Beyond Postures


      What is Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT)?
      Taking yoga from the mat to the couch)

A discussion by Dianne Mekelburg M.Ed, PRYT Practitioner


This discussion is intended to address questions that come up frequently about the application of yoga in combination with psychotherapeutic practices that can access deep emotional and personal issues.  Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy engages psychotherapeutic techniques along with a body-centered approach that invites students and clients to look at and explore their emotions, thoughts, spiritual and personal issues.   Is this psychotherapy?  One might also inquire about what the credentialing is, what minimal requirements should be in place for certifying a yoga practitioner to do this kind of work? What standards are in place to assure the public that those who are ‘taking yoga from the mat to the couch’ are qualified with appropriate training, education and experience???     

These questions deserve to be addressed since there are many practitioners who see themselves as doing therapy or healing work.  Some practitioners even call PRYT “psychotherapy”  in their advertising. And, I have had clients who tell me right away after a class or private PRYT session that “This is therapy (not yoga).”  In my first training, level one, we discussed (almost proudly - as almost each one of us experienced a triggering of an unconsious body-held memory of some trauma) how this body-centered process allows you to get into places that years of traditional ‘talk’ therapy would never get you. At first blush this capacity to access long repressed content feels wonderful and awe inspiring.  However, while PRYT says it is not doing psychotherapy it seems that it does as much, if not more.  So, is this then ‘intensive’ psychotherapy? 

What we learn from this practice is that traumas are indeed held in the body and that accessing the body’s emotional and mental content brings us into contact with primary wounds (wounds that originally took place in childhood).  Knowing this, what factors are in place that keep this approach from falling over into deep levels of psychological work for which PRYT practitioners are not trained?   Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy suggests that we have a built-in protective defense measure that will prevent a person from going into material that he or she is not ready to handle. They suggest this is our inner wisdom at work.  This phenomenon is also referred to as ‘resistance’ (in psychology).  Does PRYT at this point then work to assist the person in working through the resistance? PRYT says only if the client wants to go there.  PRYT relies on the client to choose how and what he or she wants to do with the process. The PRYT process remains the same, regardless of what comes up.  The question that arises is: Should PRYT practitioners be opening people up to deeper layers of trauma in the first place?  

Just what is ‘resistance’ anyway?  Once a person is opened up to a place of  resistance is there any going back? Is this really a ‘safe’ place to be?  Or, can turmoil ensue?  My research tells me that some psychotherapies refer to this place as a ‘transformational crisis’ in which the person will do everything they can to avoid dealing with the issue until they begin to look at their ‘survival’ or the ‘false’ personality that grew out of the initial wounding as a defense. This kind of work requires a skilled guide and a dialogue process that is more than what PRYT offers. Can this crisis be avoided?  Should persons who have suffered trauma (and who of us hasn’t to some degree) avoid this kind of practice?  At question here is whether or not an approach such as PRYT is really professionally qualified (having an understanding of the psychology and psychotherapeutic process) to work with material that can potentially activate our deepest primary wound (a wounding that occurred early in life around our own relationship with our self and Spirit) without potentially being harmful?  Is it enough to say it is simply a spiritual process?

Concurrently there are those that claim this falls into the category of ‘spiritual’ work, not psychology as if our spiritual aspect could be separate from and not part of our mental and emotional aspects. And, it is more than a guided spiritual meditation. The work itself cites the use of psychotherapeutic techniques for therapy and healing in its approach. The idea that techniques are purposely being used to open up our deepest layer of spiritual being (this aspect of opening up deep personal transformation is repeatedly cited by many practitioners) begs for clarification around what the purpose of the practice is, what is it doing, and what safeguards are in place (what training) to assure the process is non-harming. Are there ‘unintended’ complications and results?  ‘Non-Harming’ - I think is a ground level criteria that we all can agree with.

