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The Magic of Group Flow

Posted by Anna | Oct 09, 2020

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Medieval knights trained till a sword was their "extension of self”.

Sailors, through history, say they felt one with their ship.

When we get “into the zone” with our practice, the boundary of self dissolves and expands out into our objects of attention.

It happens because our mind becomes so focused, during the flow state, that non-critical systems wink out. The bits of our brain that nag, count time, and name self are the first to go! So all spare brain power can be diverted to the task at hand. ⚡️

There’s just this. There's just now.

And so, it’s no wonder that something special happens when we practice in groups.

Have you ever felt that magical atmosphere that can arise when your group sit in mediation together, or sync yoga movements in vinyasa flow?

Part of it results from the simple camaraderie of human connection. But it also comes down to this:

Companionship itself is a massive trigger for flow.

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Steven Kotler puts it down to the simple fact that that humans are a social species:

"We’re competitive, cooperative, sexually attracted, and all the rest. These are all exceptionally powerful motivators. As a result, when other people are present, we pay more attention to the present. Companionship drives focus into the now — it’s arguably the simplest flow hack in the world"

But there’s even more to it than that.

In 1912, a British anthropologist studied the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands and the dance rituals they used to forge community bonds:

“The dancer becomes absorbed in [both] the dance and the unified community. He reaches a state of elation in which he finds himself ... able to perform prodigies of exertion. [He is] in complete and ecstatic harmony with all the fellow members of his community [and] experiences a great increase in his feelings of amity and attachment towards them.”

Even when a dancer needs to rest, they always keep one heal tapping to the beat. A way to stay connected.

Psychologists call this state “collective joy,” something humans, throughout history, have cultivated. And apparently, that tapping foot is key to everything!

Why?

Because collective joy is generated by keeping time, and moving in synchrony.

The surfer "merges with the ocean" because his focus is in the waves.

In the same way, synchronised groups can sometimes expand awareness to identify as one. And in no time, their breathing, heartbeat, even brainwaves can begin to sync up too.

The effect's particularly pronounced when it comes to yoga (according to Kelly McGonigal PhD):

"Practitioners synchronise both their movements and their breathing. The breath becomes the beat that drives the flow of poses. And the sound of the group inhaling and exhaling in unison provides a satisfying sensory feedback. Studies show that yoga, like dancing, can create social bonds… connection and trust.”
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It’s why armies are taught to march. Why Crossfit groups become tight knit. And why it feels so awesome to  be part of a big crowd, doing a Mexican wave.

Flow happens alone, and in groups. But when we flow together, the science says our “flow enjoyment” rises. When we collaborate in flow, it rises higher still. And when we synchronise movements in flow… well, it just about goes through the roof. 😊

And those pleasure chemicals are useful!

"Higher enjoyment correlates to higher motivation, of course, but these same chemicals also enhance performance” - Steven Kotler

The effects of this can be mighty. 

Just ask Keith Sawyer! Training under psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Sawyer's life's work has been the study of collective joy, creativity and group flow.

In his book Group Genius, he takes a deep dive through history to prove that all the so-called lone mavericks from Darwin to Edison to Einstein were in fact innovating in groups, not alone. 

It's a pattern in history:

Great leaps forward tend to come through collaboration!

So, whether we want to raise our game, or make a difference, whether in the realm of fitness, spirit, creativity, or business, the simplest takeaway, according to Kotler, is this:

“One of the easiest ways to find flow is to band together.”
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