Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy: Bringing Complex Trauma to the Mat

This article is an introduction to Phoenix Rising yoga therapy (PRYT) for complex trauma. If you are experiencing complex trauma and considering booking a session with me, the article explains a little bit about what it might be like. Have a read and feel free to share.


The body is an ancient storehouse of not only our own but also our ancestors’ emotional experiences. These are stitched into our tissues – cells, organs, fascia, bones. Whatever we have been too scared, angry, young, overwhelmed, or frozen to feel, the body holds, until we are ready to let it into consciousness and express and integrate it. One of the gifts of a somatic practice … is that it offers an opportunity to unpick old seams. When the time is right, a particular movement or a certain touch can send a thread unravelling out of time, releasing memories and emotions we did not know were there. This is a process of clearing and making space, as a result of which we are able to move forward a little less encumbered by the invisible baggage of the past, with a sense of being lighter, freer, more joyful and at peace. (1)

What is complex trauma?
Complex trauma (also known as developmental trauma) refers to an accumulation of traumatic experiences most usually occurring during childhood. Traumatic experiences might be:

• Neglect (for example, caretakers not doing their best to provide clean clothes and a reliable supply of food, or absence of emotional support and boundaries). 

• Witnessing violence (for example, parents or caretakers fighting).

• Being bullied (for example, being taunted, terrified or physically harmed by a person or group of people).

• Sexual abuse (for example being talked about in sexual terms, touched sexually or being the recipient of unwanted sexual acts).

• Witnessing alcohol or substance abuse by parents or caretakers (or being forced or drawn into abusing drugs or alcohol).

• Physical abuse (for example, being beaten, thrown around or handled harshly).

• Emotional abuse (for example being told you are stupid or ugly, or being manipulated into meeting the needs of a parent or caretaker).

The website complextrauma.org explains:

The adverse experiences encapsulated by Complex Trauma typically begin in early childhood, are longstanding or recurrent, and are inflicted by others. Most often they are perpetrated within a person’s formative attachment relationships. Sometimes they are compounded by patterns of risk and dysfunction afflicting generations of families. Frequently, they intersect with structural and institutional forms of violence and oppression that beset certain peoples and communities, particularly those holding minority status within a given society. (2)

The term ‘complex trauma’ refers both to the originating experiences and also to the difficulties arising from the adaptations that traumatised people make in order to survive the traumatic experiences. Once life-saving, these adaptations can become a prison or a deep-freeze; they can make the person feel like the living dead, like a shadow, or like a time bomb about to explode. When clients first start trauma work, they sometimes feel a sense of hopelessness because the traumatic events have happened and that cannot be changed. However, the ongoing issue of trauma lies not in what happened in the past but in feelings, beliefs and behaviours happening in the present. As one of my clients says: ‘If trauma was the events themselves, they happened X number of years ago, and we are X number of years too late to resolve them.’ Luckily, we are not too late. Present-time trauma can be fully undone.

The body and trauma
When a person is living in a state of complex trauma, their unconscious brain, nervous system and body are fixed in an emergency response to dangerous events that happened in the past and have now ended. A large part of the process of trauma recovery lies in creating the conditions for the body to integrate those events, so that the unconscious brain can understand them as historical and can encode them as ordinary memories (rather than a volcano constantly erupting into the present), and the nervous system can down-regulate out of fight, flight or freeze. For a person living in trauma, making this transition can look like abseiling across an impossibly vast chasm on a piece of old string, but it’s actually a very simple shift – your body is always doing its best to create homeostasis, and given the opportunity, your nervous system will always choose to regulate.

Because trauma is happening not in the conscious mind but in the body and the nervous system, healing and processing have to happen in the body and the nervous system. Talk therapy can be useful to help you understand more about the causes of your trauma – and in the early stages of working with traumatic experiences, this may be as much as you are ready for – but ultimately, talking about what happened is unlikely to make much change to your present-day feelings and behaviours. In order for that transformation to occur, there has to be a somatic dimension to your work. ‘Somatic’ (from the Greek word for ‘body’ soma) indicates the body viewed not objectively, as it appears in an anatomy text book, but subjectively, as experienced by the individual person, replete with sensation, imagery, emotional connectivity and intelligence.

What happens in a Phoenix Rising session?
I often think about the work of Phoenix Rising yoga therapy as giving a voice to deep body. By listening, and then reflecting, with the help of the therapist, you are able gradually to weave an ever more adaptive web of synaptic connections, so that the flow of information from body to mind (and back to body again) becomes increasingly fluent, and as a whole embodied system you become more agile and responsive.

How does this work in practice? Initially, we take some time to settle in together, and I invite you to orient your awareness inwards, perhaps with your eyes closed, if that’s appropriate for you. This is an opportunity to offer attention to sensations arising in your body, and to notice any emotions, images or memories that emerge. Sometimes I may suggest that you make a particular shape with your body, maybe with the help of a bolster or some blankets; other times you may be simply sitting or lying; or I may be supporting you to follow your body into positions or movements that it naturally wants to make, without any prompting.

