Virtual LSA: Juliette Hecquet

 Let it go, let it flow – exploring yoga as a flow experience.

Juliette Hecquet

Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK; Department of Sport and Events Management


The following contribution is a summary of my PhD thesis, which was due to be presented at LSA 2020.  In light of the unfortunate cancellation, the following summarises the paper for LSA members.

Yoga continues to grow in popularity and is being sort out by professionals and society alike as a leisure activity that has a positive impact on physicality and wellbeing, in a variety of forms.  Yet, little is understood about the yoga experience, why it is adopted, maintained and cherished by those who practice it.

The definition of yoga remains fluid and controversial. The origin of the word yoga in Sanskrit is ‘yui’ or to yolk or join together (Newcombe, 2009).  Modern yoga comprises of three basic components; asana (postures), pranayama (breath work) and to varying degrees dhyana (meditation).  The adoption of some, but not all of the traditional eight limbs of yoga, has led to an oxymoron between the philosophical roots of yoga and the more physical practice, suggesting yoga has arguably morphed into a practice that transcends physical and mental realms (Patterson et al, 2016).

The majority of published academic research is in clinical and medical fields and has shown yoga positively treats the effects of non-commicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease (Innes et al, 2005), cancer (Smith & Pukall, 2009), chronic respiratory disease (Posadzki & Ernst, 2011), diabetes (Alexander et al, 2008) and mental health and wellbeing(Park et al, 2014).  Research on yoga is increasing, but only 27% of studies from 1975-2014, have been conducted with healthy participants (Field, 2016). With increasing medical and governmental interest in prevention of disease and promotion of wellbeing, yoga may be seen as a potential alternative health solution, but there remains a lack of clarity of what the yoga experience now is.

Modern yoga has arguably moved away from the original mind-body-spirit practice (Park et al, 2015), and has perhaps become diluted as a spiritual experience, with asana (physical practice) dominating popular yoga culture, in the west especially. With only half of yoga practice taking place in a physical class setting (Yoga Journal, 2015), where and how yoga is practiced has changed and is becoming increasingly liquid.  Contemporary yoga communities have emerged in yoga retreats, yoga events, digital and virtual yoga, meaning the concept of yoga practice has changed, thus raising the question of what the yoga ‘experience’ means to its students in its various forms.

The emergence of differences in the modern yoga experience has limited qualitative, non-medicalised research from a social sciences perspective. Although researchers agree yoga has positive outcomes in medical and alternative health fields and has the potential to be valuable in society, ‘there is paucity of literature examining how yoga is practiced in the real-life environment” (Patwardhan & Lloyd, 2017, p.572) and qualitative research of the yoga experience.

Csikszentmihalyi’s (1975) flow experience theory appears to allow depth of enquiry into the yoga experience, which has to date not been academically explored.  Csikszentmihalyi himself recognised the connection between the elements of the flow experience and yoga, stating yoga could be regarded as “one of the oldest and most systematic methods of producing flow experience” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.106). The merging of action and awareness is a common theme in yoga practice, resulting in philosophical parallels with flow experience providing “us with a temporary glimpse of Samadhi, the blissful state of consciousness yogis have been cultivating for years” (Wilson, 1990, p.22).  Similarly, the need to turn attention to concentration of the present moment was seen as higher order theme to achieve flow (Jackman et al, 2015) and correlates to the aim of yoga and mindfulness to be present.

The flow experience discussion has led to research predominantly in elite sport (Jackson et al, 1998), but has featured more recently in more holistic sports and leisure, such as dancing (Hefferon and Ollis, 2006), skiing (Clark et al, 2008), music (Diaz, 2011) and horse racing (Jackman et al, 2015).

The growing interest of academia and society into holistic experiences, and the resulting flow experience can be seen as both a reaction to the medicalisation of society and a drive towards more holistic, positive solutions.  The interest and investment now in wellbeing and balance reflects that “historically the health disciplines have focused on problems and pathology” and we are now entering an insurgence of research into wellness “towards the promotion of preventative and positive approach to health” (Jackson, 2000, p.136) and moving away from the medicalised attitude of prescribe into an era of prevent.

This ongoing research will examine yoga as a flow experience and will enable an extension of the primarily sports flow research and move the research lens to a non-competitive leisure context.  Despite the acknowledgment that “commonalities exist between yoga and positive psychology” (Ivtzan, 2014, p.184), a lack of qualitative research examining yoga as a standalone activity and also as a flow experience exists.

Exploration of yoga as a flow experience is a unique research theme which will enable a deeper understanding of what the yoga experience is, and the detailed meaning yoga participants ascribe to their experience. It is my contention therefore, that this research will have far and wide-reaching applications in leisure and physical activity contexts.


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