Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy

Bringing Body And Life Into Balance

By Sonia Osorio

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter

Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT) was developed out of a vision of empowering people to make fundamental changes in their lives by learning to listen to their inner voices—voices that sometimes get drowned out in the din of modern life or ignored as we rush through our days. As we ignore this internal dialogue, it may become louder, manifesting as increased stress, chronic pain, depression, or anxiety. Using a combination of supported or assisted yoga poses and elements of contemporary body/mind psychology, PRYT helps us get in touch with this inner voice and reconnect with what our bodies, minds, and hearts are telling us.

PRYT’s combination of yoga principles with gently guided psychotherapeutic approaches helps to focus awareness on what is arising in our body in the moment. This is done by noticing the breath, areas of tension or release, and the internal dialogue that arises as the body is moved into different positions. Through this and what is termed non-directive dialogue, practitioners guide clients to experience the connection of their physical and emotional selves. Maintaining a meditative awareness, this connection is then explored, encouraging a deeper release and a movement toward health and balance in all areas of one’s life.

At the end of each session, the client can then develop a personal plan of what steps, if any, to take based on any insights and connections made between how what’s happening in their body and mind relates to their life. A PRYT session lasts about 90 minutes, and depending on the situation being dealt with, clients may receive five to six sessions. PRYT can help with problems ranging from stress and pain management, to chronic muscle tension, to supporting personal growth and lifestyle changes.

If there’s a goal to PRYT, it’s to help clients return to a place of balance in their bodies and lives. That imbalance may manifest not only as bodily pain or tension, but also through different emotional states. “We’re so trained to believe that if something hurts it has to do with the tissue,” says Neil Pearson, a Penticton, British Columbia, PRYT practitioner and physiotherapist with more than 20 years experience. “But if people explore sensation, they start to recognize that it’s not just about body tissue. PRYT allows people to discover this on their own and to do what they need to do to recover health at all levels of their lives.”

More than Just Yoga

Michael Lee, founder of the PRYT training program headquartered in Bristol, Vermont, and author of Turn Stress into Bliss: The Proven 8-Week Program For Health, Relaxation, and Stress Relief (Fair Winds Press, 2005), believes that what happens in our life is always reflected in our body, and that deep healing and transformation can occur when we uncover where our life is out of balance with our spirit. Out of this awareness, we can then initiate changes that will make a genuine difference in our lives. He also believes that it’s essential to see yoga therapy from a much broader perspective that honors the complexity of our lives and the uniqueness of each person.

“As yoga becomes more mainstream and more popular, there are many people jumping on the bandwagon and hailing the miraculous benefits of the practice,” Lee says. “One of the problems associated with the popularization of yoga, however, is the tendency to apply it as a panacea and from an almost exclusive left-brained paradigm … that says ‘do this procedure’ or ‘apply this technique’ to get this result. To me, this approach sells yoga therapy short. It is so much more than that. Yoga therapy is a holistic science.”

Lee distinguishes between holistic and what he terms “prescriptive” approaches. “In the prescriptive model, the practitioner essentially needs to be a skilled technician,” he says. “In the holistic model, the practitioner needs to be trained in the acute application of awareness and presence—and not doing becomes as important as doing. Creating an appropriate relationship with the client is essential to the healing process. The practitioner is as much an educator as they are a clinician. Each session assumes the feeling of a unique voyage of discovery in an unknown world.”

The hallmark of PRYT, in fact, is that the practitioner acts as a facilitator, guiding clients through their own personal exploration, while stepping out of the way of that process as much as possible. “PRYT is not diagnostic and not prescriptive,” Pearson says. “It’s about guiding a person through their experience and getting them to explore their body and what comes up in that exploration. Practitioners don’t assess what’s going in the client’s body or psyche. We don’t diagnose, treat, or prescribe—things that normally are the realm of medical treatment. We simply support and guide.”

The main objective of using dialogue in a PRYT session is to encourage clients to explore for themselves whatever is arising in their bodies. This allows clients to hear their internal dialogue, and the words used help reveal patterns of thought that might not have been obvious at first. This process also allows the practitioner to better understand what’s happening and to better guide clients to align themselves with what’s most true to them.

“There’s huge power when a client hears themselves expressing what’s going on,” Pearson says. “You can see it. It totally changes their experience and allows them to go even deeper. Something that people discover with PRYT is how to go to a place of pain or emotional upset and look at it from a safe distance. They then learn how to get closer and closer to it, and to stay more relaxed so they can just observe it.”

In this gentle approach, observing, moving in closer, and speaking about what arises, people can safely acknowledge and begin to better understand the messages that their bodies are giving them, which is the first step in finding balance.

“Most of us ignore our bodies except when the alarms are really loud,” Pearson says. “Even when we do listen, we often don’t take the time to really understand the messages we’re receiving. PRYT guides us to awareness, and to action about the changes we want and need to make.”

Working with the Whole Person

Pearson, who specializes in holistic approaches to pain management, began incorporating PRYT into his practice for very specific reasons. “When people have complex pain problems, as physiotherapists we’re taught to deal with them from a very structure-based biomedical view,” Pearson says. “I didn’t believe that this was enough and started realizing that there was a lot more to helping people get better than treating their physical body. That’s when I discovered PRYT. The beauty of [this modality] is that it teaches you to go beyond a biomedical view of the body and actually work with the person.”

As Pearson found some limits with physiotherapeutic approaches, Lee also found people sometimes needed something more than just a physical yoga practice to deal with the emotional and psychological shifts that could arise both on and off the yoga mat. It was out of this that PRYT was born. Lee envisioned combining the deep relaxation and sense of well-being provided by bodywork, the catharsis of psychotherapy, the mindfulness of meditation, and the integration of body, mind, and spirit available through yoga into one therapeutic approach.

Most importantly, Lee wanted to empower clients to become directly involved in their own healing and to discover for themselves what would encourage overall balance in their lives. For him, this was the essence of yoga therapy: not just as a physical approach, but as a multifaceted way to listen to and explore one’s body and mind so that this could become a gateway to making fundamental changes in one’s life. He named his system Phoenix Rising, after the mythical bird that arose from its own ashes. Like the Phoenix, as we become aware of the ways and reasons that we’re not living our truth, we burn away that which binds us and we can rise up to meet whatever life presents to us.

PRYT is now recognized worldwide and has been helping people make significant changes—not only in their own lives, but in the lives of others, whether they are clients or therapists, yoga practitioners, or simply people who have taken the time to listen deeply to what they already know is true in their bodies, hearts, and minds.