As you notice anything you feel in your body, I will invite you to reflect on and speak your experience – in a way that works for you. We may consider whether a sensation has a colour, a shape or an energy, whether there are emotions or memories that go with it, whether there are any words it would like to speak, or whether it reminds you of a person or time in your life. For example, a dialogue might go:

Jess: What’s happening now?
Client: I’m feeling a heavy sensation in my chest … It’s kind of diamond-shaped and it’s pressing me down like a big hand.
Jess: Is there anything else about the heavy, diamond-shaped sensation that’s pressing you down like a big hand?
Client: It’s dark … and it feels … foggy … like heavy fog …
Jess: Are you aware of any emotion that goes with the heavy fog?
Client: I’m not sure … No, I don’t think so … Yes … there is a feeling. It’s … sadness … Yes, it’s sadness. It makes me want to cry.
Jess: See what it’s like to stay with the heavy, pressing sensation in your chest and feel the sadness for a little bit. Let me know if it gets too much so that we can stop and shift attention elsewhere for a while.

The intention of the dialogue is to enable a deeper and more subtle awareness of what you’re noticing, to include more dimensions, and to keep relating any reflections back to felt experience: images, memories, emotions and awarenesses that arise directly from your body. My voice is also there to reassure you that you are not alone, that you are still – always – being held in the safe container of the therapeutic space, and to remind you that your words are being witnessed. A traumatic childhood often includes experiences that are not allowed to be known and spoken within the family system, and definitely not outside it. Having these experiences be heard and received empathetically, when you are ready, can be a powerful agent of positive change.

It’s normal to find it hard to put words to somatic experience. In fact, being lost for words is a very good sign, because it indicates that the unconscious mind – the part that has no verbal language (and is not constrained by linguistic forms) – is leading the process, and the thinking brain is taking time to catch up.

As we explore together, we may also identify different parts of self in different parts of your body, and we can invite each of these to speak and act, and perhaps to communicate with the other. For example:

Client: I’m so furious with my brother for what he did to me I could kill him, just like that. I could pound him into dust … [Her stance changes and her body collapses.] But I can’t hit him because he’s much bigger than me and I’m too weak. I just want to run away so far that he can never touch me again … run away and hide where no one can ever touch me.
Jess: So there’s a part that’s furious and wants to pound your brother into dust … and there’s a part that wants to run away and hide.
Client: Yes.
Jess: And if you go into the part that’s furious, are there any sensations you notice in your body?
Client: I’m making a fist with my right hand, and my right arm feels really tense.
Jess: And if you go into the part that wants to run away, are there any sensations?
Client: I want to curl up in a tiny ball. There’s a sensation in my belly, a kind of fluttering. I want to curl up tight.
Jess: And if the sensation in your right fist and arm could speak, do you have a sense of what it might say?
Client: ‘Fuck off, just fuck off out of my sight. Never come near me again or I’ll totally fucking destroy you!’ [Braces arm and makes a fist.]
Jess: And what do your right fist and arm want to do now?
Client: [Makes a slow-motion gesture of punching.]
Jess: Does that movement feel complete or is there anything else?
Client: [Repeats the punching gesture several times, each one faster and with increasing energy. Then her whole body relaxes.]
Jess: And what’s happening now?
Client: I’m shaking a bit, and the fluttery feeling has sort of spread out over my whole torso. That feeling wants to say thank you to my fist. ‘Thank you, fist.’
Jess: And does your fist want to say anything?
Client: It says, ‘I am strong and I can protect you now.’
Jess: Let’s allow the shaking some time just to happen.

An important part of self that we always invite to the session is the one that holds the whole picture. This part already knows without having to think. It knows your whole story so far and has traced the map of the journey you still need to take. Words my clients have for this aspect of themselves include:

• Higher self
• Teacher
• God
• Higher power
• Deep self
• Buddha nature

This part of self is able to speak from a broader perspective and offer information and guidance that is not available to the parts embroiled in trauma survival and recovery. Every one of us has this part – and if you can’t find it or you feel that it isn’t there, you can imagine it. That works just as well.

Each session closes with a process of integration. You are invited to reflect back over what you have experienced, to notice which feelings, images or awarenesses were important for you, and to explore tools and strategies for taking these off the mat and into your life. The integration also functions as a kind of elevator out of deep consciousness, so that as we end the session, you are once again standing on solid ground, here in your present-day life. Returning reliably to a sense of capacity is an important factor in making this work feel and be safe. As one of my clients says:

The biggest fear for me was that I open a can of worms that turn out to be alligators, and I get packed off home with the open can and alligators and I’m alone with it. But each session, while experienced and owned by the client, is facilitated in such a way that we don’t break, we don’t get stranded in the past. There is support within the session to think about what we have encountered and how we can take care of ourselves until the next session.

It’s not yoga

When I went to my first Phoenix Rising session I thought I was going to a private ‘gentle yoga with a bit of meditation’ class. Either I didn’t listen or I couldn’t hear.

In a Phoenix Rising session you won’t be asked to hold complex postures, do breathing practices, mudras or mantras, or sit in meditation. If you practise yoga, you may be accustomed to viewing tightness and discomfort in your body as something to ‘release’. In Phoenix Rising, we’re not trying to get rid of sensations, but to invite them to be present, exactly as they are, so that we can fully feel them and listen to the important information they have to offer. A sensation is an ambassador from the land of deep body, and whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral it is welcome, and we do our best to open our attention to what it has to communicate.