I think all of these questions need to be addressed as we move more and more toward yoga taking on more of the traditional role(s) of “therapy”.  My approach to reflecting on these questions is to examine what the practice of PRYT is (since that is the modality that uses dialogue within a body-centered approach that I am trained in) and how it is or is not (based on my training, experience as a practitioner, a personal year-long study of long term sessions, and research) in some way falling into the category of  psychotherapy.  And, if it is not psychotherapy - what is it??  I have fairly well resolved this question for myself... but you’ll have to read the whole article to find out what that is!

Feedback and comments are welcome!!

     From what I gather the roots of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT) came into being about 20 years ago through an experience by Michael Lee, a Kripalu yoga teacher and founder of PRYT, who noticed that when he was assisted in holding a yoga posture and spoke about the sensations, thoughts, feelings, images and memories that showed up while in the posture, he was able to release long held tensions, emotions and trauma.

Today, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy has become a prescribed practice that includes aspects of psychology such as the use of open-ended dialogue in its approach.  It references its approach as borrowing some of the contemporary psychotherapeutic principles developed by psychotherapist, Carl Rogers.  One of Carl Rogers’ most notable criteria for therapeutic work is his observation that the client is enabled to move ahead and take responsibility for his or her experience when the practitioner holds an attitude of “unconditional positive regard”.  This is a common feature in many psychotherapeutic approaches, indeed in many diverse fields of healing, and is a feature of the PRYT technique. Historically, psychotherapeutic literature is filled with references to this healing concept of an ‘unconditional holding space’ that actually precedes Rogers - most notably in the work of the British pediatric psychoanalyst, David Winnicott. (See also Klein, Kohut, Assagioli, Jung and others). However, the application and understanding of what this means is different. Whereas PRYT takes it to mean friendly but detached, the psychoanalytic literature sees it as an empathic relationship that is crucial to the healing process.
Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy also invokes a yogic (also inherent in other spiritual practices) belief that we are connected to and have within us a wise inner being (teacher) that already has all the information and answers we need and seek.  This is an assumptive concept that also has roots in the psychotherapeutic approach of Transpersonal Psychology and Spiritual Psychology.  This belief in a preexisting inner knowledge that already has all the answers we seek and is connected to higher wisdom is integral to PRYT and to its integration step at the end of each session.  
Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy Sessions

Given this strong reliance on psychotherapeutic techniques it is no wonder that there is often confusion about whether or not PRYT is therapy - or more specifically, ‘psychotherapy’.   In fact, to take it a step further, in what ways is PRYT different from Body Psychotherapy, also sometimes called Somatic Psychotherapy or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, a fast growing branch of  psychotherapy which is based on the body-mind relationship and has origins going back to the work of Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich. One is almost inclined to wonder what it is that separates PRYT from these long-standing psychotherapeutic histories and practices.

When I asked this question (while in PRYT training) it was pointed out that the ‘intention’ of the practice is different.  It is not intended to be psychotherapy.  And, in fact, as I have explored how it is not psychotherapy and observed how the process is received by clients, I realize there indeed are some significant differences. 

To start with I would just like to credit the body-mind relationship field to its source: YOGA!   Yoga and the relationship between the mind and body as a source of health and healing (Ayurveda and Thai Yoga) precedes all of western thought on the subject easily by 5000 years!! One might even project beyond that further back in time (20-35 thousand years) as anthropologists unearth relics of ‘yoga-like postures dating back 35,000 years - (most notably those in the liking of “Kali” a benevolent Hindu mother-goddess - a mahavidya (wisdom goddess) and destroyer of illusions) - and to world-wide Shamanic traditions.

There are several differences - here is one:  Most notably to me, while PRYT includes the concept of an unconditional holding space, and does it very well, it does not recognize that within that holding space a healing ‘relationship’ exists.  In PRYT the role of the practitioner is seen as a detached witness only.  This is necessary, according to PRYT, to protect the client from the practitioner projecting onto the client his or her own ideas, needs and interpretations. To that end, the dialogue process is very prescribed and rigidly held to with the practitioner saying only a few words and only repeating back what the client says pretty much verbatim. (It can be argued, I think, that this rigidity in fact has the unintended result of doing precisely what they seek to avoid.)

