“breathwork is the most essential component to transforming consciousness”DR. ANDREW WIEL
In the zone. We’ve all been there at some point. That seemingly elusive state where time falls away and we become totally absorbed in our present experience.
Where our awareness merges with our action.
Where work feels effortless and our performance elevates to new levels.
It’s the state of mind that allows many of the world’s greatest artists, athletes and creative minds to do what they do best.
It’s known as flow state.
A new state of mind
The term ‘flow state’ was first popularised by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi while studying positive psychology – specifically how people find and pursue happiness – in the 1970’s.
Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved”.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow state experiences are characterised by total absorption in the present moment, feeling of mastery, feeling of pleasure, merging between awareness and action, freedom from self-consciousness, and a sense of timelessness. Neurologically, it’s an altered state of consciousness. And, as you can probably tell, it’s the optimal state of consciousness to be in if we want to express our full creative potential.
Getting there ain’t easy though.
Against the backdrop of our stressed out, plugged in, always on, semi exhausted, deeply distracted, cortisol fueled modern day lives, it can take years of dedicated practice and relentless focus to find our way to this space of calm, composed, effortless creativity. Fortunately, certain psychedelics offer a faster and more accessible pathway to exploring the vast creative potential of the human mind.
But what if we didn’t have to ingest anything to get there?
What if there was something even more accessible?
What if we could get there, in less than 30 mins, simply through our breath?
Creativity starts with the breath
It’s now widely understood that breathwork is incredibly effective at releasing stress and anxiety, processing emotions, reprograming limiting beliefs, increasing energy, and enhancing our sense of wellbeing.
Not bad, for something that’s free!
But if that weren’t already enough, it’s becoming increasingly clear that certain types of breathwork create the conditions in the body to access flow state and allow our creativity to flourish. Before we go on, it’s important to note here that flow state is very different from mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to a heightened awareness of our internal state and surroundings.
Flow state, on the other hand, is a complete lack of self-consciousness. In flow state, we become so completely immersed in our task that we lose all sense of fear, doubt, distraction or anything else that may be holding us back from performing at our best.
The latest neuroscience is now affirming what many mystics and practitioners have known for decades; that breathwork can provide on-demand access to this very state. So what’s going on inside the brain and body to enable it? Let’s find out.
Reclaim your calm
Stress is one of the biggest blockers when it comes to accessing flow state. The relentless demands of modern day life aren’t doing our nervous system any favours. In fact, most of us tend to be in a low-key state of fight or flight most of the time. These states of stress trigger our sympathetic nervous system to kick in, which speeds up our heart rate (and breathing) in order to deliver blood and oxygen throughout our body so it’s prepared to respond to any threats. Unfortunately this results in far less oxygen making it to the part of the brain responsible for cognitive functioning, making it challenging to think clearly, let alone creatively.
The good news is that, even though the body’s nervous system is autonomic (meaning it all happens automatically), we can also control it via the way we breathe. With deep and intentional breathing exercises we can activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system.
In this state, the heart slows down and the body starts to release the stress and fear it was carrying, allowing it to enter a state of relaxation and regeneration. And as our breathing becomes deeper, more oxygen is delivered to the prefrontal cortex, a critical step on our journey to flow.
Rewire your brain
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that intelligently regulates our thoughts, actions and emotions. It’s involved in all of the characteristics that distinguish humans from other animals, such as self-awareness, the capacity for complex planning, problem solving, learning and memory, personality expression, decision making, and modulation of social behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is one of the slowest parts of the brain to develop, usually only reaching full maturity around our mid-20s, which explains while children are able to get into flow state far more easily and frequently.
During deeper forms of breathwork, over-oxygenation essentially deactivates the prefrontal cortex (or at least parts of it), and starts to activate different regions of the brain. This generates new neural pathways and connections, enabling us to create new insights, ideas and perspectives, and ultimately form new beliefs, habits and thought patterns. Through breathwork our brains essentially become more child-like, more open to new ideas, inspiration and possibilities, and far more likely to access the state of consciousness required for flow.
Waves of altered states
Beyond activating (and deactivating) different parts of the brain, breathwork has also been shown to alter the electrochemical energy of the brain, more commonly referred to as brain waves. This allows us to explore altered and optimal states of consciousness, including those necessary to experience flow state.
Deep breathwork experiences generally show a decrease in beta waves; the most common brain waves for regular everyday activity, and an increase in theta waves; the brain waves produced when we move beyond normal waking consciousness into a dream-like state – usually in deep sleep or meditation. Breathwork can also induce delta waves, the brain frequency that occurs in deep dreamless states when we become detached from our awareness. This is the state in which bodily healing and regeneration occur and, interestingly, was previously thought to only be accessible in an unconscious state.
Gamma waves, arguably the most aspirational of brain wave states, are the brain waves associated with expanded and elevated states of consciousness, or peak experiences, including flow state, and, yep, you guessed it – breathwork can take us there too.
Breathe your way into flow
So whether you’re stuck on a big problem at work, unsure of your next move, or trying to navigate a challenging life circumstance, breathwork may be the key to unlock a profound sense of clarity, supercharge your creativity and transport you to a newfound state of effortless flow.