You may also be accustomed to using yoga as a way to cultivate peace and tranquillity. While peaceful states do occur during Phoenix Rising sessions, we are not trying to create them. Our business is to offer equal attention to whatever arises. When no threat is present and the nervous system is regulated, it is naturally calm and peaceful, but if we try to bypass anger, grief and other difficult emotions, we cannot experience nervous system regulation. Being in a regulated nervous system is different from feeling spaced out, ‘empty’, out-of-body or dissociated. When your nervous system is regulated, there’s a sense of being grounded and centred in your body, aware of your surroundings (but not hyper-alert), connected with your own sensations and emotions, and available to make authentic contact with other people. As the work of Phoenix Rising progresses, you will find that you spend more and more time in a regulated state.

It’s not bodywork
When you receive Phoenix Rising in person, there is potential for the therapist to hold, support and move your body, and to offer integrative touch. While people with complex trauma often experience muscle and organ pain, and while this pain may (or may not) dissipate during a Phoenix Rising session, the intention of our work is not to move or manipulate your body in such a way as to relieve biomechanical discomfort – as an osteopath or physiotherapist might. Our process is to inquire of the sensation so that we can learn something about the experiences it is holding.

Whereas if you go to see an osteopath or a massage therapist, they will take it as a given that you consent to being touched, a big part of the initial work in in-person Phoenix Rising sessions may be exploring your capacity to give consent for touch – and to refuse touch clearly when it isn’t what you want. If, for example, you have experienced childhood sexual abuse in which survival depended upon allowing another person unrestricted access to your body, it’s likely that at first you will be unable to say no to therapeutic touch, and part of our work will be getting curious about the discrepancies between apparent compliance and genuine body-based needs and desires. Part of my job as a Phoenix Rising yoga therapist is to communicate consistently, through both what I say and how I am being in the session, that you, the client, are in charge of what happens to your body, and it is always OK to say no.

It’s not psychotherapy

In the beginning, I got irritated when Jess kept asking me what I felt in my body. I was thinking, ‘I came here to talk!’

While there are dialogue processes in Phoenix Rising (derived from Person Centred Therapy), the intention in a PRYT session is not to talk about your experiences or to recount stories from the past. This is because this kind of speaking and listening takes place in the cognitive brain, and that is not where trauma is happening. Phoenix Rising is ‘bottom up’, meaning that we go first to sensation and communicate upwards to thinking mind. It’s not that there is no meaning-making in PRYT. There definitely is – but this proceeds out of the felt experience of the body. When we have fully felt (physically and emotionally) what the body is communicating, then we can start to draw conclusions and set intentions for next steps.

In Phoenix Rising, we work with the fundamental understanding that while the thinking mind can play all sorts of tricks, information held in the body is always trustworthy. As Gabrielle Roth (3) says:

It’s not that the body never lies; it’s that the body can’t lie … The truth is what we carry in our bodies. The deceit is what we struggle with in our heads.

Titration and pendulation: ‘I’m scared it will overwhelm me’

Knowing I could trust Jess not to push me into flashback – and that if I went there, she could support – was really important in enabling me to trust the process.

Clients sometimes have the idea that trauma work is all about reliving traumatic events. Actually, in a Phoenix Rising session I’m working very hard to ensure that this is not what happens. When difficult memories arise for a client, I want this to occur in body time – gradually and in small, manageable pieces which are digestible by the body – rather than as technicolour epics that swamp the person, causing them further trauma. This process of softly-softly is known in trauma work as titration. Peter Levine explains:

Consider two glass beakers, one filled with hydrochloric acid … and the other with lye … These extremely corrosive substances … would cause severe burning if you were to place your finger in either beaker; indeed, if you were to leave that finger there for a few moments, it would simply dissolve … Naturally, you would want to make them safe by neutralising them; and if you know a little chemistry, you might mix them together to get a harmless mixture of water and common table salt, two of the basic building blocks of life … If you simply poured them together, you would get a massive explosion, surely blinding yourself and any other individuals in the lab. On the other hand, if you skilfully use a glass valve (a stopcock), you could add one of the chemicals to the other one single drop at a time. And with each drop there would be a small ‘Alka-Seltzer fizzle’, but soon all would be calm … Finally after a certain number of drops, both water and crystals of salt would begin to form. With several titrations, you would inevitably get the same neutralising chemical reaction, but without the explosion. This is the effect that we want to achieve in resolving trauma. (4)

Long before the beaker’s about to explode, my job is to guide you to ‘pendulate’, or shift your attention away from the difficult memory and onto something pleasant or neutral. For some people, it’s helpful to establish right at the beginning of our work a safe place (‘a warm sandy beach’ / ‘my woodwork shop’) or person (‘my nan’ / ‘my dog’ / ‘my best friend who always makes me laugh’) they can go to when they start to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes opening your eyes, breathing, and walking around the room while naming some things you can see works best. Sometimes just redirecting your attention can be enough. Once you feel regulated again, you can pendulate back to the difficult memory or sensation, and carefully excavate a little bit more. As you become more experienced at trauma work, and more tuned in to your nervous system, you will become aware of when and how it needs to titrate and will start to be able to pendulate instinctively.

Safety and trust

Trust was the overarching quality I needed to be certain of.

No trauma work can happen outside an ethos of safety and trust, and every single client I spoke to in connection with this article named building trust as a crucial element in their Phoenix Rising process. Indeed, experiencing a safe reliable space and a safe reliable person – and slowly developing the capacity to trust both space and person – is in itself a significant part of the work of resolving trauma. This requires of you, the client, courage, curiosity and a willingness to stay present over a period of time and through different challenges. As one of my clients says, ‘The level of trust required takes time to build and there will be many bumps and turns along the way.’

