness. Likewise, failure is a potential outcome of handstand, for example; but as anyone who has mastered handstand knows (so I am told), when one doubts his feat mid-air he tumbles. Thus the emotional exclusivity trained only on the present task is what makes our practice flow.
“Self-consciousness disappears” or, put more eloquently, “the self expands through acts of self-forgetfulness.” When we go a whole class, or even five minutes, without looking in the mirror or comparing ourselves to the lululemon kitten in the corner, we have attained flow. The spiritual goal is to be entrenched enough in dharana to make ego chatter surrounding our “I” identity disappear.
“The sense of time becomes distorted.” Also known as: “Was it just me, or was that savasana like ten seconds?”
“The activity becomes autotelic.” Yoga becomes autotelic when Jessica Alba’s sculpted booty is no longer the motivating force behind our yoga practice. When we’re moving our bodies with our breath and holding the stillness of a pose with our heartbeat we are flowing as an end in and of itself; the product is irrelevant.
Csikszentmihalyi proposes the simple state of flow to empower and transform our lives the same way creative “geniuses” have throughout the ages: by singularly focusing on one thing at a time. Whether it’s washing the dishes, taking a walk, or working with electron dioramas, we attain flow by infusing mindfulness into action. And, despite my conviction that yoga is the next Windex, duct tape, baking soda or George Clooney, yoga is in fact just one way to activate flow to invigorate our relationships, provide insight into our careers, and enlighten our responsiveness to our environment. Here it is in mathematical terms:
Yoga = Flow
Flow = Creativity
Yoga = Creativity
Yoga = Creativity
Creativity + Hard Work = Your Wildest Dreams
Yoga + Hard Work = Your Wildest Dreams
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