The practitioner is not seen as a vital part to the healing process. Rather, the PRYT process is a “pure” ‘self-healing process - (recall that the belief is that we already have everything we need inside us). However, the research literature abounds with studies that point out that it is the ‘healing relationship’ that is the single most effective factor in the healing process and that this holds true across many diverse health and healing fields and others; including all the psychotherapies, medical health fields, elderly care, teachers/mentors and parents! and even other yoga therapies.) 

In other words, The’ therapeutic’ practitioner must not only hold an unconditional space, the practitioner must also hold an empathic relationship.  An empathic position takes the role of the practitioner from being simply a standing back witness to being an active ingredient in health and healing. And we all know this is true - at a most fundamental level.  When we are not seen for whom we truly are, when we are judged and held by the perceiving, mirroring eye as something other than what we are, we experience a wounding. We all need empathic benevolent mirroring to project back to us our true being.  Here is one area where PRYT is NOT a (psychotherapeutic process - and one could argue not a healing process. Even yoga recognizes (albeit perhaps with some needed adjustments) the significant role of the practitioner/client relationship - it is referred to as the “guru/disciple” relationship.  I can understand how it is that one would want to distance oneself from a failed guru/disciple relationship, but I believe the key is not to narrowly confine this relationship, but to understand and train the practitioner in how to hold and maintain its empathic role - not by purity and distancing, but by knowledge, understanding, skill and most importantly compassion.  How else will we internalize the capacity to extend compassion toward our own wounded self!   We get it externally first. If this does not take place, and if the practitioner does not understand this role and suddenly ‘drops’ holding the unconditional space, a reinjuring of the original wound occurs.

How is Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy Received by the client?

The ‘WOW’ factorI have observed a most fascinating phenomenon which I fondly refer to as the potent ‘wow’ factor in students in training, in myself as a student, and in clients. And, I became curious about what that was all about. So, I did some research. What is it?  Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is an ‘experiential’ practice.   This is an important aspect of the body-mind relationship to understand.   ‘Experiential’ body-centered approaches rely on the expressive, cathartic, aspects of an immediate and ‘now’ experience as a way to open up long held repressed issues. Experiential approaches invite the client to let go of cognitive engagement, the rational mind, and to “trust the process”.   it invites regression.  The unconditional holding space allows for openness and honesty.  When combined with a body-centered approach (versus an imaginative guided journey approach or the subtle yet potent process of Yoga Nidra, for example) the body connection can bring about a very powerful experience releasing long held emotions related to past wounding and trauma.  The body holds our past traumatic/wounding experiences along with the emotions that were experienced at the time and became locked in or frozen in the body - a natural self-defense and survival response. The ‘wow’ factor is an intense and potent feeling of release.  And, it can, I am guessing, become ‘addictive’. It would not surprise me in the least, if there were a study done, to learn that such intense emotional release has a chemical reaction in the brain similar to addictive processes. Which can make it difficult to move on - resulting in a re-cycling (repetition) of the same material as different symptoms.
Many people find this letting go and venting process provides a release that also leads to insight and self-awareness.  And, that may be enough especially with regard to handling short-term immediate acute life situations.  Some people find they feel better because they have connected with their higher unconscious and see this as a sign of transformation. And that is all well and good - however, this release and the accompanying insight, in and of itself, don’t necessarily lead to personal change, self-transformation or healing.  So that, while an immediate sense of feeling better or having more insight or self-awareness feels productive, the release becomes the unintentional focus and goal - as though that is the experience that brings about healing. And, even though one may seek sessions repeatedly to get more release as a way to get closer and closer to the wounding, or insight, or transcendent state, the underlying patterns and issues that brought about the wounding and dissatisfaction in life in the first place remain unchanged. It is my observation that in order to address and support change an additional approach is needed in the form of a more supportive empathic, client-centered, and cognitive, dialogue. PRYT does not provide this.  All of this discourse on the nature of the process is of course assuming that the client is looking for personal change - that that is the idea behind looking at the mind-body connection in the first place. 