If you’ve ever adopted a frightened animal from a shelter, you will know something about this kind of trust-building. It’s a gradual process, consisting of lots of small acts of gentle presence, and repetitions of reliable structure: there will always be dog food at 8am and 6pm, in sufficient quantity and set out in the same place, and there will always be a walk at midday. You have to be patient and you have to demonstrate to your new animal companion that you are reliable, consistent and kind, and that you are not going to hit them, kick them or throw them out on their ear if they scratch the sofa or wee on the kitchen floor.

That wary animal that wants to trust, but can’t control its fear – that’s your nervous system when you first arrive in a Phoenix Rising session. The human autonomic nervous system, which controls the process of fight / flight / freeze, is a physiological survivor from our most primitive animal brain. In this part of our neurology there is literally an animal in charge. It doesn’t understand language. It needs to experience in action and through sensate experience that the environment is safe and that the people in it can be relied on. Just as your rescue dog gradually gains confidence in your company because it consistently experiences you as safe, so your nervous system will slowly relax into the secure holding of the therapeutic space as it recognises on a felt level that here is not dangerous.

Unconditional positive regard: ‘Will I be judged?’

I needed to know that I would not be judged about my experiences and also about my understanding of the process or Jess’s guidance.

An anxiety that my clients frequently express, especially in the early stages of our work, is that I will judge them. Traumatic experiences inevitably carry a freight of misplaced shame that can spill out indiscriminately, for example as the belief that this person despises you, while this other person thinks you can’t do your job, and that one thinks you’re a dirty slut or a worthless ex-druggie.

Carl Rogers, whose Person Centred Therapy informs PRYT, coined the term ‘unconditional positive regard’ to express the attitude that a sound therapist has towards their client and which enables the therapeutic relationship to promote emotional and psychological healing. When we have unconditional positive regard, we accept and support the client irrespective of experiences they disclose, ways they have responded to those experiences, what they say or how they behave. That doesn’t mean that we endorse the person’s views necessarily, or that we go along with any ways in which they may be behaving harmfully (to themselves or to others). And it doesn’t mean that we allow the person to cross our personal boundaries in their speech or actions. It does mean that we do not withdraw our fundamental love of and support for them. In other words, unconditional positive regard is about the person, not the behaviour. As a Phoenix Rising yoga therapist, I hold all my clients in unconditional positive regard. That’s all of them, and, yes, that includes you.

Real life / online
Prospective clients often ask me whether Phoenix Rising, as an embodied form of therapy, really works online. The truth is, online PRYT is surprisingly effective, and is actually not all that different from receiving Phoenix Rising in person. The felt body connection between the two of us is still there. So is the therapeutic container – the dedicated safe space that client and therapist step into for the duration of the session. For some clients with complex trauma, the online space actually feels safer than a real-life session, at least initially. As one of my clients says, ‘Working online gave me a sense of being more in control.’ And for some clients, it feels more possible to shout, roar, jump up and down or dance when online in their own, familiar space.

The main difference between a real-life and an online session for me is that is that when we’re online, touch is not available. This can make things a bit simpler in online work, especially in the beginning, when the primary intention is to create a safe enough space for you to be able to stay. As time goes on and our work progresses, not being able to touch also means, of course, that there is no opportunity for learning to negotiate consent specifically around physical contact – although we can explore giving and refusing permission in other related ways, for example when you choose whether or not to follow a suggestion I might offer for a movement or physical position.

​* * *

The process of Phoenix Rising isn’t linear. It involves numerous double-backs and countless repetitions. Many is the client who thinks they’ve cracked it at an early stage and leaves … only to return a few weeks or months later when they realise that actually they have only completed one round of a much bigger recovery spiral. It can take a while to ‘get’ this work, to make a connection with your body and to understand on a felt level how that connection can initiate trauma healing in your life. But gradually you will start to notice small changes – perhaps a little less anxiety, moments of contentment, a sense of greater authenticity, the confidence to try for a promotion, a lessening in addictive behaviours, pleasure in a new hair cut, greater capacity to make good choices in relationships … As one client puts it:

This work is sooooo challenging. It’s like going through the worst kind of hell again and again. But the rewards … They’re pure gold. There’s no doubt at all in my mind that it’s worth it. Phoenix Rising is changing my life

References
1.  Jess Glenny, The Yoga Teacher Mentor: A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes, Singing Dragon, London, 2020. Available to buy here.

2.  ‘Complex Trauma: What is it and how does it affect people?’: https://www.complextrauma.org/complex-trauma/complex-trauma-what-is-it-and-how-does-it-affect-people.

3. Founder of the 5Rhythms™ dance practice. Source unknown.

4. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2010.

Acknowledgements
Thanks go to my complex trauma clients old and new, all of whom have informed my practice of Phoenix Rising immensely, and especially to those who generously contributed words for this article. I am very grateful.

Image
Ante Gudelj.

Reflections on Practice

Thursday 17 June 2021: second series

Like a day in heather with a clear sky and tussocky grass.

Like a clear run.

You weren’t expecting this when you woke up muscle-sore from yesterday’s endeavours and intending only to glance over the surface. But then you surrender and the possibilities expand. You know it works like this, but still it always comes as a surprise. When it’s a trick you try to play on yourself it never works – not quite like this – although playing injured, even when not, was a way you made this practice tractable again, malleable, like a good dough. And then you were in, away and laughing.

