Thursday, June 13, 2013

Defining Flow

(This article has been expanded from my original post on

"Flow" is  term we tend to throw around a lot in the hooping community. We describe hoop-stars like Mona and Spiral as having "flow." We strive to cultivate it in our hoop-practice. But what exactly are we striving for? You see, when we talk about flow, we're actually talking about two different ideas that have become linked through digital alchemy.

On one hand, drawing on the work on  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, hoopers conceptualize flow as a mental state where daily worries, time, self-criticism, and doubt drop away. The hooper enters a mind-state where s/he is completely immersed in the moment, in the movement. Many hoopers describe this state as a kind of heightened awareness where they reach beyond their normal limitations and they become one with the hoop. Artists in all different forms describe similar experiences and Chomsky studied those experiences to create his theories about "flow."

On the other hand, we also tend to use "flow" to describe a hooper whose skill, enthusiasm, and style communicate a sense easy grace or general bad-ass-ness. When someone appears to be totally blissing or rocking out, we say they have flow. In this case, we're describing fluidity, ease of movement, and flawless transitions. We're describing what their movement communicates to us, rather than their mind-state, because as much as a video can communicate emotion, we really have no idea what the hooper's actually experiencing.

It's important to distinguish between the two different meanings of "flow" because hoopers belong to a very visual community. We live in a visual society where Facebook, advertising, and Youtube have trained us to associate certain appearances with certain mind-states. We all want to be bad-ass (flow in the 2nd sense). We seek to awe a real or imagined audience.  We are, after all human, and part of what draws many folks to hooping is that it creates a space for us to be skillful, marvelous, and awe inspiring. And that's good!

However, when our community convolutes the appearance of flow with the mental experience of flow, we risk making that experience less accessible. Personal experience suddenly becomes linked to physical characteristics (like fluidity, beauty, and gracefulness) that have minimal correlation with a hooper's state of mind. These characteristics in turn create a rigid pre-conception of what flow looks like rather than what it feels like. Suddenly authentic self expression is replaced by the pressure to buy $100 dance pants and mime poses glimpsed in YouTube videos. Less insidiously, the mental experience becomes linked to a particular skill set or level of expertise beyond the reach of vast numbers of hoop dance enthusiasts.

Language is an amazing tool. It both shapes and is shaped by our reality and culture. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's conceptualization of flow has given us a marvelous word to describe the marvelous experience of being immersed in our art. Our language possesses an equal capacity to describe the physical characteristics that are often mislabeled as flow. We can describe those mind-boggling expressions of hoop-dance virtuosity in language that simultaneously honors bad-ass performance and leaves space for flow as an uninhibited mental-emotional experience.

At the deepest level, the level that sustains our spirit,  we want to experience the power and bliss of flow (in the 1st sense.) When we embrace flow as a state of mind, we reaffirm that anyone can experience a joyous psychological state at any point in their hoop journey.  We can experience it busting out super-tech tricks. We can experience it dancing. We can experience it getting lost in the counted circles of three-beat-weave drills. It need be neither beautiful nor refined because it transcends appearances.

I 1st tasted flow hooping to Bob Dylan when I only knew 3 hoop-moves. If I'd recorded that glorious, but undoubtedly clumsy, session, no one would have marveled and declared, "That girl has flow!"

But I did, because flow is in your head. Flow is in your heart.

Michelle Nayeli appears to embody a transcendental hoop experience, but
may, for all I know, be experiencing a dreadful foot cramp while she waits
for a friend to take this marvelous photo. 

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