Throughout the ages, musicians, painters and performers have all described a feeling of being “in the flow” when producing their art. “It’s a state where a person is no longer themselves, but rather a witness to themselves—they’re witnessing their body and mind moving or behaving,” says Gary Gorrow, a Vedic meditation teacher.
A concept similar to the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and the Taoist tradition of wu wei, often translated as “not doing”, in a state of flow a person’s energy is intensely focused, time becomes irrelevant and, as in deep meditation, feelings of joy spontaneously arise.
The modern-day concept of “flow” was developed in the 1960s by Hungarian-born psychologist, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Fascinated by the idea that an artist can be so absorbed in their work they forget to eat or sleep, he interviewed a number of artists who reported having experienced natural ecstatic states and expansion of consciousness while creating their art.
One of Csikszentmihalyi’s key findings was that a mind-less state can only be achieved when a person is able to stand aside from their ego and undertake the task at hand with total absorption. In his seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (HarperCollins, 1990), Csikszentmihalyi also suggests hatha yoga can help facilitate this process.
“It makes sense to think of yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity,” he writes. “Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.”
Gary Gorrow agrees, suggesting that meditation and asana practice are often the conduits to experience flow and, in turn, greater creativity. This is based on the Vedic view that, “beyond this physical manifest world there’s a non-material field which is the source of everything in creation, including the ideas that dawn inside our own awareness,” he says.
“When the mind is disorderly we limit our access to that field of pure creative energy. Meditation increases the exposure. In a state of flow your mind is becoming intimate with pure consciousness and this gives rise to pure cognition and creative ideas.”
Most artists may differ from yoga practitioners in their ultimate goal—a finished piece or performance versus moksha, liberation from the self—but any person who experiences flow cultivates a broader sense of self. “You no longer think of yourself as this isolated entity,” says Gorrow. “You start to experience that underlying connection and what you really feel is love.”
Here, we speak with four creative souls from different disciplines, who have all experienced flow and a deep sense of joy and peace achieved through their art.
Jethro & Prem Williams
The first time musician Jethro Williams played the Indian bansuri flute, “There was an instantaneous inward movement,” he says. The bamboo instrument, famously played by Krishna, “Is like a vehicle into your inner self—you don’t want to play it with your eyes open. I go to a place with no time. It’s effortless.”
For more than a decade, Jethro and his wife Prem, who live in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, have been experiencing flow during performances of their emotive “music for inner peace”. It was an increased focus on meditation and yoga, and the birth of the couple’s daughter, Minjahra, 13 years ago that inspired the creation of their duo Sacred Earth.
“I have a really deep experience when we play; a deep, deep sense of love and connection and divinity.”
Then based on the Sunshine Coast, “We decided the music industry wasn’t really a wholesome place for children,” says Jethro. “We put our instruments and that persona of being a performer down to complete a yoga teacher training with Radiant Light Yoga. Learning about mantra and chanting gave us the insight that music doesn’t have to be a performance—it can be a whole, unified experience.”
For Prem, the revelation was a replay of sorts of the moment she first discovered her voice. “I started singing when I was about 24,” she says. “I was home alone one day and just started experimenting with a whole lot of sounds. I started to sing the feelings in my heart rather than any words, and I felt like I found my voice—maybe not the tonality or pitch, but the feeling I wanted to connect with.”
Instead of playing pubs, the couple began busking at markets and enjoyed great success. “People would come and hang out while we played or sit and meditate with us under trees,” says Jethro. “It became a real community and soon evolved to us touring around Australia and Europe.”
The couple’s ongoing meditation practice helped finesse the format of their show. “On stage, things can completely fall apart,” says Jethro. “You can have sound issues, the rooms you’ve hired don’t work—anything can happen to throw you. Because we were able to look at it without reason or blame, and really refine what we had going on within ourselves, we were able to find the place we needed to be in to really access that space.”
From their seated positions on stage, Jethro and Prem ask the audience to remain silent throughout the performance and experience the mantras and melodies from the inside, like they do. The workshops and meditation retreats the couple run, which include art play, mantra singing and massage, also help people connect with their music on a spiritual level.
“I have a really deep experience when we play, and it’s the same feeling every time; a deep, deep sense of love and connection and divinity,” says Prem. “For me, it’s really about stepping out of the way. Before a show I ask to be a channel for love, I ask that our music touch the heart of the listener in the deepest place—a place where they can listen to their own inner wisdom and guidance.”
“As a girl I was always very creative. I was drawn to painting, drawing, dancing—anything that made me feel very present,” says artist, jewellery maker and founder of the Chakra Cooperative, Katie Manekshaw.
