I had been weaving for about a year when I woke up one winter morning with a sudden realization: I hadn’t had an anxiety attack in months.
Anxiety has been my constant companion since childhood; it jumps out at me from the most unexpected places. I chalk it up partly to trauma and partly to heredity; whatever the cause, it has rendered me unable to participate in some parts of life like a “normal” person.
That morning, as I lay in bed, I thought something along the lines of, “Huh, that’s interesting. Maybe I’m finally growing out of my anxiety.” I got up and went about my day.
A few weeks later, life got busy. I spent a couple of months away from my loom, and I was very upset when my anxiety attacks began to recur. I didn’t make any mental connections this time, either. However, I did eventually return to my weaving practice when life slowed down, and again, after a few weeks of daily weaving, my anxiety decreased significantly. This time, I paid attention. I began asking around and discovered that many of my fellow weavers described similar experiences.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the way a regular weaving practice affects the brain and with finding ways to get the most out of my time at the loom. I am by no means an expert, but I am definitely a neuroscience nerd—and I’ve gathered lots of corroboration through my informal research that suggests weaving can have surprising mental health benefits.
The stories are numerous. Lucy Poskitt, a weaver in Victoria, British Columbia, writes, “A couple of years ago I developed a chronic case of insomnia. . . . It was the lowest I’d ever been: incredibly depressed, medicated, exhausted, and afraid. I spent my days worrying about if I’d be able to sleep at night, and my nights worrying about how I was going to function the next day without any sleep. The insomnia went on for months . . . until I started weaving again.”
Tegan Frisino of Hudson Valley, New York, says about her weaving practice, “My weaving meditations are usually the time when my anxiety stops—at least for a few hours. I am not wrapped up inside my own head, but I am listening to my body move, the loom settling into the rhythm, and my breath.” Ashley Owens of Nashville writes, “[Weaving] really helps with my anxiety and my focus (I have ADHD) and there’s something about the feel of fiber and the colors as they come into play. Not only is weaving a mental vacation, but it helps with my sensory overload.”
Brooklyn tapestry weaver Erin M. Riley says that weaving has helped her overcome trichotillomania. “[When I’m weaving], my hands are often distracted, busy, and thus not focused on inflicting pain on my body, just being productive.” James Davis, a fellow weaver from my home state of Colorado, says, “Sitting at a loom, I moved through the grief of my mom’s death [and] found the strength to go to therapy.”
The Flow State
What is it about this practice that allows the weaver to access a healing state? The best answer I’ve found is in the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist who introduced the concept of “flow” in the 1970s. Growing up in World War II Europe, he noticed as a young man that some survivors were crushed by the trauma, unable to return to their lives. Others were more resilient, finding happiness even after experiencing brutality and loss. Csikszentmihalyi’s research led him to discover that many of the resilient survivors were those who regularly engaged in activities that brought them into a state of flow.
Flow is something you’ve likely experienced at the loom, whether you knew it or not—it’s that liminal place where you are so completely absorbed in a project or activity that you lose track of time and forget about your ego. There ceases to be a distinction between your body, the loom, and the fibers as you participate with the work. It is an altered state that, not surprisingly, has many of the benchmarks of traditional meditation with regard to brain activity, but many who have struggled to find open awareness and quiet during traditional meditation alone have found that they are able to access this space through flow.
James Davis says, “Weaving is my favorite form of moving meditation. Like those who practice yoga, tai chi, or walking meditation, I find it easier to center my mind when I have an activity to focus on. I find I am less focused on myself while practicing weaving meditations. With sitting meditation, I find it very difficult to focus on my breathing alone. It leads me to get very focused on the ‘progress’ of my meditation practice. With weaving, my meditation practice feels less high-stakes. I don’t feel an urgency to quiet my mind or achieve anything. I am just engaging in this deep, timeless practice each day, because I enjoy it.”
Just as in meditation, the flow state allows for decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the more analytical functions of the brain such as logic, sense of self, decision-making, and social awareness. That means that your rational brain, which almost never gets a break from its constant attempts to regulate everything you do, can rest, and the more primal regions of your brain get a turn at the wheel. Your limbic system, which is instinctual and emotive, becomes dominant. The result is an uninhibited experience of creativity. You stop overthinking and can simply be.
