Fitness Magazine

Positive Psychology Vs. Yoga Philosophy

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

Positive Psychology vs. Yoga Philosophy

The Moon Over a Waterfall
by Hiroshige

Recently, I was introduced to the topic of positive psychology, a newer branch of psychology that has earned wide popularity thanks to the seminal work done by psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (this name is tougher to say than a yoga pose in Sanskrit: the closest I can come to his name is “Me-high Sheek-sent-me-high”). 

According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, the focus of general psychology is on treating abnormal behavior and mental illness. In contrast, positive psychology was established on the conviction that normal people prosper by leading a meaningful and fulfilling life. Positive psychology does not describe dysfunction and abnormal behavior; rather it is centered on determining positive human development and helping people to prosper and lead healthy, happy lives. Positive psychology describes the “good life,” and uses scientific tools, strengths and virtues to enable individuals and communities to prosper and lead a well-lived, fulfilling life.  

“Good life” according to these psychologists is about using our strengths and positive traits to produce genuine happiness and unlimited fulfillment on multiple levels that include, among others, the biological, personal, relational and institutional dimensions of life. Some of the major topics of interest in positive psychology include: happiness, optimism and helplessness, mindfulness, flow, character strengths and virtues, hope, positive thinking and resilience. Notice how these positive psychology traits resemble most of the ethical principles highlighted in the Ashtanga Yoga Philosophy by Patanjali. Similar to therapeutic yoga, positive psychology is being implemented in real-world applications in areas including therapy, self-help, stress management, and workplace issues. 

Let me now focus on one of the positive psychology traits, flow. I had an opportunity to read excerpts from the book “FLOW” by Csikszentmihalyi and what amazed me was that the flow principles described by the author in the book resonated soundly with the principles of yoga philosophy as well.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, “flow”occurs when:

  1. An individual is faced with a task that has clear goals and which requires specific responses
  2. When one is engaged in an activity where the challenge matches the individual’s skill, that is, when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenging task 
When the above two happen, the individual has an undivided focus and gets totally involved and forgets everything else but the activity. “Flow” may seem an effortless state but it requires a whole lot of effort initially to make that state accessible. The flow can be explained through the phenomenal compositions of musical maestros such as Bach and Beethoven, exquisite art work by Da Vinci and Picasso, or the mesmerizing sounds of the opera singers. In all of the above-mentioned examples, these respective individuals experienced “the flow,” a state of complete immersion in that specific activity. In “the flow” state, the ego falls away, time just vanishes, every new action, movement, and thought succeeds the previous one, the individual’s body, mind and intellect get completely united as a “whole,” the individual’s skills gets used to the utmost, and, at the end of all of it, the activity turns intrinsically rewarding for the individual.

Csíkszentmihályi puts forward several factors that are required to experience flow:

  • Clear and challenging goals that are attainable
  • Concentration and focused attention
  • Activity that is intrinsically rewarding
  • A loss of feeling of self-consciousness 
  • A loss of time—feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing
  • Feeling of personal control over the situation and the outcome feeling of personal control over the situation and the outcome (without being attached to the results of your actions)
  • Lack of awareness of physical needs
  • Complete focus on the activity itself 
Flow experience is not restricted to any one activity and occurs in different ways for different people. Some might experience flow while engaging in a sport; others might have a similar experience while engaged in an activity such as music, reading, painting, drawing, or writing. If it’s challenging and you have the necessary skill sets to immerse in the activity completely, it can result in flow. Flow keeps an individual in a truly happy state. Csikszentmihalyi proved that the more an individual is in flow the happier he/she becomes. 

Now coming to yoga, notice how it is a perfect activity to achieve flow. Be it yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, or pratyahara, all of these require dhayana (focus) and dharana (concentration and motivation).  This very nature of yoga allows an individual to match challenges to skill level. The breath work, concentration, precise alignment, the controlling power of how hard you’re pushing yourself—all of this puts an individual in a flow state. It was as though Patanjali designed the entire yoga philosophy to provide a flow experience. Every time you achieve flow in your yoga practice, you gain experience and inherently improve your skill level. Very soon, the practice takes your skill sets to a higher level and you able to do more by challenging yourself further. You experience contentment and enjoy a sense of accomplishment. It’s a great positive spiral and it results in improved health and happiness. That is “Living Samadhi” (bliss/enlightenment) in an everyday life.

So the next time you encounter a positive psychologist, declare that you too are in “Flow” with your yoga practice. Better, read the book and “flow inwards” in your yogic life!

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