Her “chakra series” paintings (one pictured opposite) are colourful representations of the seven core energy centres outlined in the ancient Vedic texts. With vivid, swirling patterns, Katie’s artworks draw in the viewer, acting as a focal point for open-eyed meditation. “You can tell a lot about people and their nature by the chakra painting they’re drawn to,” she says.
The subject matter instinctively drew in Katie, too. “I’d always been a bit scared to do big canvases, then one day I bought a canvas and just started,” she remembers.
“I never felt conscious of what I was going to paint and I never felt in any doubt about how to start or finish—it was like it wasn’t me painting. Even now when I look at them, I can’t imagine why I’d want to do such complex or enormous pieces of work. There’s definitely magic in the art, but whether it’s mine or the paintings’, I don’t know.”
Raised in the United Kingdom to an Indian father and English mother, family trips to India exposed Katie to the saturated colour and culture of her father’s homeland. After finishing a degree at art college she worked in the advertising industry and travelled extensively through Europe and Asia, maintaining ornate notebooks of the different textures she experienced.
“Everything I’ve ever painted has been very two-dimensional,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to things that are ageing naturally and am fascinated by the way nature repeats itself. As a younger artist I didn’t have the skills to analyse why I was drawn to the things I was, but my feeling about my art now, and my paintings specifically, is that I am trying to capture a sense of the universe—a sense of oneness and wholeness. Nothing is unrelated. One brushstroke affects the next.”
An inner yearning for nature and freedom brought Katie to Australia 15 years ago. Now living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, the creation of her jewellery, also based on the chakra system, was equally instinctive. “When you look at a crystal you see the repetition of patterning, it looks like liquid,” she says. “I just knew I had an affinity with them. I started the chakra jewellery about eight years ago and it wasn’t a conscious choice. I was doing a lot of yoga when I started and, with my creative background, I just put two and two together.”
Today, Katie balances organising workshops and one-day wellbeing retreats through the Chakra Cooperative with ocean swims, seated meditation, asana and art. “Painting is such a beautiful process—mixing the colours and seeing the form on the canvas,” she says. “But it’s so easy to distract yourself and do other things—it’s a bit like meditation in that sense, because it really takes being present… and I do feel very differently after I’ve painted, it’s like I’ve come home.”
A deeply spiritual practice, Kundalini dance uses breath, free-form movement and music to activate the chakras, move energy and remove stagnant emotional blockages. Described as a “self-healing journey”, the dance enabled feelings of pure bliss for Sarah Fletcher, a Kundalini dance teacher based in Sydney’s northern beaches.
“In my first class I experienced expansion and natural ecstasy in my body,” she says. “Some people take drugs to get high, but I experienced this for real. It had such an impact on my physical being and these huge shifts started to take place in my life. It was very clear to me that I needed to continue this practice.”
Five years later, Sarah’s exploration of Kundalini dance, including training to be a teacher, has led to even more self-discovery and a deeper appreciation for the transformative power of art. “Essentially, with Kundalini dance, we work with Mama Gaia, the earth core healing energy, and that activates our central channel to open the chakras,” says Sarah. “Working with our cellular blueprint helps to shift and lift the old karmic patterns, so you can consciously transform and move to a place of higher integrity.”
The first benefit Sarah experienced related to her creativity. She’d long been aware of, but not understood, a beating feeling of burning fire in her sacral chakra (located in the lower abdomen). “I’d noticed in areas of my life, with my creativity, I’d always be blocked and I could never do the things I really desired,” she says. “I spoke with my teacher about the pulsing and she said it was a blockage.”
About two weeks later, during a two-hour Kundalini dance class, Sarah felt an “orgasmic explosion, like the whole centre of me was being expanded like a tree trunk. I just opened up and felt this beautiful flow, like my insides could breathe. After that I started manifesting the creation that was inside of me and finding the rhythm of what I needed to do.”
Movement has been key to Sarah’s spiritual awakening. “I’ve never been someone who could do seated meditation,” she says. “With the movement, I’m able to enter a trance-like, no-mind state where I can gain insight and have things start to clear and shift.”
Now studying to become a Steiner teacher, Sarah dances three to five times a week and takes up to four hot yoga classes, which include a lying meditation at the end. Her Kundalini dance classes, which incorporate Shamanic drumming, remain her main passion. “My heart sings for this dance, it’s the reason I teach regardless of whether I have 10 or 30 people in the class,” she says. “I’ve come across so many modalities but this one really works for me—and if it works for me, it’s definitely going to work for other people.
“My greater purpose is that we could all live our joy and be here living our highest purpose, then we all become beacons of light to each other. It only takes one spark to light up a nation.”
Catherine McCormack is a freelance writer and Ashtanga yoga teacher based in Sydney.