Learning to Flow

To Flow

A study of jazz musicians where their brains where scanned while they where improvising showed that one part of their brain became active while another part became less active.

The part that activated is called the medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part that is associated with having a clear idea of what is being done. It is active when the knowledge (or understanding) comes from within the person. This portion is dominant during events like story telling, when we are sharing an experience, something that we are intimately connected to.

At such times the part of the brain that judges, inhibits or limits becomes less active. This part is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

With the brain in this state jazz musicians access a creative potential that is seemingly outside of themselves and yet it is based on having a clear idea of what they are trying to do.


How can we enter this state for ourselves?

Chances are you’ve already experienced this state of being but you didn’t know how or why or perhaps you just accepted that it was because you were doing something that you loved.

How can we recreate this love?

The key aspect is having a clear idea of what we are trying to do. With the jazz musicians at the time of the test they were playing variations based on a C-major scale (and then later they improvised on a melody written by the test orchestrator.) They knew the limits within which they where playing and within those limits creative potential flowed.

Do we need years of practice in order to do the same. Basically no. I’m not saying that we can all become Jazz musicians (at least not unless we put the practice in) but what I am saying is that if we have a clear idea of what we are trying to do then within the bounds of that clear idea we can learn to flow.

We could be practicing or we could be expressing ourselves (the equivalent of playing a concert) but in either case we can enter the state of flow by having a clear idea of what we are trying to do.

Practicing Chunks
Of Rhythm

Generally when we are practicing, or more specifically learning, something new, if what we are practicing is small enough or short enough then we can hold it in our short term memory. By so doing we then “know” what we are trying to do even though the knowing is only in short term memory. We can then practice and practice over again until what we are practicing becomes a part of ourselves.

Now here in is the second part of key, rhythm.

If we find a way of practicing what we are doing with rhythm, then we may find it even easier to enter the flow.

For myself I used to enter this state frequently when I was learning new math techniques. Each problem (copied from a text book) represented a unit of rhythm. I’d do the question and then look back at it to check myself, and then I’d move on to the next question. Or if I was really learning something new, I could focus on one small part of the problem solving technique, practice writing it till I remembered it and then move on to the next bit. With practice I found a rhythm where time no longer seemed to flow, because I was flowing with time.

Brush Strokes

In another instance of practice, I’ve found rhythm similarly helpful in entering the flow while practicing or learning chinese characters.

In order to memorize or learn a character, particularly one with a lot of strokes, I would practice just a few of those strokes at a time, only as much as I could remember. I wouldn’t try to rush through the strokes, rather I’d try to feel them so that they actually process of painting each brush stroke was enjoyable. I engaged myself in what I was doing by using my senses. Then as I learned the set of strokes I was working on, when I could do them comfortably, then I added the next few strokes.

If you’ve ever been to an aerobics or dance class where you learn a piece of choreography, dance instructors usually do the same thing, teach little bits of choreography at a time and then move on.

The challenge in such an envioronment, especially if you are a beginner is sometimes the instructor moves too fast. And so when doing by yourself you can practice till you are comfortable and then you move on.


Another thing to note about the dance class scenario, the more experience you have having learned dance moves before, generally the easier it is to learn something new. And this can be the same with everything else, generally the more experience we have the quicker we can learn but in each case, if we break down what we are learning into chunks of rhythm then we can learn easily and at the same time we can enter the flow. (And we can gain more experience faster.)

Improvising vs
Set Pieces

So now then a discussion on improvising as compared to performing something that is more of a set piece. Do we enter the same “head space” in both of these scenarios?

I have no scientific proof but my feeling is that yes we do. When doing a “set piece” i.e. non improvisational, the energy that fills us when we are in the zone is the type of energy that makes it easier for us to do what we are doing. It carries us within the limits of what we are doing even though those limits are more firmly defined than say while doing a jazz improvisational piece.

It’s a state where we seem to be watching ourselves do the work. We are an audience in our own body.

As for improvisation, well there the creative energy carries us in a different way but I believe the energy comes from the same source, the same state of being which I’ll continue to refer to as flowing (or being in the zone). It’s a state where you know what to do and how to do it and it is a state where you know what is going to happen (and who is going to do it) in the next instant in time.

Getting into
the Flow

How do we get to this place when performing?

With a focus on something that is in the present.

With the jazz musicians the melody they improvise on is the starting point. It gives the brain a hook or a prototype from which to vary. It gives a clearly defined meaning and even a direction for expression.

Doing a set piece we might find this hook by noticing some aspect of the way we hold our body or even the way we connect to our instrument, or perhaps a sensation in part of our body that we never realized was there. If on introspection we realize what the sensation is a result of we can follow that line of thought into the present where we can flow.

Prior to “going on stage” we might find that focusing on and doing some rhythmic exercise helps us to flow. The key in all cases is not to focus on what is outside of ourselves. By that I mean we aren’t trying to impress someone. Instead the focus is on what we can affect and what we can directly change ourselves. That means taking charge of our body and whatever it is connected to. To do that we feel our body, we sense it, notice it, and we control it.