Experiential practices create ‘bonding’. I think this is really important to pay attention to.  Experiential processes create bonding between participants.  Experiential processes are used all the time with groups in schools and training programs, with co-workers/teams, and in retreats and healing or shared interest communities, precisely for this very positive reason.  Bonding is a close emotional tie between people.  PRYT is an experiential process that creates a bonding experience between teacher and student, and practitioner and client.  We know that healing does not take place in a vacuum but occurs within the context of a healing, empathic, relationship.  However, PRYT views the role of the practitioner as a detached witness - yes friendly, but not empathetically connected.  They view the empathic response of the practitioner as contrary to healing because (they believe) we already have everything we need inside us and we can access that through consulting our inner wisdom.  But psychological research does not support this view.  We never outgrow the need for external empathic support from people, programs or other forms of external ‘mirrors’.   The role of a practitioner is most emphatically one in which the external empathic mirror must be engaged. Consider that what is missing in one’s ability to heal is the ability to be with one’s self and experience ones wounding in a self-empathic and self-compassionate way.  What is needed to bring that about is a change in our relationship with our self. And that comes through a relationship with the external empathic ‘other’.  It comes from relationship. The wound was the result of empathic failure in a relationship and its healing comes from an empathic relationship (pretty much regardless of the process or method used).  The psychological literature is overflowing with in-depth analysis on this issue.  Practitioners need to be trained in understanding and developing the skills that will support the open-ended, client-centered holding space through their role as the empathic mirror. This would require, in my assessment, further training in dialogue skills that is beyond the scope of the current PRYT training program.

The rational mind: Trust, but not blind trust.   The PRYT practitioner model as a healing process not only remains distant empathetically, it also remains distant cognitively.   PRYT practitioners will not engage in discussion about what comes up. Again the idea is that we already have our own answers.  This is yet another ‘reflection’ of the ‘blank’ mirror. Yet, we now know that this is not a healing reflection. A discussion and even a sharing of ideas can be done in a way that is client-centered, and supports and acknowledges the rational mind as a participating part of who we are. PRYT in effect disallows the rational mind by not inviting and supporting its participation.  (The rational mind discusses, analyzes and is not based on blind trust).  It is my observation and experience that ongoing (weekly/monthly) long-term sessions bring up the need for cognitive discussion and processing, and also the needs inherent in a healing relationship.  It is important that the client and practitioner understand that Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy does not train its practitioners in either of these aspects.  Rather, its focus is on self-healing through connection to higher wisdom (or inner knowing) and on the role of the practitioner as an uninvolved, detached ‘witness’.   The emotional bond between practitioner and client are not addressed and this can (from many resource accounts) potentially lead to a reinjuring of the initial wound.

The integration step.  With awareness and new insight comes an opportunity for change, relief from symptoms, or more effective living choices through integration.  PRYT invites us to notice what stands out from the session and to notice if and in what ways what stands out also shows up in our daily life. This question recognizes that the process can lead to insight that can then be somehow translated into change in our life.  We are asked to check in with an inner wise being for a message about what came up in the session. In this way, the idea is, we engage a higher awareness that knows what is best for us and what we have to do with whatever insight has emerged.  The practitioner does not however invite discussion or a cognitive appraisal of the experience or of the message(s) received. I have found that for some clients this can indeed be an effective integration - particularly when there is a very definite, immediate, acute, situation.