Flow state has also been associated with the release of mood-enhancing neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and anandamide. Not only does this chemical cocktail make you feel good, but it enhances your focus, boosts your imagination, and allows your brain to find patterns and link seemingly unrelated ideas. Your brain begins to make new connections, and when that happens, your neurons—brain cells—start to grow new branches, called dendrites, that allow them to communicate with other neurons. And since denser, better-connected networks in the brain mean higher brain function, when you’re in the flow of weaving, you’re literally growing a healthier brain.
The key to achieving flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, is the right balance of challenge and skill level. If an activity is too difficult, the participant will become frustrated and lose the flow; if it’s too easy, the participant will become bored. Weaving, it seems, inherently contains the perfect recipe. I’ve never seen beginners of any activity drop into flow as quickly as they do in my Weaving 101 classes. A student can learn the rudimentary basics in 10 minutes—and yet there’s always a new challenge ready to meet the weaver as soon as the skill level allows. Over and over, I have watched novices with no fiber experience whatsoever become completely immersed in the act of creating. It’s amazing how many of my students will say, in the first few minutes of active weaving, “Wow. I’m really, really happy right now.”
So how can you get the maximum brain benefits from your own weaving practice? Many of them will happen naturally, but I’ve found that by investing a little more into my time at the loom, I’ve increased my mental and emotional dividends exponentially. In my experience, it’s about three things: consistency, intention, and method.
I experience the most healing when I’m at my loom regularly. Davis says, “The notion of discipline is so central for me. Meditation and fiber art are not just something you do every now and then. They are immersive disciplines of inward exploration, which one can use to deepen one’s experience of life. In my case, weaving is a daily practice that continues to reveal to me how I want to walk on this planet.” See if you can increase your time at the loom to a daily practice for one month, even if it’s for a short time every day. Write down some journal observations; notice how you’re feeling over time, how your thought patterns might be changing, and whether you’re experiencing more calm, focus, or joy in your daily life.
Before you begin weaving, take a moment to breathe and set an intention that has nothing to do with the actual weaving you want to accomplish. Your intention can be very simple. For example, you might say, “Today at the loom, I want to have 30 minutes of peace,” or “Today at the loom, I want to experience oneness with my body.” Whenever you remember to do so, return your thoughts to your intention; use it as a way to mentally anchor yourself to your practice. You might record these intentions in your journal as well or write them somewhere that you can see them while you weave. Returning to them often will help form the new neural pathways that turn your intentions into consistent ways of being.
If you’re hoping to heal and grow through your weaving practice, the way you weave is important. Many of us like to listen to podcasts or audiobooks or even watch Netflix while weaving. But your brain will get the most from working in silence or with meditative music in the background. So for at least 30 minutes, shut off all other voices and allow your body and mind to settle completely into the rhythm of weaving.
It’s also very important that you work in a way that allows you to stay in the flow. You aren’t going to enter a flow state while learning a complicated draft pattern for the first time. In fact, especially if you’re a new weaver, sometimes it’s best to simply work without a plan and see what emerges. If you have more experience, try weaving something you’re comfortable with but that still holds your interest enough to keep you focused. Either way, avoid critical thoughts about what’s emerging from the loom. Instead, be curious and open and allow the work to unfold. View your practice as a process. The collaboration between your brain, your body, and the fibers is what allows for the alchemy of flow.
I am very grateful for everything weaving has taught me and the ways in which it’s healed me. The next time you’re at the loom, take a moment to express gratitude that you, too, have found and come to love this magical craft. Start to notice what changes for you as you approach it with even more meaning and intention. Like me, I know you’ll be surprised and delighted.
- Katahira, Kenji, Yoichi Yamazaki, Chaiki Yamaoka, Hiroaki Ozaki, Sayaka Nakagawa, and Noriko Nagata. “EEG Correlates of the Flow State: A Combination of Increased Frontal Theta and Moderate Frontocentral Alpha Rhythm in the Mental Arithmetic Task.” Frontiers in Psychology. Volume 9 (2018). www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5855042/#
- Kotler, Steven. “Flow States and Creativity.” February 25, 2014. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-playing-field/201402/flow-states-and-creativity
- Taft, Michael W. “Flow State Machine: Hacking the Human Brain for Healing and Wellbeing.” www.deconstructingyourself.com/flow-machine-human-brain.html
Photos by Caleb Young