Finding Your Flow: Challenging Bodyweight Orthodoxy

How many times have you found yourself going through the motions during your workouts, not truly working at the edge of your comfort zone, either mentally or physically?

Flow. An elusive idea, one that evokes images of people lost in a moment, completely immersed in the task at hand. Time falls away, the world disappears, and there is only you and the activity.

Flow. An elusive idea, one that evokes images of people lost in a moment, completely immersed in the task at hand. Time falls away, the world disappears, and there is only you and the activity.

From a fitness or movement perspective, flow is often used to describe moving from one skill to another, almost effortlessly. While flowing movement is certainly a way to access a flow state, as Kellen Milad, founder of Movement Parallels Life, points out, flow can be achieved in a variety of ways. “I look at a practice like weightlifting as still being an activity you can access a flow state in.”

Most of us have experienced a sense of flow at some point in our lives. According to Milad, “the way that I understand it is it’s a state that can be accessed through pretty much anything, but the circumstances surrounding it are where your skill level and your external demands are evenly matched, so you are kind of on the edge of your skills, but you are performing competently.”

How to Approach Your Flow

How many times have you found yourself going through the motions during your workouts, not truly working at the edge of your comfort zone, either mentally or physically? Maybe you occasionally challenge ourselves to learn a new skill or to achieve a goal, but once you attain the skill or achieve the goal, you return to simply doing your program. If you want exercise to mean something more, to enhance your life in the same way that a hobby you are passionate about would, you may want to alter your approach.

For those of you that engage in activities like martial arts or trail running, chances are high you experience flow somewhat regularly. You are forced to engage, either with the other person or with the unpredictability of the trail. Your moves can’t be exactly the same because every opponent is different or your stride responds to meet the demands of the environment. There is no zoning out, only a sense of focus on the task at hand.

One of the leading experts on flow state, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, writes in his book, Flow, that in order to achieve a flow state, you must be participating in an activity that is challenging, requires skill, and you find enjoyable in some way. While many extracurricular activities meet this description, if you workout in a gym setting, it can be difficult to find the right balance between challenge, skill, and enjoyment.

Program Your Flow

Flow can be accessed through any physical practice with a bit of thoughtful programming. When Milad first began playing with the idea of flow, he had a foundation built from his work in the gym. “I had building blocks. So the building blocks were really exercises that I had been doing in a really structured way. In its essence, a movement flow is taking these more manageable pieces of movement and getting to know them very well, inside and out.”

Skill development, of any kind, takes work. It’s honing technique. It’s trying things a different way or from a different perspective. It’s spending a lot of time practicing.

What if we began to view the purpose of our fitness as something different, as a way to access a sense of play, to build resiliency through overcoming challenge, or to, as Csikszentmihalyi suggests, reclaim experience? When asked, Milad says, “We do have these tendencies ingrained in our culture about being very performance oriented, being very goal oriented and to me, how I conceptualize flow is a shift towards the process.”

When you shift your mindset around exercise to being more about the process rather than the outcome, you will find yourself approaching movements with more curiosity. You may find yourself thinking, “what happens if I…” instead of, “I have five more reps to complete.” Not that there is anything wrong with focusing on the numbers, the work is necessary to support the ability to move freely. But stepping back occasionally, and instead of focusing on sets and reps for a particular movement, moving from a place of curiosity can begin to shift your experience of exercise and movement.

You Don’t Have to Be an Expert

Perhaps one of the problems with the Instagram culture of fitness is our view of what it means to flow in movement is shaped by what we see. Milad points out that flow is usually expressed on social media by advanced practitioners, ones with practices that reflect more complex movements or skills from the world of Capoeira, gymnastics, or yoga. This can make the idea of introducing a sense of flow into your practice seem daunting, as though there was some imaginary barrier of ability necessary. So how can you feel more confident introducing flow into your practice if you feel you don’t have the adequate flow skills?

