How experiencing flow makes us happier in our yoga practice

If you are a yogi yourself this might be easy for you, but even if yoga is new to you, please imagine this:

You are in Bali, although the sun is shining there is a light breeze in the yoga shala (room) that is situated on top of a building, green trees surround the place that is open to the sides, providing the perfect view. You are sitting on a bolster on your green yoga mat, there is a light and fresh scent of aroma in the air. You just experienced and finished the perfect yoga class, time flew by. During that yoga session, you were absolutely absorbed by the activity, so you did not consciously think about what just happened, you even forgot your everyday worries. You experienced flow.

Something similar happened to me last year: Everything was just perfect: the weather, the surrounding, my physical experience, my mind. I could not stop smiling after this extraordinary yoga class. By the way, my best friend came to that class with me. I convinced her to get up early and to practice yoga together with me. She was quite upset (and not very happy), because she could not follow the class and refused to come back the next day. What made the difference between her and my experience?

In Positive Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conceptualised the ‘optimal experience’. He named it flow: The (creative) optimal experience of a person being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. Csikszentmihalyi studied this phenomenon since the 1960s, pointing out various evidence-based beneficial effects. According to Seligman, one of the founding fathers of the Positive Psychology Movement, flow could be an essential part of our well-being.

Being aware of this, it might be worth to look closely at the conditions or requirements of flow. What do we need to make flow happen? Is it possible to learn flow or can it even be cultivated? Of course, the conditions do not apply to yoga only. But let us now try to “flow to the moon” together using the example of a yoga class for diving deeper into the conditions and the (beneficial) effects of flow:

Condition # 1: Optimal or well-balanced challenge

Choose a yoga class that perfectly suits you what concerns your abilities.

Your skills should give you a chance of succeeding—in this case, your body strengths, your flexibility, maybe even your current state of mind. In my case that meant not to choose the very advanced class, which probably would have caused difficulties, as I cannot walk on my hands (handstand pose yoga: Vrikshasana).

Condition # 2: Clear goals

In our case, the goal could be performance and maybe also mind based: What do we want to achieve in the yoga class? Do we want to strengthen our body or calm our mind or both? (Just a little recommendation: In general, if we try to practice yoga regularly it might help us to think about the big WHY. What is the meaning behind pursuing the yoga path, what is relevant for us? Maybe in that specific yoga class but also while practising yoga in general. It might help us to (happily) keep going on.)

Condition # 3: Immediate feedback

We can probably give feedback about our satisfying performance to our self throughout the duration of the class. Maybe the teacher provides some positive feedback or reassurance as well.

Condition # 4: The ability to concentrate

The surrounding should be supportive, so either the yoga room, maybe even the other yoga students or the teacher should meet our personal criteria for a supportive environment. The most important factor is concentration. Will we be able to concentrate during the class? The beautiful surrounding helped me to focus and to concentrate on myself.

Condition # 5: Deep but effortless involvement and a merging of action and awareness

In our yoga class we would feel deeply involved without any effort. We can follow the instructions of our teacher easily—without them being too easy. Somehow, probably unconsciously, we are both present in the class and present in our inside.

Condition # 6: A sense of control over actions

First, we freely and wisely choose our class. We are intrinsically motivated to practise yoga in that exact room with that exact teacher practicing that exact yoga style with our fellow yoginis. We have control over our activity, we act autonomously. So, I should probably not have convinced my friend to accompany me.

Condition # 7: A loss of self-consciousness and sometimes a feeling of union with the environment

Although or better because we chose our yoga class wisely and we are aware of our conditions and our surrounding we will lose our self-consciousness. During that class we will not think about how great an asana is, we will not consciously reflect on our breathing or about what the teacher said. We might instead reflect on the class on our way home or in the changing room after we realised that we experienced flow—without consciously noticing it before.

Condition # 8: The transformation of time

“What, the class is finished already, I could have gone on forever…” We might have thought something similar after our ‘perfect yoga session’ because seconds seem to stretch out into minutes or hours – but it does not feel that long afterward.

As we have now seen eight ways or steps to flow, it could also be mentioned that there are some overlaps (concentration, self-discipline, etc.) with Patanjali’s Eightfold Path, the yoga system leading to a meaningful and purposeful life. He compiled the Indian yoga sutras (theories) on the practice and theory of yoga.

Flow could have beneficial effects on our well-being. The example of flow during yoga is a good illustration of an evidence-based impact on our happiness, psychological well-being and depression: Even 30 minutes of yoga could generate positive outcomes for our well-being.

But what about potentially negative outcomes? In this example, it could be the addictive factor that top-athletes might also experience while overstressing their body and not weighing the risks adequately (e.g., rock climbers). It might help when we carefully “listen” to our bodies and to our mind –maybe even to our friends and family who want to spend more time with us.
If you would like to read more about flow or positive psychology in general here are just a few examples:

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.
  • Boniwell, I. (2012). Positive Psychology In A Nutshell: The Science Of Happiness. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Seligman, M. E. (2013). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.