“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

 

I’m a firm believer in the power of movement to lift one’s spirits and relieve stress. And there’s an argument to be made for how exercise can build self-confidence by helping us move through the world with greater ease and less pain.

But can movement literally make us happier?

In the book Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience psychology professor and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies major elements that bring us joy.

(Note: that wonderful name is roughly pronounced – Mihaly = Me high. Csikszentmihalyi = Cheeks send me high.)

It’s worth noting that Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes between pleasure and joy – pleasure providing a solitary instance of gratification (e.g. eating a good meal) while joy is a more complex emotion offering us meaningful opportunities to nurture and grow our sense of self.

The elements he lays out are based on research of a diverse group of individuals and cultures from around the world. What emerges during these “optimal experiences” is a sense of flow – a state of being that makes us present in the moment and allows us to deepen and broaden our sense of self.

These optimal experiences are just as likely to be found in ordinary activities as extraordinary ones. Joy can be found all around us – even, I would argue, at a Pilates studio!

A flow experience …

Provides us with a sense of completion.

The goal of doing Pilates (at Bloom anyway) isn’t to look a certain way – it’s to find a sense of strength and confidence in yourself.

Requires clear goals.

Pilates fundamentals are pathways to beginner exercises which lead us to intermediary and advanced exercises. One of the fun things about Pilates is that success is always within your grasp and there’s always a fun new challenge at every turn.

Provides us with immediate feedback.

Our bodies are continually offering us feedback in Pilates and it is important to acknowledge these sensations. I am continually asking my students “Where do you feel that exercise in your body?” as a reminder to students that they aren’t simply meant to go through the motions of executing an exercise – that they must be fully present.

Removes worries and frustrations of every day life.

While there’s no doubt that Pilates is hard work, it can make us feel lighter, more energized, more focused and more centered. These are all bodily sensations that work to counter negative feelings and stress.

Gives us a sense of control over our actions.

From a literal standpoint, control is one of the eight principles of Pilates. Mastering our body’s movements is essential to moving through the world with ease; it requires us to move with intentionality, concentration and thoughtfulness. 

Allows a stronger sense of Self to emerge.

Taking a cue from #5, on a deeper level I think experiences that help us connect to our bodies offers us a greater sense of control over our lives and offers us confidence to tackle challenges life throws at us – be they medical, professional, or personal. It is only when we are more rooted in our bodies that a stronger sense of Self can emerge.

Creates an altered sense of time.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve concluded a 55 minute session only to have students look surprisingly at the clock and note “Wow, the hour flew by!” Pilates does allow for an altered state – one where we can shut out the negativity and stresses of the outside world and concentrate on ourselves.

One of the biggest challenges for many of us in using movement as a source of joy is avoiding self-consciousness, self-judgment and self-criticism. I think one beautiful aspect of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow is that we are at once so deeply within our bodily experience – so present – that it affords us the opportunity to transcend internal negativity.

“When not preoccupied with our selves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have pushed forward.”

As a teacher and a studio owner, the most important thing I can do is create an environment that allows for safe, supportive exploration of movement for clients so that they can lose themselves in one way in order to find themselves in a new way.

Check out this animated book review of the concept of Flow.

And here are more details about Csikszentmihalyi’s theory from PositivePsychology.com.