“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
- Mihaly Csikszentmihaly -
You can't go around them... Peak poses. Just, everywhere... People in the most extreme backbends, handstands, standing splits, and the postures seem to get more complicated every minute instagram exists...
Although it is easy to label these pictures as just 'showing off', 'commercializing yoga', 'performance’, or any other thing which we think has little to do with yoga, there might be something else behind it. Because why, besides for the sake of a beautiful picture, do advanced yogi’s curl themselves into these peak poses? Why do we keep working at getting into that even more complicated asana?
To understand the motivation behind peak poses, we need to see our asana practice as the means to an end, as yoga philosophy has always described it. Yoga is not the practice of asanas. Yoga is the state we are creating through the practice. The asanas are just the means. Not the end.
About 40 years ago, researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihaly started to study the process of creation, and the mental state we are in when we are truly creative. He wondered what made people feel happy and fulfilled in their work, and started to study the mental experiences of creative individuals (scientists, musicians). While talking to them, he found out that they feel truly joyful, fulfilled, and alive, when they experience a state of flow during their creative process.
Flow is a mental state where you are not feeling like you are doing your normal everyday routines. Rather, you feel like entering a different reality where it is almost like you don’t exist. When you are really involved in the process of creating or mastering something new, all your attention is focused on that one process, temporarily taking attention away from other experiences like hunger, pain, identity, worries. You forget about everything else, and all bodily sensations temporarily fade to the background. You are one with your focus and one with the creation, whether that is a musical or dance performance, composing music, writing a blogpost, or creating a new yoga sequence. Ideally, this flow is a state we would like to experience during our yoga practice. A feeling of full focus and awareness, activation and relaxation, the mind and the body being one, without being conscious of the concept of ‘you’ (or others on the mat besides you for that matter), fully emerged in what you are doing.
Flow, however, is not easily achieved. The three most important conditions for flow, are 1. Enjoying the activity, 2. feeling like you are skillful enough to complete the task, and 3. Feeling enough of a challenge to be activated.
So let’s apply this to our yoga practice.
- Enjoyment is key. In order to enter flow, we must thus not focus on nailing that perfect asana, or the key pose, but actually enjoy the process of practicing to get there.
- We need to feel skilful enough, or our skill needs to match the challenge, otherwise we just feel stress and struggle. So especially as a beginner or intermediate practitioner, pushing yourself into the most advanced versions of a pose will not get you into flow. Just try to feel where your challenge lies, and slowly push it further, tiny steps, every practice.
- We need to feel challenged. This, is why advanced yogi’s try crazy postures. They practice and play, because the ultimate goal of the practice is not to get into a crazy pose, it is to enter a state of flow. Crazy poses (and actually, all poses), are thus the means to the end (namely flow, or supreme awareness), not the end goal.
Brain research over the decades has actually shown that when individuals achieve a true state of flow, the prefrontal areas of the brain (in charge of regulating goals, planning, and control), are de-activated. This means that when the mind and body are in in this ultimate balance between joy, skill, and challenge, awareness of time, oneself, identity, the need to control anything, all disappear. Which is, ultimately, the goal of your yoga practice. Flow is yoga, and yoga is flow.
The optimal state of flow is experienced when both skill and challenge are high. From this graph, it is clear that an accurate assessment of your skill level is very important to make sure you don’t end up feeling worried or anxious as a beginner, or bored and too relaxed as an advanced yogi.
So next time when you practice, try to find your joy, adjust the asana to your skill level (not sure? Ask your teacher!), or try to find a challenge. Furthermore, next time you see an awesome Instagram photo, just think about how the yogi in this pose must have enjoyed the process of learning this pose, and know that that enjoyment is available to you too, if you look beyond the picture, and just feel the flow.