We can do that with small rhythmic movements. Not complex or difficult, but simple single pointed focusing exercises where we can focus on “feeling” or sensing the part that is moving.

It might be as simple as a relaxing walk if we have the time or space, or doing a yoga practice or tai ji, or better yet focusing on some small aspect of a practice that we do regularly. It might mean focusing on one line that we have to deliver and focusing on the meaning of that line.

Or it can be as simple as feeling the way we connect with the earth.

Rhythm and
a Clear Idea

My point is that we can enter the flow at will. And if we want to get good at something, really good, then the thing that we can practice is getting into the flow regularly. We can do that while learning and while expressing ourselves. We can do that with rhythm and with finding a clear idea to focus on and while focusing on what we can feel and sense now .

Creating Space in the Hip Joint

This post is related to AIS but is also very important in “technique free” body context. It relates to the hip socket. In one of the exercises that we were doing at the AIS workshop, a cross body leg stretch that used the adductors (inner thigh) to stretch the abductors (side of the buttocks/hips) one student commented that she felt a binding sensation in her hip.

She was fairly flexible anyway and so she was probably reaching the limit of active mobility-the point at which the muscles that she was using to move the leg got in the way of the leg itself. (Like someone moving a big piece of furniture backed up against the wall so that neither they nor the piece of furniture can move any further.)

One potential solution to this is to learn how to “reach” out of the hip socket.

The feeling is similar to that of spreading the shoulder blades. With your arms out to the sides if you spread your shoulder blades (causing the shoulders to move forwards on the ribcage) the arms reach further out to the sides. Maximum reach is when your collar bones, upper arms bones and forearm bones are all more or less in one line.

Obturators and

With respect to the pelvis and thigh bone, we can actually use muscle to pull our thigh bone out of the hip socket. The amount of movement is small but perceptable. To perceive the action simply put your awareness in the area of your hip socket. When standing you can try pushing you pelvis up off of your thigh bones. When sitting with your legs forwards you can push your thigh bones forwards away from your pelvis (or you can push your pelvis back away from your thigh bones.) When standing you use the obturators and gemellus to lift you pelvis off of the thigh bones.

With your legs forwards it is more likely that it is the psoas and obturator externus that does this action. With the leg forwards and crossing to the opposite side it is possible the pectineus, psoas and/or adductor brevis that does this action.

While this action is useful when you find that your hips are binding you may find that in some situations it isn’t openess that you need rather it is stability.

Stability and

If you want more stability in the hip joint you can the opposite and pull your thigh bones into your hip sockets. This feels like you are “sucking” your thigh bone into the hips socket. This can be a handy action is you are balancing on one leg. You can stabilize the hip of the standing leg. With the free leg you can try both actions to see which one is more suitable.

Being able to do both of these two actions you can choose from among them. You can keep your hip stable when it needs stability and you can create space in your hip joints when they need room to move.

Modified “Active Isolated Stretching”

The Body

In my previous post I talked a little about what I learned in an AIS (Active Isolated Stretching) workshop with Adarsh Williams. I included a video of myself doing the AIS hamstring stretches.
In this post I’d like to talk about modifying the AIS hamstring technique for more typical yoga forward bending posture.

A Different
Point of View

In laying on our back to stretch the hamstrings we kept the pelvis stable and moved the leg relative to the pelvis. We kept the pelvis stable by using the abs. In most seated forward bends we move our pelvis relative to our legs. So that our hamstrings have one stable point of attachment, we can stabilize the bones of the lower leg by making the foot and ankle active. We can do this with either the knee straight or the knee bent. Now if our focus is on stretching the muscles that cross only the back of the hip (the adductor magnus is one such muscle) then the bone that we need to stabilize is the thigh bone. We can do this by making the knee “strong.” However, to stretch the hamstrings we may find it helpful to make the ankle and foot “strong” so that we stabilize the lower leg.

In the video below I demonstrate three seated stretches that are the equivalent of the AIS reclining hamstring stretches. In one I keep both knees bent, in the other I straighten the knees as I bend forwards and in the final one I keep the knees straight. In all three variations I inhale to enter the stretch and exhale to leave it. In AIS stretching the exhales are normally used. This may be because it is easier to engage the abs while exhaling (which can then be used to stabilize the body.) However, if we can learn to activate the abs while inhaling then stability is not a problem. Of course you can do these stretches using the exhale to stretch. I prefer using inhales because it feels nicer and it is easier to keep my spine long and my ribcage open. More to the point I have a tendency to feel anxious when I use my exhales.

The point is, try both options for your self and see which one works best for you.

All the best


p.s. the “previous” exercises that I am talking about can be seen in this video here.

Active Isolated Stretching with Adarsh Williams

I just finished a couple of AIS workshops with Adarsh Williams.
It was my first time to see Adarsh in seven years. We’d first and last met when we where both in Chicago teaching yoga there. Since then he’s gone on to get married, has two children and also has his own yoga space in Palo Alto California. He’s a massage therapist and a certified Ashtangi and a really nice guy. (Not that other Ashtangi’s aren’t nice guys, I just wanted to emphasize that he is and well anyway…)

Active Isolated
Stretching (A.I.S.)

