Frank Mitchell

Using yoga to get into a flow state

Programmers often talk about “getting in the zone.” Getting into that creative state where the only thing you’re focused on is the task at hand. It’s a really amazing place to be, where the code seems to magically appears from your fingertips and the hours fly by.

The best book I’ve never read on the subject is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s now on my to read list, but for the purpose of discussion, a Wikipedia article and empirical evidence will have to suffice.

Figuring out how to flow

The primary thing necessary to achieve a flow state is being engaged in a challenging activity that requires specialized skills. Lots of what’s called “knowledge work” are activities that are prime candidates for inducing flow: programming, writing, painting, designing, composing, etc. The greater the challenge and skill required, the more likely you are to enter a flow state.

But you can’t just bang out code and hope to get there. You need three other things as well:

  1. A task with a clear set of goals.
  2. Confidence of being able to do the task.
  3. Clear and immediate feedback about the task.

Sadly, lots of programming tasks don’t meet those last three criteria. Using programming to get you into a flow state so you can program doesn’t work. In fact, it’s been suggested that you can’t force yourself to enter a flow state, and you can’t predict when one will happen either.

Empirical evidence begs to differ. See I know of one activity that’s a) challenging, b) requires specialized skills, c) has clear goals, and d) gives you feedback. It’s called yoga.

Yoga is the cessation of mind

People look at me funny when I tell them I use yoga as a warm up before technical interviews. And as a way of finding solutions to programming problems. And as a way of generating ideas. Because most people have a mental image of yoga as simply an exercise for stretching and relaxing.

“Yoga won’t work to get into a flow state,” they say. “It takes years to get good at it.” Isn’t that exactly what’s required for a flow state, a challenging activity?

“But I’ve got projects due and I need to be in the zone now! I don’t have time for two hours of yoga.” Who says yoga has to last two hours? I do it in five minute chunks.

“Well as soon as I get in a flow state, an interruption will just knock me back out again.” So take five minutes, do a little more yoga and get back in it.

Dig into the early writings on yoga and you’ll come across a definition: Yogas citta-vritti-nirodhah. Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications. “Mental modifications” is just another way of saying thoughts, and if you’re mind isn’t full of those then you’re either dead or in a pretty focused place.

Crazy hard mental gymnastics of doom

The branch of yoga I advocate for getting into a flow state is called Shiva Nata. Unlike most forms of yoga, it’s not about getting the poses correct. Instead, it’s a mathematically coordinated set of arm and leg movements that’s designed to seriously challenge your brain.

Shiva Nata never gets easy. There’s always something new you can add to make it more of a challenge. It’s the perfect activity to induce flow, since you can easily adjust the difficulty to just beyond your skill level.

The poses are designed as a mathematical progression. So it meets the flow criteria of giving you a clear goal, since you always know which pose you should be doing. It also provides feedback, since a little mental addition is all it takes to check whether you’re doing a sequence right.

Of course, you don’t have to use yoga to get into a flow state. I’m pretty sure any mathematically structured and adjustable difficulty practice will work. Giles Bowkett uses paradiddles (a drum technique) to generate flow, and it was his comments about it that got me thinking about the yoga connection.