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Yoga Sequences

Yoga Therapy Trailblazer Michael Lee Shares His Phoenix Rising System

How one pose changed his life and how playing "the edge" could change yours.

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Prior to 1984, if someone had told me that a few minutes in Extended Triangle Pose would alter the course of my entire life, I may have laughed at them. But that’s exactly what happened.

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Christina Lane

During practice one day, my yoga-teacher friend Don Stapleton was guiding me in the pose when I started feeling hot sensations and strong emotions. My mind flashed back to a long-buried memory of being beaten in the schoolyard by a group of older boys. While I wanted to retreat from the intensity of the vision, my friend’s support helped me stay present with it.

Afterward, through journaling, I realized that in the time since that incident, I continued to be intimidated by—and avoided—people who I deemed more powerful than me in some way, such as in authority or size. This ended up limiting my own growth; I wasn’t reaching my potential. Once I had this epiphany, something shifted within me, and I began connecting with leaders and innovators in ways I hadn’t been able to before. I grew stronger, more aware, and more effective in my interactions with others.

See also An Introduction to Yoga Therapy

I created Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT) a year later to share what I’d learned by combining yoga with deep personal inquiry. After all, this combination had helped transform my world—more so than yoga or therapy alone ever had.

PRYT combines breathwork, gentle poses, meditation, and guided self-inquiry, designed to help practitioners safely embrace their physical limits in order to gain mental and emotional insights into themselves. It does not replace psychotherapy (talk therapy), but rather provides a somatic pathway to a deeper understanding of the self.

Through reverse-engineering my experience, mindful experimentation, and using my yoga-teaching skills, I found simple ways to use poses and breathwork to prime the body and mind for deeper awareness. PRYT helps my students become more in tune with how their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and habits profoundly influence their lives.

See also How Does Yoga Help With PTSD?

Methodology

A PRYT session has six phases and draws on the eight limbs of yoga. It also incorporates Buddhist principles, psychology, neuroscience, and trauma research and emphasizes the importance of letting the practitioner’s experience determine what’s right for them. PRYT uses three anchors for practice to help keep practitioners embodied: breath, body awareness, and something called “the edge,” a place where you learn to stay present with slightly uncomfortable sensations.

The Six Phases Of A Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy Class

Phase 1: Breath And Movement

Phase 1

Belly Breath

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Eleanor Williamson

Stand with a soft, stretched spine, with one hand a few inches below your belly button. Begin slowly and gently filling your abdomen as you inhale for a count of 4, then exhale for a count of 5. Repeat for 1–3 minutes.

Side Arm Raises With Belly Breath

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Eleanor Williamson

Stand with your arms at your sides, palms facing out. Slowly raise your arms overhead, using your established belly breath to inhale for 4 counts on the way up. As you lower your arms, exhale for 5 counts. Repeat 5 times.

Heel Raises

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Eleanor Williamson

On a short inhalation, come up to the balls of your feet. Make a ha sound on the exhalation as you lower your heels. Repeat 10 times.

This warm-up of 3-5 minutes uses vigorous motions synchronized with audible breathing to establish a body-breath connection to prep practitioners physically and mentally for asana and meditation. For example, we move in and out of squats, waking up the body as we practice lifting our arms (while inhaling to stand) and then lowering them (exhaling and bending our knees). Each full exhalation facilitates release with a loud ha sound as air leaves the lungs.

Phase 2: Playing The Edge

Phase 2

Standing Sidebend

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Eleanor Williamson

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bring your right arm up over your head and reach your fingers toward the ceiling. Lengthen through your entire body. Breathe in deeply, and on the exhalation, reach your torso over to the left for a sidebend. Use 3 breaths to find and establish your edge (a stretch that is potentially uncomfortable but not painful). Repeat on the other side.

Standing Backbend

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Eleanor Williamson

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Make soft fists with your hands and press them into your lower back muscles on either side of your spine. Lengthen as you breathe in and out 2–3 times. Press your hips forward and arch your body slowly backward to find your edge, engaging and embracing it. Exhale, and notice first your front body, then your back body, paying attention to what, if anything, comes up without trying to fix, change, or understand it.

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

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Eleanor Williamson

Bend your knees and let your torso hang down heavily, relaxing your upper body. Stay for a few breaths. With each one, let go a little more, sinking deeper into the stretch. Wrap your forearms behind your calves just above your ankles or wherever you can take hold. Slowly straighten your legs, using your arms to pull your torso toward your knees to help stretch your back. Use 3 breaths to find and establish your edge. Be with whatever happens there. On an inhalation, round up slowly to stand.

PRYT encourages practitioners to stay present in uncomfortable physical, mental, and emotional moments in order to slow the fluctuations of the mind. The discomfort from a physical posture silences external distractions and brings awareness to the body and the here and now. In this more grounded state, we can confirm or contradict beliefs that we have about ourselves and the world, reveal patterns, and even uncover the root causes of behaviors, much like what happened during my Triangle Pose epiphany.

