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

Monday, October 1, 2012

Elementary, Dear Yogi!

Here at Grateful Yoga, we like to occasionally pick a teaching from the yoga tradition and explore it in our classes. As the cool, dry air of fall settles in, it seems like a great time to study the yogic understanding of what makes the seasons turn: the dance of five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space.

Mathematics gives scientists a language to describe the workings of Nature from the outside. The five elements play a central role in the language of yogic science, which allows us to describe the intersection of the exterior world with the interior space of human consciousness (largely out of reach of scientific quantification.) The elements are a conceptual hub that interconnect a wide range of inner and outer phenomena: phases of matter, forms of energy, different tissues in the body, the five senses, organs, cardinal directions, energy patterns (vayus), chakras, emotions, qualities of thought, and many more.

To understand the five elements is to understand ourselves as an interplay of subtle forces. They are a tool to help us perceive ourselves more clearly, and thus gain the opportunity to make choices in alignment with our intentions. Ayurveda uses the map of the elements to design practices in support of healing and optimal health. Yoga seeks to purify and ascend the ladder of the elements to reach what lies beyond them.

All of the teachers at Grateful Yoga will be teaching variations on the elemental themes over the next 10 weeks. Don't worry - we won't be lecturing, and there won't be any quizzes (though there will be a handout!) We'll be practicing in the same way as before, but observing ourselves through a new lens. We hope you'll join us in this exploration.

Our first theme, for the next two weeks, is Earth. The material support of our lives, the cradle of consciousness, stability itself. Just the ticket for this season of change!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Education Acceleration

Time is the best teacher, although it kills the students.
~ anonymous quote from a web page of yoga jokes

I found this quote today as I was googling around.  It reminds me of something my teacher Rod Stryker says to inspire his students to practice: “By the time you have finally gained some wisdom and peace of mind, it’s not long before you’re back in diapers.”  It’s a grim contemplation.  Time may eventually wear away our delusions, but it also wears down our body in the process.  If life is a classroom, it’s like waiting to get your dissertation right before your retire.

So perhaps time is the most inevitable teacher, but not the ideal one.  Wouldn’t it be nice to speed up the learning process, rather than wait for the next life lesson to smack us in the face?  Wouldn’t it be nice to preemptively give up our nonproductive habits, rather than wait for them to create major problems?

This is the promise of yoga.  Postures, breathing, meditation, self-inquiry and all the other practices offer us a way to accelerate the learning process.  The engine of yoga practice allows us to gain self-knowledge faster - and with fewer negative side effects - than merely the passage of time.  No spiritual intentions are required.  Simply to live a more effective, satisfying life is a worth educational goal.

As with any mechanism of acceleration, some caution is advised.  We want to be sure we are using yoga to fuel our higher qualities, not inflame our imbalances.  Therefore, the tradition insists that a teacher is necessary - someone who’s worked through more of the curriculum than us.  The classic yogic approach is the guru/disciple relationship, but this appears to be a poor fit for the modern age (all the reasons are a topic for another post).  Most pragmatically, there just aren’t enough true yoga masters to fill all the demand for teachers.  But there is another way.

In essence, the goal of the guru/disciple relationship is for the student to realize they contain their own inner teacher, just as wise (in fact, identical to) the external guru.  We all get glimpses of our inner teacher in moments of intuitive knowing, or finding ourselves in just the right place at the right time.  We can cultivate this connection, even if we don’t have access to a “100% certified enlightened” master.  We can learn to be our own “live-in” tutor.  We can look ahead in the text book and get our assignments done early, rather than wait for the “deadline” of time to force us to take action.

There are many methods for connecting to our inner guide.  I’ve found the Phoenix Rising approach to yoga to be one of the most direct.  It doesn’t require athletic prowess, prolonged sitting, or any particular belief system - just curiosity, honesty and a sense of adventure.  One format for the work is an 8-week group that blends yoga postures, meditation, self-inquiry into a powerful but friendly particle accelerator of learning.  Through daily practice, participants learn to use the experiences of everyday life as fuel for the learning process - no Himalayan caves required.

