On this episode of Biohack-HERS, HigherDOSE Founders Lauren Berlingeri and Katie Kaps meet with Vivian Rosenthal, the co-founder of Frequency, a New York City-based breathwork studio. After a 45 minute guided session with Vivian, they discovered just how powerful and transformative the Frequency Breathwork practice is and how quickly it put them into a Flow State. 

 

What is a flow state?

Have you ever sensed such a fluidity and harmony between your body and mind, where time slows down and you are fully in tune, immersed, and present with your experience? This effortless state of human consciousness is what we call a ‘flow state,’ a mental state of complete absorption of the task at hand that everything else seems to melt away. 

Popularized by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s, the concept of ‘flow’ stemmed from his interest in positive psychology, or more specifically, how people find and pursue happiness. He conducted a large survey where he asked one elementary question: “What activities produce your deepest enjoyment and greatest satisfaction?” In describing what their peak activities felt like, subjects expressed “flowy” experiences where there was an effortless flow from one action to the next. 

Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills at the utmost.” Furthermore, Csikszentmihalyi co-authored a pair of studies in 2022 that discusses the main principles of flow, some of which include: total absorption, feeling of mastery, feeling of pleasure, merging between awareness and action, freedom from self-consciousness, and a sense of timelessness. 

Unfortunately, with our busy work schedules, fast-paced environments, sedentary lifestyles on Zoom, and unrelenting stress, most adults tend to walk through the world with an over-activated sympathetic nervous system, which prevents a flow state and keeps them in fight or flight mode. The result of stress and multi-tasking is that the natural slow rhythmic way of breathing becomes quick and shallow. When we constantly breathe in this way, the body is physiologically challenged to enter into the parasympathetic nervous system, or what is known as ‘rest and digest,’ our mode of calm, relaxation, and optimal mental health. 

 

What happens to the brain in a flow state?

The communication between neurons within the brain is the source of all of our behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. Depending on our experiences or states of being, the brain shifts between different frequencies, or brainwaves; Beta, Alpha, Theta, Delta, and Gamma. 

Beta waves constitute our waking active consciousness. These frequencies tend to dominate when we are involved in our everyday activities, processing information around us. Beta waves also occur when we may feel afraid, anxious, frustrated, or tense. 

Alpha waves occur when we are about to fall asleep, when we wake up from rest, and when we are relaxed and grounded in the present moment. Associated with low anxiety and stress states and feelings of calm and tranquility, alpha activity is the state in which a flow state of mind can truly be experienced. 

Theta waves are produced when we are beyond normal waking consciousness, in a relaxed dream state. These frequencies, reflecting subconscious states of mind, can occur in deep sleep or meditation. 

Delta waves take place in our deep dreamless states, when we are detached from our awareness. Healing and regeneration are activated in this state. 

 Gamma waves are connected to expanded consciousness, insight, heightened perception, and total concentration. Frequencies that support self-awareness, control, and compassion, they are linked to flow states and being in the zone. 

Research shows that during a flow state theta activity in the frontal brain increases, while alpha waves in the frontal and central brain areas decrease. This suggests that we enter into a relaxed state beyond our normal consciousness where working memory is not overworked, a space without high levels of stress and anxiety, the obstacle to achieving a flow state of mind.

We all have the capacity to be able to intentionally generate specific brainwaves to achieve desired results. And one of the simplest and most direct ways to change the state of our brain is through conscious breath. Let’s explore more deeply how the breath can move us into a flow state.

 

Breathwork: opening to a flow state

Stress serves as one of the biggest blockages when it comes to achieving a flow state. In order to release into a flow state, we must learn how to move through anxiety and alleviate the tension that prevents us from entering into this mental space. Breathwork is an incredibly powerful tool for journeying through these feelings and shifting the body into states of calm and relaxation. 

When we’re in danger or perceive a threat, the sympathetic nervous system, or our fight or flight mode, gets activated. Our heart rates increase so that our blood can deliver oxygen throughout the body and allow for all default responses to be fulfilled. With this, however, not enough oxygen is delivered to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls cognitive functioning, and clear thinking is restricted. 

While the sympathetic nervous system is critical for survival and protection from threatening situations, if it’s constantly activated, we can enter into a state of chronic stress. Luckily, we have the parasympathetic nervous system to counterbalance an overactive sympathetic state. And it is through the breath that we can stimulate this system and unlock a flow state of mind. 

Breathwork serves as a potent way to achieve a flow state as it activates the vagus nerve, oxygenates the brain, and helps us tap into the subconscious mind. The vagus nerve, running from the brain to the abdomen, is responsible for switching off our fight or flight response as it uses the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to initiate relaxation. When stimulated, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease and stress hormones, or cortisol levels, go down. Additionally, breathing with conscious awareness delivers oxygen to different brain regions, allowing us to access the subconscious mind. As the subconscious stores all of the information we’ve ever experienced, learned, or seen in our lives and is not bound by limiting beliefs or stories, we tap into our inner knowing, creativity, and wisdom, and it is in this space that we can move into flow. 

Lastly, breathwork directly influences our brainwaves, primarily increasing alpha, theta, and delta frequencies. By triggering regions of the brain to slow down, the breath moves us into dreamlike states not bound by stress and anxiety. Research has even shown that conscious connected breathing increases alpha activity after just five minutes and theta power after 15-20 minutes. 

Breathwork is a powerful tool in helping us to reach expanded levels of consciousness and wellbeing. Begin or deepen a breath practice, and feel the benefits of the experience. Move through stress, shift the nervous system, tune into the subconscious, and journey into flow states of mind!