Therapy on the Mat

As a longtime devotee of both the therapy couch and the yoga mat, I was curious how the two blended together in phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. Michael Lee created Phoenix Rising specifically to help students cope with emotions. It combines assisted yoga postures, breath awareness, and nondirective dialogue based on the work of Carl Rogers, in which the therapists acts as a sounding board, repeating much of what the student says to allow her to stay with her own train of thought.

Lee drew inspiration from his own encounter with emotions on the mat in the early 1980s. He was living in an ashram where morning practice took place each day at 5:30. “Every day for a year and a half, the guy on the mat next to me would get about one-third of the way through class and begin to sob profusely,” Lee remembers. “Some people found it disturbing. One day, I said to him, ‘What’s going on?'”

“I don’t know,” the man answered, ” I just get overwhelmed by sadness. I try to holed back a little so I don’t bother people.” It turns out that he had been experiencing these intense outbursts every morning for 10 years.

“The guru had previously instructed the man to just stay with his practice, because he believed his emotions would work themselves out through asana alone,” Lee recalls. “But even back then, I thought the experience required a more integrated approach.”

Lee talked with the man extensively about his experience and, in helping him, created Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. He launched the program at the DeSisto School for emotionally troubled teens in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1986, building on his background in group dynamics from the psychology movements of the 1970s. (Lee is not a licensed psychotherapist.) Practiced by yoga teachers, bodyworkers, physical therapists, and psychologists, the method aims to bridge the gap between body and mind. Unlike traditional therapy-which might focus on eliminating a phobia or improving a skill, such as communication between spouses-Phoenix Rising sessions focus on helping people recognize their own body’s wisdom and get to the source of emotions that may be causing aches and pains, physical or otherwise.

I wanted to experience the method for myself, so I turned to Carol S. James, one of the 1,012 Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioners around the world. We began by talking on a couch, where James asked me about my health, state of mind, and background. After telling her about a few things that were troubling my mind on that particular day, we moved to another area in the softly lit room, where we sat facing each other on a large, puffy mat. James asked me to focus on my breath which brought me into the moment and allowed me to begin to talk.

Throughout the session, she moved me into very gentle supported poses (backbends, forward bends, and leg stretches), almost the way a personal trainer might stretch a client at the end of a workout. She asked me to tell her more about my thoughts and repeated many of my words. The session sounded something like this:

“I Feel sad that I’m 40 and alone.”
“You’re sad that you’re 40 and alone.”
“It’s surprising. I didn’t expect this to happen.”
“You’re surprised. Tell me more about that.”

And so on, until I found myself leaning back, physically, directly onto Carol and telling her more-a “more” I had never gotten to before.

The experience of physically leaning on someone while revealing myself to the person was one of the most profound I have ever had. During my session, I felt a connection to my deepest self, the self that is at peace. The combination of discussion and touch was sweet and deep.

At the end of the session, my heart was open with love toward myself as it has ever been. The emotional breakthrough was not traumatic but physically and spiritually enlightening. I hate to glibly paraphrase Bob Dylan, but I truly felt released, and as Richard Miller said, I met myself right where I was, with love.

– Donna Raskin, Yoga Journal, March/April 2004

In: Yoga Therapy