As it happens, I lead these groups a couple times a year.  The next one starts January 30, 2012.  You can learn more and register through my website.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Learning to Listen: a yoga story

Sometimes I envy animals. They flow through life, reacting spontaneously to whatever comes, unconcerned with such questions as “Should I eat meat? Is it organic, local, and well-educated enough? Does it work for my blood type?” A lion does not debate these questions. It is the gift and curse of our human neocortex that we have the self-awareness to consider different actions and choose what seems “best”. Moment after moment, we create our lives by choosing some things and not others. Our choices create habits, so in the future we are likely to keep choosing the way we did in the past. This is the teaching of karma in its most practical form.

I grew up in a family that honored the spiritual power of nature, but favored rationality as the criteria for making decisions. I developed a powerful intellect and excelled academically. I figured I’d go into physics, or some other scientific field. I vaguely imagined that my life would unfold as a series of logical decisions, and that I could apply my intelligence to “solve” my life like an equation.

Yet when I reflect on the path that I took to get where I am today - yoga teacher, yoga therapist, studio owner – I see that many key decisions arose through listening, inwardly and outwardly, to receive guidance. I have been discovering my life, not deducing it.

Yoga itself can be seen as a process of sharpening the inner ear so one can “hear” what is true and act accordingly. In this sense, I began practicing yoga long before I actually rolled out a sticky mat. But it was only through training to be a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT) practitioner that I began to consciously cultivate this listening.

In a one-on-one PRYT session, I place the client into supported yoga postures (akin to Thai massage) and use reflective dialogue to help him explore what comes up and how it relates to his life. I am the facilitator, rather than the prescriber. My presence helps the client learn to listen to the rich stream of information constantly flowing from his body, unconscious mind and higher knowing. The results of a session often include physical and emotional release, deep insight, and profound rest.

How do I choose the appropriate postures to use? I listen to the client’s words and movements and select stretches that will help him listen to his own experience more closely. For example, if a client says, “It feels like I just can’t let go,” and I see his shoulders are tight, I may traction his arms to bring more attention to the tension he’s holding there. I may ask, “What’s happening now?” as an invitation for him to notice and speak about his own experience. Or I might feel drawn to stretch his hamstrings. The session arises spontaneously. My intention is not to “fix” his tight shoulders according to a therapeutic plan, but to facilitate a process that arises in the present moment.

This non-planning was tough to swallow when I began my training. My rational, Computer-Science-major self wanted a formula: if client says X, do Y. My Honor Student self craved a guaranteed method to get an A+ in giving PRYT sessions. How could I take action without trying to control the outcome?

As I did the training, I realized this way of being was not so foreign after all. From 6-12th grade I studied improvisational theater at the Piven Theatre Workshop. We mostly played games, which trained us to relax our inhibitions and allow impulses to arise freely, flowing out as sound, movement, and eventually dialogue and character. We were encouraged “listen for the next beat” rather than try to plan it out. It was thrilling, transgressive and a little scary.

Or course, it’s one thing to make crazy animal noises with my peers; quite another to improvise a yoga therapy session with a paying client. It’s much harder to detach from the outcome when it’s part of your livelihood.

The majority of my PRYT training consisted of giving practice sessions and reflecting on the experience with a mentor. I became painfully aware of the many ways my own habits and beliefs condition my decisions. I discovered a strong desire to please the client and ensure they had a good session, which prevented me from doing anything that might challenge them. I started to question my choices, afraid they were tainted by my own agenda. I found myself declining to make any choices for fear of choosing the wrong postures or saying the wrong words.

My mentor encouraged me to reflect on the nature of this self-doubt. Among the many layers, I discovered another link to my past. When I was 14, I happened to pull the The Way of Zen by Alan Watts off my parents’ bookshelf. Something deep inside me recognized the truth of the Buddha’s teachings and the pursuit of enlightenment as a worthy goal. This was the beginning of my conscious spiritual quest.

I was particularly taken by the Zen view of words and concepts as inherently limited; the actual experience of seeing a tree is much different from the word “tree” or our mental image of a tree. Liberating truth is found in experiencing life in its raw state, rather than through the distorting lens of thought.

For this very reason, Zen warns against intellectual study without practice – yet through high school all I did was read about Zen. As predicted, I misunderstood the goal of spiritual practice to be “no thoughts” – that I must somehow eliminate thoughts, and if I was thinking, I must be doing something wrong.

Thus, when I began giving PRYT sessions and looked within for guidance as to which posture to choose, or what words to say, I was skeptical of any thoughts that came, even if they were good suggestions. I had the notion that intuition was exclusively wordless and magical. So I doubted every impulse that came along as a thought – which was most of them! The result was inaction.