The edge is always going to be a challenge – sitting just so on the rope, the pole finely balanced, not a teeter left nor a totter right. Even now, with all that you know, you still have to have just a taste out of Daddy Bear’s bowl – just the littlest bit – though it’s Baby’s porridge you actually eat. And you’re always the littlest bit burned.

If nothing was burning, if there was not this low tide of pain ebbing into sensation, so you don’t quite know the name of it, really, this hum … If not, would you know you were alive? It stands in for the missing proprioception. Comforting. Reminding you that you are in this body, that it has boundaries, that there is you and not-you, and other people can see. It reminds you that you are still coasting the surf of this wild sea. By some extraordinary grace. Today you are here.

Ammonite

There are no mermaids in these sentences,
But there are mernaids in …

                                    anemone …
                                    anthracite …
                                    aconite …

What is the word for the sea-snail
Sealed in stone?

The mermaids were chipped out of hard rock
Carefully, craftfully –
As mermaids are also chipped out of hard word.
The habits of mermaids are yearning,
Lond tendrils growing towards the light,
From where they are enclosed
In teapots and earth-walking shoes,
Not always irreversibly.

Work can be a liberation, but
It can also be a stone
That is lying on your chest, or
Which you are dragging on a chain.
It can be a sort of prison.
Love, also, is like that –
A freedom or a constraint.
And who knows if love or work Is more important?

But often work is easier,
Even if it’s fingers in salty cracks,
Bitter winds,
Oozing mud,
Twisted-ankle scrambling,
A tiny scalpel,
An eye seeking for forms.
Then hawking the goddamn thing –
This is when you forget
To be a mermaid.

PROMPT
Pick six phrases at randon from any book – and write.

“I puralise a word”
“Enclosed in a given belief system”
“The habits of samsara
“In fact, everything that is perceivable”
“Examine how your intentions deeply affect your mood”
“Irreversibly, tropical forests are literally disappearing”

Ammonite – a film by Francis Lee.

Image: Ashleigh Joy

Owl

Last night, owls. Whooo—too-wit-to—whooo.
Last night I fell asleep to the sound of owls,
ruffled in tawny, soft and feathers,
pierced by the hard little hook of beak.
I fell into the just-is-now of animal world,
the swooping-sky space of that,
wide and stuck with precise moments
of mouse.
And this morning I knew
where to scatter Dad’s ashes.
Oaks and owls,
Missionaries of wild.

Image: Keith Lazarus

Texture

Reflections on an ashtanga practice at nearly 58 …
Ehlers-Danlos … and how it’s all getting better and better

The texture has changed. This is what strikes me this morning about my ashtanga practice – the weekly full series. Like an ordinary miracle, all the body conditioning, weights, pilates, ballet barre – and of course not doing yoga every day (but rather a bit of this and a bit of that) has organised my tissues. I don’t feel so much like two pieces of knotted spaghetti (overcooked), more like a body of solids and fibres, levers and springs – calibrated.

Equation
Muscle density > proprioception > embodiment: the felt sense that I am here in this body, filling it, pushing through its pores, not just joints and bones and a few ragged sinews.

History
There’s a reason they call it ‘the change’. It becomes impossible to go on in the same direction. And from that surrender, that willingness to throw in the towel, came an invitation into something that turned out to be miraculously expansive. First there was the expansion of completely giving up: the exhalation, and the utter freedom, the wide open skies. And then the expansion in capacity. Followed by: the resurrection of fallen structures, old abandoned postures … an architrave becoming usable here, a surprising buttress, columns, pilasters, even the curly Corinthians standing up out of the rubble. It was impressive, and it had foundations.

Pandemic
Praise be also to pandemic life for the finishing touches: relief from choices, stimmuli, days that start in the small hours, running from pillar to post; for releasing me from exhaustion, first, and then into … energy. There’s no going back from here.

* * *

I’ve written so much in this place about aging with ashtanga as a process of reduction (or at least that’s my memory of what I’ve written): injury and pain and hypermobile tissues. And in the end, of course, all we have is only on loan. Eventually, the ticket’s up and we have to hand the whole lot back in. In the meantime, though, who knew there could be so much exponential increase, so much enjoyment, so much power, aged 57 (nearly 58) with Ehlers-Danlos? It isn’t a story I’ve heard anywhere else. But it’s the one that’s happening to me now.

Flourishing Online: What makes a successful pandemic yoga class?

Definitely having an established student base has been a bonus for me, but also consistency, showing up day in, day out, and being open with students about how I am feeling and coping in order to start conversations.” Ruthie Thomas (yoga teacher)

Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the past ten months, you won’t need any introduction to the Covid-19 pandemic, and if you’re a yoga teacher you’ll be acutely aware of how absolutely the coming of Covid has transformed the ways in which we offer yoga. What’s struck me in mentoring yoga teachers through this period, is what a different experience we’re all having of translating our work online. While some teachers are flourishing in the virtual space, others are struggling to generate any online participation at all. As I’ve listened to individual teachers’ stories, I’ve been contemplating what some of the factors might be that make an online yoga class successful. Of course, yoga teachers and yoga student cohorts are all very different, and it’s impossible to be systematic where so much variation is at play, but there do seem to be some common themes when it comes to creating an online class offering that feels juicy and and inviting to potential students.