Workouts tend to follow a specific structure—warm up, workout, cool-down. Less structured movement may feel a bit of awkward. “There’s always going to be some growing pains. But if you can start with pieces of movement that you are already familiar with and start to maybe take some of the structure that has developed those pieces and just loosen the reins a bit, just to see what happens. If you know a push up very well, you can start to branch out into different variations of push ups. Or if you are used to doing a squat, a standard, bilateral squat, start to play around with different expressions, or ways into or out of that squat. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate—take pieces you are already familiar with and give yourself permission to play around a little bit,” Milad suggests.

One of the more challenging aspects of what Milad is suggesting is it requires letting go of the idea that there is a “perfect” or “right” way to squat or perform a push-up. Certainly, when you are moving a heavy load, there is a specific form required to move the bar in a way that will generate the maximum amount of force. But when you are simply moving your bodyweight through space, particularly in a thoughtful, explorative way, your brain (and body) will work together to self-organize based on joint position, current sympathetic tone, and current strength. We are designed to move in and out of a wide variety of positions without risk of injury. As long as you approach this kind of work inquisitively, without over-efforting to get into a specific position, you can let go of traditional alignment cues and just move.

A potential benefit to exploring a well-grooved pattern like the bodyweight squat once or twice a week for 10 minutes is you will gain better control over the position and become stronger and more mobile at different angles which carries over into other aspects of performance and life. You may also develop a more intuitive sense of what your body needs—often moving without an agenda allows you to move into the places or need a little extra attention.

How Do You Integrate Flow?

Still, the question remains how? How do you integrate the concepts of flow? Remember that to achieve flow requires a challenge of some sort that matches your skill level and reclaims experience. Milad says, “Maybe it’s just, ‘I am going to play with these movements and I am going to sit in the struggle of that for ten minutes.’ And there’s your structure, right there. You don’t place any expectations on it outside of that, but I think when we shift away from judging the practice to setting an intention and observing what happens in that space, I think that shift becomes very important in creating more flow in your fitness, but also as a way to re-calibrate, re-balance how we approach life.”

If you can find a way to approach the smallest aspect of your physical practice in a less judgmental way, your relationship to your practice will change. It will become less about “working out” or waging a war on the body you inhabit and more about re-connecting with your physical self.

It doesn’t necessarily even have to be in the gym. Walking, Milad points out, can be done in an experiential way. “If you’re a person that’s in the gym and you’ve got your routine, maybe just try going for a walk. And instead of just drawing the line there, be open to any opportunities that might come up along the way. To balance on something, climb over something, crawl, sit on the ground… I am looking to nature to drive some of the flow, but that could really be [done] anywhere.”

At this point you may be thinking, “okay, fine, but isn’t this a lot like mindfulness? Being present and all of that?”

Yes, in a way. The only way to truly experience is to be present, which is really all mindfulness is. But flow is a little bit more—it’s looking for ways to engage with your surroundings and challenge yourself unconventionally. It’s creating opportunities for gameplay in unusual environments. “Maybe you’re playing with a kid in your life,” Milad says, “or you’re playing on the floor with your dog, and you just make that your challenge. I am going to play on the floor, without using my hands, and I am going to avoid getting licked to death if it’s your dog.” You use your physical capabilities, developed from hours spent in the gym, to be present and engage with the world around you. “It’s space in my fitness and my life to try less hard and just be. Flow is about getting the opportunity to experience yourself a different way. We all have our roles and our habits, and the ways that we are just kind of called to show up, but we’re more than that. There’s more pieces to us.” And the only real way to begin to explore these other pieces is by opening ourselves up to the opportunities present in the world around us.

Don’t Worry About Doing It Wrong

When you begin playing with some of these ideas, at first you may have a difficult time experiencing anything other than, “Am I doing this right?” In a culture driven by aesthetics and technique, letting go of an ideal and just experiencing might be the initial practice. But if you keep practicing and opening yourself up to opportunities to experience movement and, by extension, your environment, you may find it becomes a welcome part of your life.

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