The first time I became really aware of the flow was when I was a teenager skiing down a steep, mogul filled slope. It was a beautiful early spring day, blue sky, white snow and every turn felt perfect. I was gliding down the hillside, moving to an improvised jazz melody, the mountain, skis and I in euphoric harmony. It was a sense of being completely absorbed in what I was doing and doing it freely, without thought or inhibition.
Since then, this feeling of flow has come over me while fencing in high school, dabbling in gymnastics in university, road-biking through the Eastern hills and mountain biking in Utah. For me, the runner’s high I experienced was just another version of the flow. When I first started martial arts training, the flow was there, waiting for me, especially when practicing applications, playing free-style (no rules) taijiquan push hands and sparring.
But the flow would come and go. I was definitely NOT in the flow the time I got knocked out while sparring. The flow was wonderful but I couldn’t reliably bring it on.
From my reading I learned that my feeling of flow was not unique but experienced by athletes and others engaged in various physical and creative endeavors. Some called it being in the zone, a kind of feel-good, mind-body unity. There were even books dedicated to the topic, promising more and better flows for all but never offering a simple approach.
Then I started to study the martial art of Jiulong Baguazhang.
Like many other activities, baguazhang involves sustained focus on an activity, one of the ingredients that seem to me to be part of the feeling of flow. However, there is something unique about this art: the practice of circle walking. My teacher, Shigong John Painter, has spoken and written extensively about this practice, pointing out the human propensity to dance or engage in ritual activity while moving in circles.
His own research showed that walking in circles facilitated the development of alpha brain waves on EEG testing while walking in a straight line for the same amount of time did not. Alpha waves are correlated with a relaxed, meditative mental state. This and other research suggests to me that feeling the flow or being in the zone may be the result of an array of neurochemical and other brain changes that moving in circles is especially effective in triggering.
Even if we don’t fully understand such experiences, Jiulong offers a reliable way to experience them through the practice of circle walking and its near infinite variations. When I look back, I realize that seeking the flow, this feeling of transcendence, has always been a part of why I’ve run, skied and, of course, practiced martial arts. Now, thanks to Jiulong, all I have to do is start circling and it’s there – nearly every time.
I’m sure many of you have experienced something like what I’m calling the flow or zone. Maybe you recall moments of exhilaration while you were playing sports, dancing, painting or doing anything you were intensely focused on, moments where everything seemed just right. Well, those moments are still available to you. With baguazhang, when you step into the circle, you step into the flow and enter the zone.