Community
For me, and for many of the teachers I talked to in researching this article, far and away the biggest factor in motivating existing students to join virtual classes has been pre-existing yoga relationships. In this sense, the pandemic has clearly favoured established teachers who create and run their own classes over those who mostly work for studios and gyms. It was resoundingly clear from my conversations that independent teachers who have been proactive for many years in creating and fostering community among their students generally have very good retention of students online.

Community in the context of this article means that students care about one another, they notice when someone is missing from class and ask about them, they support each other through difficult life events, celebrate birthdays, go out together for coffee and make real friendships. As an outgrowth of regular embodied practice where authenticity is valued, yoga community is a space where it’s safe for people to be real and to have real feelings – the kind of space that has never been more necessary than during the pandemic. More on this below.

A feature of most successful community-based online classes is time given before or after practice for sharing in words. Yoga teacher Collette Crook says:

We created a community at the outset. The Zoom call would be open beforehand for people to have a cuppa and chat with their friends before I joined to teach. Then they could also remain afterwards.

Yoga teacher Tabitha Dootson adds:

It has been very important to have time before class to socialise. From helping cut fringes to sharing recipes, the pre-class Zoom time has been as supportive as the yoga.

At the end of most of my classes, we hold a virtual circle, in which everyone has time to speak about how they’re doing and how the practice has been for them. I cap classes at 14 to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be seen and heard. When we first moved online, one student commented that he actually felt more connected to the other participants in the virtual class, because he got to hear from everyone – and sharings after practice tend to be especially genuine and heart-felt.

Commitment
As a Mysore teacher, I’m fortunate in that I’m working with possibly the most committed yoga tribe on the planet. Believe me, it takes a lot more than a pandemic to stop ashtangis practising! Students’ commitment to practice, was another factor that many teachers named as being key to sustaining yoga classes online. Yoga teacher Sunnah Rose says, ‘I have some amazing regular students that just want to continue to have yoga in their life.’ Yoga teacher / therapist Liz Brown Siggers adds:

I’m fortunate that the majority of my students are very commited yog(in)is; yoga is an important part of their life. They want to continue to develop their practice and find it a useful tool to cope during these difficult times.

Like community, commitment is a slow build, the product of many years of dedicated teaching, often to few people and for little money or kudos. Teachers with committed students are usually also notable for commitment to the laboratory of their own practice. These are teachers who are able to teach as an outgrowth of their own experiential learning, offering well rounded classes, from a solid knowledge base, focused on actual yoga rather than fitness or striking attitudes in designer leggings.

Consistency
When the pandemic hit, what my students really appreciated was that I was still there, and yoga was still there, and their practice comrades were still there, at the same time, on the same day, week after week, even when life as we knew it seemed to be crumbling around our ears. For me as a teacher, this kind of reliability felt like an outgrowth of love – of the practice and of the practising community – and of belief in yoga as a tool of embodiment that can enable us to live in a more conscious and compassionate way.

Adaptability
While consistency is important, there’s a balance to be struck between maintaining familiarity and adapting to changing needs. Yoga teacher Julie Elder says:

What worked for me prior to lockdown just wasn’t happening with Zoom – particularly daytime classes, when a lot of people are having to home school. I found that making classes earlier (about 7am) suited a lot more people. I’ve also added a 30-minute lunchtime chair yoga and other shorter classes, as well as meditation classes, which are gaining interest.

What works for you is going to depend on your demographic. Ask your students what they’d like and when they’d like it. While many teachers have shortened class times, mine are still mostly 90 minutes. Not everyone is able to take this long out of their day for yoga, but my students have appreciated having time to go deep and really immerse themselves in practice.

A safe space to feel
Aspirational straplines like ‘feel fabulous fast’ tend not to play well in pandemic yoga. Many people are not feeling fabulous, and their chief goal is to manage the challenges of isolation (or forced co-habitation), home schooling, unemployment, long Covid, and so on … with their mental health reasonably intact. Being frank about our own emotional challenges, while holding appropriate professional boundaries, can open up the space for students to acknowledge their own feelings, and can make it OK for them not to be coping superbly with all the difficulties pandemic life is throwing at them. This is what yoga can uniquely offer that the plethora of online fitness opportunities cannot, and is a reason that many people come to a live yoga class, rather than (or as well as) sticking with Youtube HIIT.

Low production values
I’m not filming for Yogaglo or aiming to dominate the global yoga market, and my classes are definitely on the hand-knitted end of the spectrum. My typical class features pets, small children and partners entering stage left to make a cup of tea or spot a headstand, and low production values feel to me more in keeping with this vibe. Students who are less confident with online communications often feel more comfortable in this kind of setting and more willing to give it a go. If you’re able to stream from a spacious studio, I envy you, but if you can’t, bear in mind that your students will mostly be practising in their kitchen or or a corner of their bedroom, and a teacher doing likewise may be better able to create relationships that feel real and based on parity.

I teach with a rather old Macbook Air, which gets moved between a chair and a tripod, and I use the internal mike and speakers. A few teachers I talked to had invested in better cameras, sound equipment and monitors and were offering a much slicker production – and if that fits with your teaching ethos, go for it – but this was clearly not essential or even important in creating flourishing classes.

