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It was a midsummer evening in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The high blue sky of late afternoon had given way to a starlit twilight, and Seiji Ozawa Hall was packed with concertgoers. But 20 minutes or so into the recital, the crowd grew remarkably still. All eyes were riveted on the action at center stage: American pianist Garrick Ohlsson was bent over a nine-foot Steinway concert grand, pounding out the gut-wrenching dissonances of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata—a 37-minute work of such breathtaking difficulty that few pianists even consider performing it.
I have been studying the piano since I was seven years old and have heard hundreds of pianists play Beethoven. But I had never seen anything like this. Ohlsson was performing the entire cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas at the Tanglewood Music Festival—all 32 sonatas over the course of less than three weeks. It was an astonishing feat of memory, concentration, and emotional and physical stamina. The music moves quickly through intricate developments of themes, dark and sometimes thunderous fugues of often-beastly complexity, and startling moments of tsublime lyricism. Only the greatest pianists have undertaken the challenge of performing the entire exhausting group of sonatas at virtually one sitting.
As the concert series progressed, word of the phenomenon spread around the Berkshires, and the crowds grew ever larger. But as the audience grew in size, it also grew quieter, until those of us who were packed into the hall that warm July night were joined in a remarkable harmony of concentration and rapture. Time seemed to disappear. When Ohlsson played his final note, none of us doubted that we had experienced a feat of extraordinary mastery. Walking home from the final concert, my friend Alan and I mused on what we had just experienced. Curiously, we both had the same thought. Alan said it out loud: “That was total yoga.”
Just weeks earlier, I had finished writing a book about the various altered states of consciousness described in the ancient yogic text, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Alan was right. The profound states of concentration and absorption (which Patanjali called dharana, dhyana, and samadhi—concentration, meditation, and union) were all undeniably present in the concert hall. In the transcendent moments when these states were present, there seemed to be no separation between music and musician, audience and performer.
Over the past two decades, Western psychologists have become particularly interested in states of concentration and absorption such as those experienced by Ohlsson and his audience—and described almost two millennia earlier by Patanjali.
Today, they are sometimes called flow states, and though we tend to hear about them in reference to athletic skills, they’re not the exclusive property of elite performers. They can arise in any endeavor that requires a refinement of attention and a development of subtle physical and mental skillfulness. In fact, each of us has stumbled into flow at some point, often in seemingly ordinary moments: preparing a complex meal, say, or playing a game of tennis. While involved in these tasks, we’re present, undivided, undistracted, and wholly absorbed.
Most of us who do yoga postures have slipped into flow while on the mat—probably many times. We know those wonderful moments when postures feel effortless. The body seems to move on its own, without force or strain. We know the posture in an entirely new way, and we come out of these experiences somehow changed. At ease. Knowing ourselves more fully.
Great Leap Forward
But just what is the relationship between a yoga practice and the cultivation of these optimal mental and physical states? Several years ago, I had a dramatic experience that first piqued my curiosity about the connection. One leisurely afternoon just after returning from a week-long yoga and meditation retreat, I sat down to play the piano. It was the week after Christmas, and I pulled out an old transcription of Handel’s Messiah written for piano. I launched into the regal Overture. Surprised at how compelling the transcription was, I continued to play the entire work—with a truly uncharacteristic amount of mastery. The sight-reading seemed remarkably easy. I was playing music that I really should not have been able to play. Occasionally I noticed what was happening, as if from afar, and thought to myself, “This is delightful—but strange.”
After this experience, I began to notice a pattern: The more consistent I was in my yoga practice, the more skillful I was on the piano. How did this work? I wondered. Could the practice of yoga systematically enhance the capacity for optimal performing states? Could athletes and musicians and sculptors and dancers (and all of us interested in getting better at what we do) profit from practicing yoga?
Several months after this experience, I initiated a series of research projects to examine these questions. The research involved a collaboration with Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health (my home base); Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, just across the street from Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts); and Sat Bir S. Khalsa, MD, a top yoga researcher affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. We worked with the promising young musicians who come to Tanglewood for a summer of study and performance with master musicians and teachers.
During the first summer of our collaboration, we created a pilot study with 20 of the young musicians (both vocalists and instrumentalists). In addition to music instruction, one group of 10 musicians received eight weeks of yoga training.
They attended a minimum of three hatha yoga classes each week (gentle to moderate classes with a strongly meditative flavor and an emphasis on breathwork), and each undertook a simple 30-minute mindfulness meditation practice each day. They also participated in certain aspects of a yogic lifestyle, including conscious eating. The remaining 10 musicians (the control group) took part only in the standard music curriculum. At the beginning and end of the summer, both groups filled out questionnaires to report their experiences.
During the second summer, the research expanded to include 30 subjects and 20 control-group members. The second study compared the yoga and control groups’ responses on a larger and more sophisticated array of questionnaires on performance anxiety; performance-related musculoskeletal disorders; mood state; flow and sleep states; perceived stress; and five aspects of mindfulness, including nonreactivity to inner experience, nonjudging of experience, and the ability to concentrate.
The changes in the musicians who did yoga were quite dramatic. The first year’s group had significantly less performance anxiety than the control group. The second year’s larger study confirmed that finding and also uncovered improvements in the yoga group’s capacity to enter into flow states—and especially an increase in what’s called autotelic experience.
This is an aspect of flow in which the experience of performance is perceived as intrinsically rewarding and fulfilling, apart from any external rewards. The performer lets go of all self-consciousness about the performance—and any grasping for outcome or extrinsic reward. She feels compelled by the sheer joy of the activity itself. Studies show that the more often performers have this kind of experience, the more motivated they become to push the boundaries of their mastery.
