Spinning a state of mind

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

Under a dark sky on the outskirts of Lebanon, under cover of trees and brush and set upon a clearing, friends and strangers gathered Friday, Sept. 2, to share the experience of throwing light with hula hoops, staffs and poi balls.
It was part of organizer Amber Mulligan’s weekly gatherings for what she calls “flow arts,” which she defined as an art that uses instruments to break from outward distractions into an almost meditative state of mind.
“My definition is really anything that takes you out of the current moment,” she said. “It’s really connecting to your body and also using some type of instrument, whether it be a paintbrush or a hoop or ballet shoes.”

ORGANIZER AMBER MULLIGAN shows a young girl how to practice poi by using a safer, handmade version of the toy.

Mulligan and her husband, Mitchell Torres, both of Lacomb, began playing with hoops and fire during the pandemic in 2020 when the community was asked to self-quarantine. She’d been inspired after seeing others play with lighted hoops and fire sticks at concerts.
“It’s just mesmerizing; it looks so fun,” she said. “It was kind of my quarantine project, something fun to learn and keep me active.”
Mulligan started with a cheap hoop, spinning it around, becoming acquainted with its weight and learning how to connect her body to its rhythms while forgetting surrounding distractions.
“When I’m doing this type of thing, I’m not thinking about anything else,” she said. “I’m kind of just connected to my body, I’m not stressing about anything.”
Torres began exploring it, too. His toy of choice, however, was the fire staff (a wood or metal staff with wicks on each end), and it wasn’t long before Mulligan started playing with fire, as well. She now has her own set of fire fans (fan-shaped objects with multiple wicks), as well as LED hoops, and LED and fire poi balls (weights attached to the ends of a tether).
“Each toy is completely different,” she said. “It’s a different weight, it moves differently on your body.”
Mulligan and Torres soon discovered that some of their coworkers played with similar items, so they coordinated weekly get-togethers and invited the public to join them through a Facebook group called Lebanon Flow Arts Fam.
“I just put it out there to see if there were other like-minded people out there and people who were into this kind of thing, and it appears there was,” Mulligan said.
Initially the group met at Cheadle Park, but soon moved to private property near Lacomb because the park closed at dusk which, let’s face it, is when the fun really starts with multi-colored lights and fire spinning in a dancing fashion amid a dark backdrop.

Mulligan spins a fire-lit poi toy.

On Sept. 2, Mulligan and Torres invited anyone curious about flow arts to join their rendezvous. Several kids, some as young as 5 and 6 years old, spun homemade poi toys (tennis balls in socks) and whirled multi-colored LED hula hoops before running off to play or sit in a hammock among the trees. As daylight faded and darkness settled in, more experienced flow artists added fire to their toys.
Anton Moquin, of Lebanon, showed his skill with a fire-lit poi by tying both tethers together and hanging it from his body. He began doing poi in 2008 when he lived in Mississippi and has since progressed with other tools of the trade to better understand the “flow state of mind.”
“It’s easy to learn but hard to master, so it’s always challenging you,” he said. “And that’s what flow state is; you’re always challenging yourself. It’s like your brain is trying to get to the next level when you’re trying to learn something new, trying to develop a skill basically. It’s challenging for your brain but it’s easy for your body.”
Torres put it this way: “When you’re in a flow state, you’re actually in an unconscious state. It’s a trained unconscious state just like our unconscious habits of eating and breathing. It’s just muscle memory.”

Nyree Stoddard plays with LED pois.

He said that brain scans have shown that those in a “flow state” were similar to ones in that trained unconscious state. He added that neuroscientists have said that people trained in meditation can have the same brain activity as a trained juggler.
“That’s what a lot of your scientists are kind of finding out,” he said. “There are tons of different ways to get your mind into a meditative state. It’s kind-of also what flow state is.”
“I feel like it’s more mental than people realize,” Mulligan said. “It’s not just twirling something around. You have intention behind it; you’re kind-of just doing what feels natural, what your body wants to do.”
“But the motions really help you get into the flow state,” Torres added. “It’s really just connection of the mind, body and spirit with any type of medium. With flow arts, athletics and exercise, I’ve heard this quote that says emotion follows motion, so these physical movements help us get into that flow state.”

JORDAN YOUNG, of Stayton, tries out a fire stick while his friends watch.

Mulligan named a multitude of activities to initiate that “flow state,” including dancing, singing, playing an instrument, painting, juggling, bicycling, skateboarding, hacky sack and butterfly knives.
“I consider flow arts to be anything artistic, really,” she said. “You’re in the flow state; you’re not really thinking, you’re just going.”
And everything that oftenconsumes most people’s focus – like social status, current economic issues, ego, stress, thoughts about the self and others – fades into the distance, he said.
“All that becomes irrelevant when we go into a flow state.”