A word on music
If you share music from your laptop or phone via the regular sound share option on Zoom, it’s going to sound pretty awful. You also don’t have control over sound levels, so there’s no guarantee that you’ll be audible over the music. Possible solutions are to teach without music – I know it sounds radical but some teachers have been doing it for several decades! We live in a very noisy world, and a break from the onslaught of sound can be welcome. Another alternative that works for some teachers is to prepare a playlist on Mixcloud or Spotify for students to use if they want it. I’m also a conscious dance teacher so I have DJ software (Traktor) that enables me to share music via Zoom and have pretty good sound quality. This is designed for professional DJs, so it’s expensive and is not an install and go affair, and I recommend this route only if you really want to take your music use to the next level.

Be yourself
You don’t need to be Adriene or Kino in order to teach worthwhile and well attended online yoga classes. Your students really want to see you and hear your voice, particularly when so much around them is different and uncertain. Yoga teacher Charlie Merton says:

Do you, rather than imitating others you perceive to be successful. I’ve noticed teachers trying to up their game, which is fair enough, but in doing so they are sacrificing who they are – creating a persona for Insta rather than being honest and genuine in their approach.

Teachers with a strong grounding in their own authenticity are more likely to have something of worth to offer their students, and students – especially the serious, long-term ones – will recognise this and gravitate towards it. 

Don’t compete with the corporates
If you want a successful class, offer your students what they can’t get on commercial platforms: real beating hearts and in-the-moment presence. While we may not be able to put on a polished production in a large and pristine space, as independent yoga teachers we have much to offer our students that is not available from Youtube, corporate gym classes or huge Facebook streamings. An independent teacher can:

• Offer teaching geared to who’s in the Zoom room.
• Give individual feedback.
• Welcome everyone by name.
• Know each student’s history and practice.

All of these things contribute to making your yoga class more valuable to your students than the many free offerings available out there. 

Reconnect with students past
One of the unexpected boons of the pandemic for many teachers has been the return to online classes of students who have moved out of the local area. It has been truly delightful for our practice community to welcome some very much missed practitioners back into the online shala. Teachers with a national (or international) profile, those who travel to teach workshops and those who teach retreats have a particularly rich source of former students who can now attend classes from anywhere in the world. If you have students who have moved away or who you taught on a retreat, it’s worth dropping them a friendly line, reminding them that you still exist and sending them your schedule.

Freebies
In the world of pandemic yoga it can be extra challenging to expand your student base. A free event can help to generate new interest, while also giving back to your regular students and re-engaging regulars who have lapsed. Yoga teacher Julie Dodd says:

With my young son around I don’t have much time to promote my classes at the moment, but I tried something recently that worked and didn’t take long. I set up a free taster class via Eventbrite. If the event is free, there’s no booking charge. I’m certainly going to try it again in the future.

During the pandemic I have exchanged free workshops with colleagues in various places in the world, and during the first weekend back after Christmas, I offered a day of free yoga classes, which was hugely popular and has led to a few newcomers booking for paid classes. An event like this also gives regular students a hook to hang an invitation on for friends or family who have expressed an interest in yoga but not yet made the leap. You could also invite a physiotherapist or osteopath to talk about injury prevention, in exchange for publicity and some yoga classes, or invite a yoga teacher or therapist with an interesting specialism.

If you offer something free, make sure you follow up with paid opportunities to engage, and ensure that the relationship between free and for-a-fee events works for you. If the balance between energy out and energy back in is out of kilter, you’re likely to end up feeling resentful.

Stay in touch
While it’s not a good idea to deluge your students with emails (unless you want to shorten your subscription list!), it is helpful to remind your students regularly that you are there for them. Send them the schedule, including clear details of where and how to book. I’ve found that with all the stresses of the pandemic it’s particularly easy for students to fall off the yoga wagon, and they often appreciate a nudge to bring them back on board.

Concessions
Most of my classes have a scale of fees: regular income, low income, and financial hardship (which is free). Personally, I like to maintain some structure around booking and paying. I feel that it’s a part of the mutual commitment made by both teacher and student to the class. Other teachers are working on a donation basis during the pandemic, taking payment through Paypal or similar, and sending out Zoom links to their entire student list. How you do this is up to you, and will also reflect how dependent you are on your yoga work for income. Whichever system you use, make sure the agreement with your students is clear, just as you would for in-person classes. I think it’s a good idea to have a fee policy. Mine is here.

Help with tech
Many successful online teachers, especially those with older student cohorts, have been proactive in helping students to get online – walking them slowly through the process of booking, joining a Zoom meeting, muting and unmuting, toggling between views and so on. It can be helpful to explain to your students that it doesn’t matter if they lose their sound or appear upside down, that this is just a simple gathering for some yoga, not a BBC production. If you have a lot of nervous students, you could hold a free meeting simply for talking through Zoom and experimenting with all the different menus and buttons.

Seamless booking
A booking system with Zoom integration makes it simple for students to book and means that they can do it instantaneously. It also means that you won’t be chasing up payments or wondering how many people are actually coming to the class. I use Smoothbook, which is very cheap, and enables me to have tiered rates, including a free one, and to offer a variety of packages and memberships. However, there are lots of options, so have a look around.

Big up the advantages of online
While in-person yoga classes are never going to be obsolete, there are definitely some advantages to the online version. A Zoom class can potentially include students who are unable to access ‘real’ classes because they’re ill or disabled, don’t have transport or can’t afford childcare. Yoga teacher Fiona Agombar says:

I have a lot of people who have health conditions, and I realise that being online offers inclusion to those who would otherwise be too ill to come in real life. Some even practise from their beds.