But I still wondered: Just how is it that yoga can help people cultivate flow states? Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first introduced the idea of flow in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, offers some clues. “One of the most important active ingredients here is the refinement of attention,” he says. “Training attention to come back over and over again to a complex task allows awareness to become increasingly absorbed in the task at hand.”
This, of course, is exactly what yoga does. Many Americans think of yoga mainly as a form of physical exercise, but it’s a very sophisticated form of mental training as well. In asana practice, one brings the attention back again and again to increasingly subtle phenomena—the whole nuanced world of movement, sensation, and feeling. Through this kind of practice, awareness becomes very focused indeed, and it regularly elicits the states of profound concentration and absorption that Patanjali described.
This requires very careful training. Csikszentmihalyi (now director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University) stresses that attention must be trained in a particular fashion: “Not too tight, not too loose,” he says. “You must develop a relaxed concentration on the task at hand. Attention cannot be wandering all over the place. But it also cannot be held too tightly.”
The musicians found that distinction extremely helpful. They had been learning to concentrate their focus for many years. But this idea of relaxed concentration was an epiphany for many. “Yoga trains me in a kind of relaxed presence,” says Margot Schwartz, a violinist who participated in both years studies and who just completed her graduate work at Yale. “I’m present and involved, but I’m not clinging to some particular outcome. I can allow the music to move through me without trying to hold on to it.”
Says Michael Kelly, a tenor and recent graduate of the Juilliard School in New York City: “As a singer, you discover that you can’t make it happen. You have to prepare skillfully, of course, but then you have to let it happen. You have to let go of the sound.”
This relaxation of effort, so central to yoga training, is called aparigraha, or nongrasping. The yogic view is that grasping (or clinging to projections of exalted outcome) interferes with attention. Studies show that, indeed, this kind of grasping is one of the roots of performance anxiety. Heightened self-consciousness (an obsessive concern with “How am I doing?”) interferes with both the cognitive and the physical aspects of performance. Says Schwartz: “There is a curious paradox here that most performers eventually figure out: The more we grasp for perfection, the less likely it is to happen.”
Both Schwartz and Kelly discovered that yoga training promotes this relaxed form of concentration and awareness. They found their yoga mats to be like laboratories for experimenting with different states of mind and body—particularly the subtle merging of action and awareness.
Yoga training cultivates another skill that is characteristic of flow states: the exercise of witness consciousness (or what Western psychologists call “the observing self).” This witness is an aspect of awareness that stands absolutely still at the center of the whirlwind of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The witness is a seeing and knowing presence that is always steady and equanimous. Yogis discover a deeper part of the self that “knows” and “sees” and that is entirely steady and trustworthy—even in the midst of great physical and mental challenge. “This part of awareness is beyond willpower, beyond force, beyond grasping, and it’s totally reliable. You can have faith in this inner skillfulness,” says Schwartz.
It turns out that practicing, and performing, with this new kind of effort yields remarkable fruit. Almost all participants in our studies felt that their consistent experiences of flow changed them in important ways.
What is the nature of this change? Csikszentmihalyi has spent an entire career trying to describe it. He finds that these experiences develop the self. There is more complexity in consciousness, he writes in Flow. “There is a new capacity to hold more complex information.” Interestingly, classical yogis discovered the same process of maturation. They found that, after moving into states of profound absorption, they had greater order and harmony in their consciousness—less conflict but more complexity.
“What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self,” Csikszentmihalyi says. “Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self- transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.
The musicians who experienced flow states during our study often commented on this: “It’s as if I’m not really doing it at all,” said Kelly. “When I am in the zone, there is a sense that ‘I’ am just a conduit, that the performance is coming from somewhere beyond me. I have no doubt that yoga cultivates this, because it’s what I sometimes feel on the yoga mat too.”
Our research team has also done a study with athletes, who, not surprisingly, report quite similar experiences. “Through yoga, I have learned to maintain a sense of calm and heightened awareness during both training and competitions,” says David Funk, an elite rower who also heads a successful high school rowing program in Linwood, New Jersey.
The performer, like the yogi, has a transient but profound experience of feeling more at ease with life, of trusting the ineffable “inner self,” and of living free from self-concept in a kind of river of energy and intelligence. This is, perhaps, the spiritual experience par excellence.
Schwartz, Kelly, and Funk are part of a growing cadre of musicians, athletes, and performers who are discovering the power of yoga to create a subtle skillfulness in their disciplines. Almost weekly, news stories appear describing some new integration of the contemplative sciences of yoga and meditation with performance. Sports teams, symphony orchestras, and corporate trainers are embracing yoga.
Our team’s inquiry into the relationship between optimal performing states and yoga continues, with a third summer’s study of elite musicians as well as several studies with athletes and a large study of performance and fulfillment in complex work situations. (To keep abreast of the research, visit kripalu.org, go to the Programs pull-down menu, and choose Institute for Extraordinary Living.) One thing, even early on in our research, is already clear: Yoga transforms performance in powerful ways, reframing most conventional notions of the very meaning and purpose of performance itself.
As a happy byproduct of our collaboration, the young musicians who have been involved in the research regularly visit Kripalu to play chamber concerts. At one such recent concert, we discovered an interesting new twist in the contribution of yoga to these states of optimal performing. We might call it “optimal audience receptivity.”
After the concert, the musicians said to me, “Wow! That was the most amazing audience. They were completely present and focused. We felt like we couldn’t do anything wrong. That kind of attentive listening brought out the very best we had to offer.” Then I realized that pretty much the entire audience had just spent the day doing yoga! What we’d witnessed was a group of performers in flow playing for an audience in flow. And it was magical.
Stephen Cope is the director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, a research institute at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. He is the author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, The Wisdom of Yoga, and The Great Work of Your Life.