Allowing this newfound awareness to inform and shift everyday actions can lead to powerful transformation, not only within ourselves but also in terms of how we move through the world. In asana, this means going deep enough into a stretch to find tolerable discomfort—or, as I call it, the edge—and pausing there to experience it while focusing on the breath and allowing it to support us in an unpleasant feeling. PRYT uses postures such as standing sidebends, backbends, and Utkatasana (Chair Pose) that help practitioners establish, explore, and eventually embrace the physical experience of the edge.

Finding a place between over- and under-working gives us the focus necessary for sentience. Homing in on our experiences in real time builds deeper centeredness in our practice’s next phase.

See also Learn About Trauma-informed Yoga with Hala Khouri

Phase 3: Dropping In

Phase 3

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

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Eleanor Williamson

Lying on your abdomen with your pelvis pressing into the mat, stretch your legs back, keeping the tops of your feet firmly against the floor. Place your palms just below your shoulder blades. Take several breaths and slowly curl your chest and head up and away from the ground, establishing your edge as you arch your back. If your mind drifts, notice it, and gently bring your awareness back to the now. Embrace the sensations, feelings, and expressions of your body. Slowly lower back down to the mat.

Navasana, Variation (Half Prone Boat Series)

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Eleanor Williamson

Lying down on your belly, extend your arms in front of you to frame your face. Adjust your legs so they are a comfortable distance apart. Press your hip bones into the mat to stabilize your pelvis. Bring your awareness to your right arm and leg. Breathe, lengthening and lifting the stretch. Establish your edge and hang out here for 5 breaths. Observe the right side of your body. On your next exhalation, stay present with it as you lower your limbs back down to the floor. Repeat on the other side.

Apanasana (Knees-To-Chest Pose)

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Eleanor Williamson

Lie on your back. Draw your knees to your chest, hugging your arms around your shins. Here, the edge may be more of an emotional experience than a physical one. Notice how much love and acceptance you can offer yourself. After 5–10 breaths, slowly release and let your feet come back down to the mat.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)

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Eleanor Williamson

Lie back on your mat with a folded towel or blanket under your shoulders to protect your neck. With your arms by your sides, bring your heels close to your sitting bones. On an exhalation, press into the mat with your arms and lift your buttocks, keeping your thighs and inner feet parallel. Find your edge, and as you breathe, notice what arises here. Stay for 1–2 minutes.

Savasana (Corpse Pose)

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Eleanor Williamson

Lie on your back and rest for 5–20 minutes, maintaining presence and awareness.

When our stream of thought slows to a trickle, we’ve officially “dropped in” by PRYT standards. If a thought, feeling, or sensation arises in this phase, we invite ourselves to observe it without chasing it, attaching to it, or creating a story around it. PRYT asks that we embrace, accept, and trust whatever comes up and remain tethered to the present through body and breath. Poses that help us drop in include Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Navasana (Boat Pose) variations because they challenge our focus, openness, and strength.

Phase 4: Meditation

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Eleanor Williamson

Inspired by vipassana (clear seeing), this stage involves a seated, pranayama-focused meditation practice guided by an instructor. Finding a meditative state can be easier after intentionally moving the body and breath, because physical activity helps soothe the mind’s chatter—in part by releasing calming endorphins. Here, we might focus on the pauses between in and out breaths to further quiet and center the mind. At the end, we’ll concentrate on the body and any sensations or emotions that arise to carry our cultivated awareness into the session’s final stages.

Phase 5: Listening For Insight

To close your meditation, place a hand on the center of your chest. Bring your awareness to the connection between your body and breath, and pause. Notice if any thoughts, feelings, or visuals arise. It’s also fine if nothing comes up—just notice.

Phase 6: Insight Into Action 

Journaling can help you integrate any insights you have from your session. If you feel a ready flow of thoughts, go ahead and free-write. Otherwise, consider the following prompts to help stimulate your journaling:

What did I notice about myself during this practice?

What understanding or awareness did I find?

How is any of what I observed relevant to my life, either now or going forward?

Based on my reflections, what small changes can I make on a daily basis to act on this awareness to improve my life?

Try an extended video version of this practice.

Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy creator Michael Lee is from Australia, where he worked as a behavioral scientist and professor in the fields of personal and organizational change. His 1984 relocation to the U.S. brought him to Kripalu, where his studies of the effectiveness of yoga and Eastern practices ultimately led him to pursue yoga therapy. He is the author of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy—Bridge from Body to Soul and Turn Stress Into Bliss. Learn more at PRYT.com.

Model Tania Medel is a yoga teacher and PRYT practitioner in Boulder, Colorado. Find her at originsyogatherapy.com.