Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Gifts of Phoenix Rising: Unconditional Positive Regard


I give Phoenix Rising sessions, offer class series and lead 8-week groups. I also teach weekly Hatha yoga classes in the ParaYoga tradition and offer private instruction. I used to think these were separate domains, but the longer I steep in the waters of Phoenix Rising, the more the boundaries blur. I’m going to use these blog posts as a chance to explore aspects of Phoenix Rising that fertilize all I do as a yoga teacher.

“Unconditional positive regard” is a key principle of Phoenix Rising work. The term was coined by Carl Rogers, a pioneer of humanist psychology. He found that offering his clients open, warm attention independent of circumstances was a reliable catalyst for their healing and growth. Rather than attempt to resolve or interpret anything for his clients, he simply created the conditions in which they could untangle themselves and move forwards. Thus, his work was called “client-centered” psychotherapy, just as we might call Phoenix Rising client-centered yoga therapy.

The “unconditional” part is the key, because conditional affection is at the heart of much suffering. How often do we hold back from others in fear that we may lose love if the truth is known? How often do we overextend ourselves to win love that seems lacking? An environment of unconditioned regard creates a safe space for all aspects of self to come forward, especially those silenced in pursuit of contingent approval. The work of yoga can be described as making the unconscious conscious, and so learning to offer yourself (and one’s students) unconditional positive regard is a potent tool for enticing the unconscious into the light of awareness.

But it is easier said than done. Despite yogic claims of all-one, all-good, all-beautiful, the truth is that yoga practice and philosophy can easily entrench a sense of conditional positivity. If I think there is a right way to do Triangle Pose, and I can do it, then I feel good and perhaps the teacher praises me. But what if I can’t? What if my physiology doesn’t allow me to look the same as the “ideal” form? Or if I think my mind should be quiet, calm and peaceful, and I get frustrated with my obstinate toddler, am I failing at yoga?

All this is not to say that there isn’t great benefit to lively musculature and a steady mind. It’s just that in pursuit of ideal muscles and mind, the messy reality of life becomes wrong and potentially suppressed, thus creating more unconsciousness, not less!

In my experience, the heart of practitioner training is learning how to offer unconditional positive regard to self and others. An individual Phoenix Rising session is a beautiful form for this training, as it provides a clear mirror in which the practitioner can observe his or her own agendas and projections. For example, when I was in training, I often caught myself trying to “make” my clients have big insights. “Maybe if I just push this leg a little deeper into the stretch,” I would observe myself thinking, “then this person will have a release, and they’ll like the work, and they’ll like me!” A classic case of conditioned positive regard: they’ll like me if… I approve of the way this session is going if…

But of course the capacity to hold myself and others in a warm, spacious embrace is useful everywhere, especially if I am going to take the more traditional posture of yoga teacher. The refinement of intention and language that I learned through Phoenix Rising training helps me to present traditional yoga teachings as possibilities and experiments in self-empowerment rather than tests of worthiness that my students must pass.

Perhaps this sounds like a small thing, but I think that without an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard, yoga teaching and practice can subtly engender separation and unconsciousness rather than decrease it. It just happens to be dressed up in the virtuous clothing of Sanskrit and spiritual acrobatics, which in some ways makes it more insidious.

Originally published June 2014 on pryt.com.

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