Through my own personal work with the PRYT process, I realized that while many of my thoughts do indeed arise from the limited perspective of my ego, others are messengers from the wise part of me that knows just the right thing to do or say. I learned to tell the difference by listening to my body: an intuitive thought arrives with a whole-body feeling of clarity; a biased thought feels trapped in my skull, spinning and bouncing of the walls. When I’m grounded in my body, my thoughts become a tool I can use to help my client discover their own truth within the thicket of messy thoughts.

Following this reflection one step further, I owe that my ability to listen to my body comes primarily from my training in Kripalu Yoga. In this tradition, the student cultivates awareness of internal experience, rather than continually strive to improve the posture. Just as it’s hard to talk and listen at the same time, we can hear our body more clearly when we stop trying to “do” the posture and just allow it to happen. Often, spontaneous alignment, release and insight will arise when the body is given space without expectation. The same philosophy informs Phoenix Rising since Michael Lee, the founder of PRYT, also trained in Kripalu Yoga for many years.

Again and again, my PRYT training encouraged me to reflect on my life and see how my past informs who I am as a practitioner. I discovered that the inner wisdom I was learning to follow had been guiding my decisions all along: which college to attend, what major to pursue, who to date and marry, what work to do, when to open a studio. To be sure, each of these decisions brought moments of difficulty and doubting. Yet each arose with a whole-body knowing that gave me confidence to keep going, despite the second-guessing of my intellect.

It seems life has conspired to show me that things turn out well when I listen to myself, rather than seek external validation for my actions. Even so, when I consider the unknowable future, my mind still strains to figure out what will happen next. My shoulders tighten, and in my more conscious moments, I recognize this physical tension as a sign that my mind is wrestling with reality, trying to pin down an answer. I take a deep breath in and let it fall out of my mouth with a sigh. I stop what I’m doing, relax my body, and rest back into that deeper knowing. I remember once again that all the answers I need are available right here, in this moment. I just have to be still and quiet enough to hear them.

This essay was also published in Yoga Chicago, Jan/Feb 2011.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Negativity Bias

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
My current reading.  Fascinating stuff.  For example:

Did you know our brain has a negativity bias?  For the sake of survival, we evolved to pay much more attention to negative experiences (like a predator) than positive ones.  We are inclined to overlook good news, highlight bad news, ruminate more on negative experiences in the past, and worry about potential ones in the future.

This might explain our collective fixation on bad news - as demonstrated by the success of our largely fear-based 24-hour cable news networks.   Bad news holds our brains in rapt attention.  All the better to sell advertising time!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Falling Vs. Letting Go

I always assumed this season is named “Fall” because leaves are falling off the trees, withered and blown off the branches by the cold, dry wind.  I was fascinated to learn from NPR recently that something else is happening.  It’s dangerous for a tree to carry leaves during the winter; they get weighed down with snow and tear off branches, or they die when it freezes and hamper future growth.  So as the days grow shorted and colder, deciduous trees produce a chemical signal that causes branches to sever their connection to the leaves.  Then all it takes is a slight breeze to finish the job.   In other words, trees “push” their leaves off before they cause trouble.  The beauty of fall is an enjoyable side effect of trees adapting to the changing season.

How do we humans adapt to this change?  Do we feel like victims of the cold, dry wind, helplessly blown towards flu season, less exercise, and the busyness of the holidays?  Or can we make choices to adapt, like the trees?  Before electricity and urbanization, our pastoral ancestors in temperate climates had no choice but to adapt to changing light: more time inside, less work, more rest.  Our animal bodies still react to the change of seasons, but modern times demand that we continue our lives as usual.  In fact, we tend to be busiest around the winter solstice, when our body’s instinct is to rest and restore.

Since most of us do not have the luxury of hibernation, we should consider how we can support ourselves in continuing our daily tasks within a new season.  Starting now through December, we’re going to be crafting our yoga classes to help your body and mind stay balanced and healthy as winter approaches.  As warmth disappears from the outside world, we’ll cultivate our inner fire and prepare our digestion for heavier winter foods.  As the wind blows and schedules get crazy, we’ll explore our connection to the stable earth.  As the trees release their leaves, we’ll take up meditative practices that support letting go of what no longer serves us.

This was originally sent in our monthly newsletter, to which you can subscribe through by following this link.

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.