The focus on the two workships I attended was AIS, Active Isolated Stretching.

In a nutshell this technique means knowing which muscle you are stretching, putting your body in the right position (there may be a few options) to stretch that muscle and then using the opposing muscle (called the antagonist) to cause the intended muscle to relax so that it can be stretched. Hold for 2 second then release and repeat. We used exhales to enter and hold each stretch and inhales to relax and recover.

In this article I’ll talk a little about what we learned and did with Adarsh. In my next posting I’ll talk about ways how this technique can be built on or modified. The idea is to present you with a range of options for stretching your body so that you can use the technique that is most helpful or appropriate for you.

Body Basics

First of all some basic points of understanding that can be applied to any sort of muscle stretching or strengthening.

  • A muscle has to be relaxed in order for it to be stretched. Just because a muscle is lengthening doesn’t mean it is being stretched. If a muscle is working against a greater force then it will lengthen even though it is active. To stretch a muscle (or more specifically, to stretch the connective tissue within a muscle) we need to relax it and lengthen it while keeping it relaxed.
  • A muscle has to have one of its ends “fixed” or stable in order for it to relax and lengthen. Think of being on the side of a cliff with little or no support. We would probably freeze in fear. If we know we are safe (on solid ground) then it is easier to relax. We can think of muscle tissue functioning similiarly. When a muscle has a firm foundation (when it “thinks” it is safe) it can relax freely. That means fixing one bone to which a muscle is attached and then moving the other bone relative to the fixed bone.
  • In a lot of cases (but not every case) when we try to stretch a muscle beyond a certain point it contracts to prevent lengthening beyond a point which is safe. (It’s like we might start to “freeze up” the closer we get to the edge of a cliff.) This reaction can be countered by activating the opposing muscle. This is the “Active” part in AIS, using the opposing muscle to prevent the target muscles from contracting.

I should note here that AIS isn’t the be all and the end all of stretching. There are other options and there are other “factors” to be aware of when stretching. You may find that you can keep a target muscle relaxed even without activating its opposite muscle. You might see if you can keep a target muscle relaxed even without activating its opposing muscle(s).

You may find that you can help a muscle to relax first by contracting a muscle and then relaxing it. This is something you can do with your breath.

Finally, just because we are contracting a muscle’s anatogonist doesn’t mean that the agonist will release in all cases. It depends on what we are trying to do. If you’ve ever flexed your biceps (to look cool) with your elbow bent then your biceps and triceps are working at the same time to keep the elbow bent. While you may be focused on tensing your biceps, in this case the opposing muscle, the triceps, also has to activate to keep the elbow in place.

The point is that just because a muscles is active, this doesn’t mean that it’s opposing muscle (or antagonist) will always relax. It depends on what you are trying to do. Luckily, with AIS and someone like Adarsh to teach you most of the homework has already been done for you. The active muscle is used to cause a particular movement and that movement stretches the target muscle. And that by the way is what the “isolated” part in AIS means, isolating a particular muscles to stretch it.


Adarsh presented the AIS material in two sessions. The first session included hips, feet and spine while the second session focused on shoulders, wrist and neck.

Not since I worked with my own teacher, Andrey Lappa, have I encountered such a complete system of both stretching and strengthening the body.

Because we use one group of muscles to stretch another we strengthen and stretch at the same time and the result is balanced flexibility and balanced strength. We even stretched our fingers and toes!

Following is a summary of the exercises that we did. I may have missed some exercises out. I wanted to emphasize here the pairings of muscles and how they where used to stretch each other.

The first set of exercises where for stretching the hamstrings, first with knee bent and afterwards with knee straight. (See video clip below.) We used the psoas and quadriceps as the active muscles in these stretches. (With the knee bent we where more than likely stretching the Adductor magnus which has a similiar action to the hamstrings except that the hamstrings attach to the back of the tibia and fibia while the adductor magnus attaches to the back of the femur. The hamstrings cross the back of the hip and the back of the knee while the adductor magnus only crosses the back of the hip.)

Staying on our backs we then stretched that adductors followed by the abductors. We used these two sets of muscles to stretch each other.

Following that we stretched the psoas by using the abs, glute maximus and hamstrings.

We did twists and side bending for the spine. For twisting we used the obliques and intercostals. Twisting one way we stretch one side (and activate the other) and we balance this by twisting then to the other side. We also used our arms to assist at the end of each twist.

Side bending we used the left side of our abs to stretch the right side and vice versa.

Here is a demo (by me) of the hamstring exercises. The first 40 seconds are me talking about activating the abs. The exercises follow.

In the next post I will talk about and demonstrate how to use the psoas to stretch the hamstrings in more typical yoga posions or asanas.

Here is another demo from off of the web. I’m hoping that Adarsh will publish his own videos on utube.

AIT demo