Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Yoga of Example

We spent the first half of August immersed in the world of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. I (Nick) had the chance to assist a Level 1 and 2 training in Northbrook, and then attend the first-ever Phoenix Rising Conference. It was a rich, inspiring soup of experiences. What stands out the most is a new respect for the power of modeling as an educational technique.

During the Level 1 and 2 trainings, I was there as an apprentice to Elissa Cobb, one of the directors of the Phoenix Rising organization. At first I was taking notes like crazy, trying to write down everything that Elissa said in order to reproduce it one day when I lead the training myself. Indeed, there are many important details that need to be communicated. Yet Elissa herself uses just two pages of brief notes for the whole four-day training! Eventually, it dawned on me that Elissa was generating the training from intention rather than a strict set of rules. Her fine-tuned words and actions arose from her deep understanding of the Phoenix Rising work. At that point, I started to pay more attention to the essence of the training process, and my notes dwindled.

Again and again, I was reminded of this quote by Carl Rogers:

Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person's ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me. 

The primacy of experience is a central tenet of Phoenix Rising work, and this carries through in the practitioner training process. Elissa taught mainly through demonstration and leading experiences, along with some technical instruction. She would freely answer questions, but it struck me that her way of answering the questions was more important than the words she spoke. She was careful in her words, always speaking from “my experience” rather than declarations of the “truth”. She gave examples rather than definite rules. She asked for the questioner’s thoughts before giving her own. She often said “I don’t know” or “It depends”. In all she said, she was modeling a deep respect for experience as the highest authority.

Recent neuroscience has discovered “mirror neurons” in the human brain that appear to synchronize our internal state with whomever we’re observing. Much research remains, but it appears to be a hardwired mechanism for empathy – literally “feeling with” another person. Mirror neurons may offer an explanation for the pedagogical power of role modeling. When we witness another person existing in a remarkable way, our brain takes on those same qualities. We experience life, if just briefly, through the cognitive lens of another.

This is experiential learning at a profound level, and it reminds me of the yogic concept of transmission. Many yogic teachings are considered inert unless they are directly passed from teacher to student. I have found this to be true in my own experience. My thinking mind can always question whether a particular meditation is working or not. But in the presence of someone who has mastered it themselves, I absorb their confidence and understanding, and doubt dissolves.

Finally, I am reminded of the power of sangha or spiritual fellowship. The Buddha emphasized that who we associate with is more influential than ethical behavior or meditation. We have evolved to be social beings. Regardless of our conscious intent, our companions can either uplift us or drag us down to their level. I think this is one reason it’s easier to practice yoga or meditate in a class, rather than solo. Moving and breathing as one, each person positively reinforces the collective mind of the group.

For these reasons, my Calm Within Chaos stress-relief program ends each session with a group speaking circle, where each participant has a chance to speak about their experience, and everyone else listens. It’s that simple. Not only is there power in speaking your own experience out loud, but the chance to witness other people as they work on themselves is deeply inspiring. Through the power of modeling, when one person discovers something true about themselves, the whole group benefits.

For example, I can write, “To truly take care of others, I must also take care of myself.” You may agree intellectually. But to be in my presence as I experience this truth is to receive a transmission beyond the mere words. In some way, you experience the truth of it, rather than just agree or disagree. When a group of people shares in the process of growth, we all go farther on the journey.

My next expedition into self-inquiry and stress transformation begins Monday, September 20, 7-9:30pm, and runs for 8 consecutive Mondays, plus a full day of practice on Sunday, October 17. See our website for details and registration. If you pay in full by September 1, you save $25.

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