However many times the message is to “light a candle, meditate, write in a journal, draw a picture or buy a new little trinket.  PRYT relies on trusting the process and views these kinds of rather nebulous messages as ‘divine’ and that we cannot know or interfere with the intention of ‘divine’ intervention and timing.   There comes a point however, especially with long term sessions, where recycling of the symptom (for example, stress) in different forms becomes obvious along with the realization that these nebulous integration steps are not leading to transformation or relief from symptoms. It is not because we have not opened up or accessed material.  We have.  Rather, the problem seems to be that we do not have the tools within the process to adequately relate to the material in a way that leads to life change. If at this point one were to say to the client that they need to see a traditional therapist this runs the risk of pathologizing their personal process and their human being -- it would activate the non-empathic mirror and run the risk of re-traumatizing the wound they have accessed and of becoming a non-therapeutic, non-healing experience.  It runs the risk of ‘judging’ the client which is not client-centered and turns the whole apporach upside down.  And, it raises the question what is PRYT? Why would someone choose to receive a session? This is not to suggest that all clients must receive healing - but to suggest that the approach itself should as much as possible provide the conditions that support healing and be non-harming.

As I explored and researched I found some understanding of this ‘recycling’ phenomena from the model of psychosynthesis (
John Firman and Ann Gila:The Primal Wound, Psychosynthesis: The Psychology of Spirit, and The Psychotherapy of Love: a Psychosynthesis practice ).  Psychosynthesis is a therapeutic perspective/model of human growth and deveopment grounded in clincal experience and scholarly review. It is a Humanistic and Transpersonal Pscyhology that is client-centered and focuses on not only opening lower unconscious material providing access and awareness of content that blocks us from moving ahead, but also provides a profound awareness and inclusion of our higher unconscious along with skilful techniques for working with both the integration and synthesis of personal and transpersonal qualities.  One of their perspectives that stood out for me is that as long as we remain identified with our thoughts, feelings, sensations, images and so on we will not be able to make choices that result in real change (this is called “disidentification”).   It is not so much “divine timing” that keeps us in a recycling position, it is a result of not having a process whereby we can “disidentify” from the content of our experiences.  Our experiences and its content are part of who we are but they are not all of who we are.  We are “transcendent-immanent”, a part of and apart from our feelings, thoughts and sensations.  By not inviting and engaging a process for disidentifcation in PRYT we stay enmeshed in our experience; we view and respond to the content that comes up in a PRYT session as though it is who we areThis identification with what comes up keeps us in the repetition cycle.   In psychosynthesis we are invited to develop a new relationship with who we perceive ourselves to be, recognizing that we are more than what shows up. Through the learning of disidentification Psychosynthesis invites the client to become his or her own witness.  One might well argue that in PRYT when the practitiioner assumes the role of this function the client is thus kept within the kind of co-dependent relationship that enables a continuing identification with content.   Here is where the psychosyntehsis therapeutic practitioner model comes in. The only way we are free to disidentify from our content (I see I have a part of me that is hurt, and I am more than this part) is through a supportive dialogue process - an interplay between practitioner and client that models the empathic client-centered relationship.   In this way we develop our emapthic capacity to relate to the content through the experience of a relationship with the model (mirror) of the empathic practitioner - the empathic external ‘other’. This empathic relationship (not the practitioner himself or herself) is internalized and provides the kind of internal unifying center that enables us to relate in a new way with what comes up - and most importantly, we then become free to choose how we want to be.  There is a mutual influence between client and practitioner: We only exist within relationship to each other (mirror reflections) - [paradoxically] we are totally dependent on each other for our autonomy. (Firman-Gila)  PRYT does not recognize this vital interplay between practitioner and client and thus misses the most important ingredient in the healing, growth, and change (tranformational) process.

Given all of the above, what is Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy? I see PRYT as serving a function for a beginning or introductory process that supports and gives students and clients an opportunity to experience and explore the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of ourselves and how they relate and communicate with each other.   I do not  believe it provides enough supportive dialogue or the empathic model that is needed for the exploration of deeper layers of psychological transformation and life change.  And, I do not think it should be used or promoted as such. 

My intention for this paper is to open channels of discussion and to stimulate reflection about what should be the minimal training requirements for yoga therapists and its application for psycho-therapuetic purposes.  I hope it is useful and serves that purpose. To my knowledge PRYT does not require a practitioner to have any advanced training or academic preparation in psychology or human growth and development beyond a high school degree.