What do running, yoga, and meditation have in common? Not only are these activities good for your mind, body, and soul, but they can also help move you into a state of flow—achieving pure, creative, and energized awareness. Flow states have become a popular subject of study among psychologists, and are quickly becoming a buzzword in wellness as the key to spiritual wellbeing. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the world-renowned positive psychologist and creator of flow states famously discussed in his TED talk: "Flow is the secret to happiness and makes a life worth living." Sure, there are innumerable activities revolving around work, play, and art that could cause us to (literally) get lost in the flow. But for the purpose of this article, we're going to explore the ways that the mindful practices of running, yoga, and meditation help us to obtain this highly sought-after state of being.
RunningThere's no need to go the distance of a marathon runner to reap the benefits of this cardiovascular practice. A 2014 Harvard study showed that a little running will go a long way. Just 5–10 minutes per day of jogging is better for you in the long run than no running at all—making it a little less daunting for beginners to try and experienced gazelles to keep up with their practice. And now with the app Charity Miles, you can spend those 5–10 minutes running for a good cause without having to compete in a big race. So isn't about time we stop making excuses and dust off our sneakers already? Many people turn to running not just to improve their physicality, but to help clear the mind. Have you ever noticed during an exceptionally long run that you've lost track of time? That you're no more tired after several miles than you were within the first 15 minutes? That is a flow state, and is attributed to the successes of many sprinters and distance runners alike. For some, the fastest race has the potential to feel the easiest, according to Runner's World. Ever notice the facial expression of an Olympic distance runner immediately after crossing the finish line? Chances are, it quickly changed from smooth, concentrated, and even-keeled, to one of sheer joy, shock, pain, disbelief, etc., because that athlete likely trained their brain to compete in a state of flow.
We know, we know—yoga is really, really good for us! But, we often get so caught up in the physical benefits from increased strength and flexibility to improved circulation and body awareness, and the mental aspects like reduced stress and enhanced cognitive function, and the ways yoga can help veterans with PTSD or those who've suffered trauma or brain injury. These benefits and many more are reason enough to maintain a daily practice. In terms of achieving flow states, well, there is a reason why your vinyasa teacher uses "flow" as a common cue. Vinyasa can be defined as the connection of movement to breath that transports a student from one pose to the next with fluidity. This is what can prompt the notion of what your teacher might describe as "moving meditation."
As Csikszentmihalyi points out in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
"The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body."
Since flow is about forgetting yourself as you're completely lost in the moment, it makes sense that yoga serves as a vehicle to enter into this state. We're really practicing yoga when we have allowed ourselves to become anchored to the present moment by our breath; to explore the body by surrendering to the practice. It's not to say that when the monkey-mind takes over and we're anxiously asking ourselves, "How much longer is this class going to be? How much longer are we going to hold this pose?" that we're NOT practicing yoga, but we are missing out on the flow-like experience that yoga was designed to facilitate.
From increased productivity to decreased stress and anxiety, meditation can do anything from rewiring your brain on a cellular level by rebuilding grey matter and lengthening telomeres to slow aging, to helping you save money by cutting your longterm healthcare costs.
A state of flow is, in essence, a meditative state, which means that by meditating we are also entering a state of flow! While some may argue that to achieve flow, one must be actively engaged in a physical or mental activity where some loss of time, external awareness, or sense of self is experienced. While the nothingness experienced in a seated meditation may "look like" a passive activity, when practiced with a proper technique, meditation is actually quite active. For instance, when a simple mantra or primordial sound is incorporated, the meditator is focused, albeit effortlessly, on that mantra. It is the role of the meditator to repeat the mantra over and over again until it dissolves, while also becoming actutely aware of any thoughts that may arise.
The goal of meditation is not to force the mind to stop thinking and absolve oneself of all thoughts completely, but rather, to achieve a state of heightened awareness by examining the thoughts that do come up. Over time, the spaces between each thought can become more vast until maybe one day, little to no thinking has the potential to result. Still, however, despite the idea that all thoughts could disappear by even the most experienced meditator, does not mean that this practice is a passive one. The meditator is in a state of flow because they are experiencing pure bliss and present moment awareness—two key components that make up the very definition of a flow state.
Running, yoga, and meditation are wonderful when practiced regularly on their own, but a powerful trifecta in practice together. If cardio, strengthening and stretching, and taking your mind to the mental gym can also work in tandem to propel you forward on your spiritual evolution and quest for happiness, then why not get in the zone and make these practices a part of your wellness regimen.— Andrea Rice is a Senior Writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a freelance writer, editor, and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, SONIMA, mindbodygreen, AstroStyle, and other online publications. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center in Brooklyn, and connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and on her website.