As a student, I have really appreciated having the capacity to control my practice environment and to have more options about the way in which I participate. As yoga teacher / therapist Judy Sampath says:

You can set the temperature to suit you. You won’t be disturbing anyone if you move around to get props or use your furniture in new and creative ways. You can make as much noise as you like and give expression to what you’re feeling. You can leave the class how you wish: stay as you are, switch off quietly, unmute and have a chat, or write in the chat box if you need support.

While I miss the real physical contact of the Mysore room, my restorative and gentle yin class is infinitely better online. Students can wear pyjamas, make use of their own special props, wrap themselves up in their favourite cosy blanket and drift off to sleep at the end if they like – no need to snap back to attention in order to confront London street life and negotiate the bus home.

* * *

Online teaching isn’t right for everyone. Some teachers have decided that they simply don’t like it and don’t want to get used to it – and some students feel the same. If you don’t own your own student list or haven’t been teaching long enough to build your list up, it’s going to be challenging (though not impossible) to create viable classes online. If you’re a new teacher training graduate, you may be better served by attending classes, observing different teachers at work and developing your own practice until the traditional means of getting first teaching gigs (assisting established teachers and covering classes) come on stream again.

Covid-19 has caused a revolution in the yoga world, and one sure thing is that it will never be the same again. While there will always be a need for real-life classes, with their in-person teaching, 360-degree vision, potential for touch, and congregation of living, breathing bodies, the online version has also gained permanent devotees. For the teacher, there are fewer overheads, no need to scour the local area for an appropriate space, and from an environmental point of view the reduction in travel is a bonus. From now on in, there are going to be a lot more options for teaching and practising yoga.

Jess Glenny is a YRT Elder and C-IAYT yoga therapist, and is is the author of The Yoga Teacher Mentor: A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes. You can find out more about her work at www.embodyyogadance.co.uk.

Image: Adrien Tutin

Selkie Song: a POTS flare-up

Labouring to breathe, and your heart dances titter tatter,
While your head swoops and swims.
This is the problem: you have purified yourself too much,
Squeezed carbon dioxide zealously out of every cell.
Now you feel like a heavy-headed weed,
Lank and gangling in the summer shade.

Perhaps, you think, you really are a selkie,
Short of wind and gasping in the oxygenous air.
Hauled in on the net of your own curiosity,
You do not belong here.

20-minute poetry
Image: Nsey Benajah
POTS: Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. People with POTS ‘over-breathe’, eliminating too much carbon dioxide. This makes us tired, breatheless and brain-fogged.

Mother tongue

My one-year-old son learns to talk
Language forms like the lumps in buttermilk.
The starry white scrambles, clots,
Composing itself into phrases, bits of rhyme.
Pat, pat, pat,
A primitive sentence banged into shape between wooden clappers.
Your words arc like the fluted yellow curls in crystal dishes,
Precise articulate scallops that roll off the tongue,
Suave and sweet and unguent.
(June 2000)

Yellow and purple flowers. Wild bees hazing the big shrub of which I do not know the name. So many different sappy greens. April. Spring smells strong this year.

You were a year old when I wrote this poem and now you’re man – reading for a degree in … words. What’s to be said about the flight of time and the love thicker than blood that isn’t a cliché really?

April was my seventh month. Of course it would be so much easier if you could just keep them safe inside. All mothers know that. But every womb shrivels in the end. Time is a despot. You can’t run and you can’t hide.

I have a new kind of life – one I yearned and yearned for when you were one and I felt like a biscuit ground into the carpet. I thought that was erasure. I was too young to know that, like the moon, the self has many phases. Still I feel adrift somehow, among all this middle-aged arrival and fruition.

The shifting nature of time has always been hard for me. When I was young, I tried to fix it by not eating, as if I could hold my breath and be a chip of a harder kind of matter – sterner stuff. Eventually, of course, time bust the seams. You cannot win this one. One day I will be an old woman and you will inherit the earth.

Words were important – the song of them – back and forth. And the meaning too: ‘that’s a cat’ – ‘cat’ … ‘that’s a cup’ – ‘cup’ … And so you talked early – people remarked on it – as I did too, both licked by mother tongue.

And in the middle of this, my neighbour gave me big clumps of giant daisies, and I thought how once I would have felt interrupted, unable to hold together my scattered parts and endure through. Writing was so precious then. Now I stop, plant, pick up again, as if it were all one thing. As if I could always write and life is an unstoppable stream.

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20-minute poems – no title

Open your eyes –
The glorious world is still here,
Humming and splitting its wild throat with song.

Look –
At the rusty belly of the vixen
Grazing the yellow of the primroses,
And the great metallic vectors of the branches
Shifting in the wind.

See –
The clouds are banking, and new things
Are pushing aside the slow, wet fragments of the earth
Urgent to be born.

Image: Brett Jordan

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Fish

Mind in overdrive,
Creating, parsing, shuffling, filing,
Running comparative projections,
The engine revving and rumbling like a beast
Beneath the quiet geometries of the intermediate series.

And I give thanks for the cunning life of the cognitive mind,
The great survivor that ducks and dives its way
Through the material world.

Meanwhile, below the surface of the murky pond
The big bright fish swim slowly,
Languid as ancient summer afternoons.


17/3/20, When Social Isolation Has Just Been Decreed.
Intermediate series is one of the sequences of ashtanga vinyasa yoga.

Image: Sora Sagano

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