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Radio Interview with Bret Lyon
"Ask a Therapist" Radio Hour
KWMR 90.5 in Pt. Reyes Station
July, 2002

Interview with Bret Lyon, Diana Alstad (author in Bolinas), and host Toni MacDonald (MFTT in Bolinas and San Anselmo)

Toni MacDonald: I am in the Studio with Dr. Bret Lyon. He has a doctorate in Psychology and in Drama from Yale. He has put together a method that combines body and breath work and voice that really promotes a full sense of being and of really connecting most deeply with yourself. He started this training originally with actors; he taught at Tufts and Pomona College, then realized he could expand this to everyone. Also in the studio this morning I have Bolinas' own author and seeker of truth, Diana Alstead, who has written a book with her partner, Joel Kramer, called The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, and it's an excellent book, if you haven't read it, run right out and get a copy immediately. Diana and I have been involved for the last several months in some trainings with Bret, and we're here talk with the listeners and with Bret about how that has been for us. Bret, would you like to add to this personal background?

Bret Lyon: Thank you Toni; that was a lovely introduction. I've been doing the work for about a year in the Bay Area, and previously developed this work and was doing it for the past 20 years in the L.A. area.

TM: Thank you both for coming today. Bret, in your book, Personal Power Program, you have a couple of wonderful statements that you make. The first one is, "if you don't breathe, you don't feel." And the second one is, "anxiety plus oxygen equals excitement." I thought that would be a good leaping off point for us here.

BL: We're a breathing phobic society, in that most of us don't breathe — certainly not fully and not as often as we could. Most people hold their breath at least 50-100 times a day. Obviously we don't hold it for that long, because we're still here, we're still alive. But we do hold it. Basically, breathing is the way that we most basically connect with ourselves. One of the things around that is this quality of fear. We're also fear-phobic — we're afraid of fear in our society; it's very hard to just acknowledge being nervous, like before going on the radio, I get nervous, and so does everybody else. And if you breathe into the anxiety, into the fear, you notice that it's really excitement, because fear is really a form of blocked energy. And when you breathe into it, you let that energy flow through you, and when the energy flows through, then there's a lot of excitement.

TM: I know you talk also in your training sessions about the idea that we're only allowed, often in our families, only a certain amount of excitement, too. And part of that holding our breath and restricting breathing is about what we have found is acceptable.

BL: Basically we get restricted around different emotions in our family, one of them can be joy or excitement. Don't get too happy, something bad will happen to you, stuff like that. But also, big boys don't cry; big girls don't cry. Don't get angry. Smile. Be polite. A lot of different ways we're taught to hold ourselves back. And that gets to that second slogan that you mentioned, which is "when you don't breathe, you don't feel." What we discover is that certain emotions are not okay; we've got to stop them. Well how are we going to stop them? Physiologically we stop them by holding our breath. We find that if we don't breathe so much, we are not so in touch with what's going on.

TM: I know there are a lot of different styles of breath work, starting with Wilhelm Reich, which we will talk about later. But you have developed a very gentle style of breath work, and I have just enjoyed it so much. How did you come to know that this was really the best way to do this work?

BL: Basically the older I get, the gentler I get, and the subtler I get. I guess I used to be more into drama, and Reichian breath work and its derivatives, such as Groff breathing or rebirthing or some of these others. There's a real sense of (since they're related to emotions) getting the emotions out, being kind of dramatic and big. And the breath work is kind of strenuous; they work with something called the connected breath. You breath in and out, in some cases very rapidly, leading even to hyperventilation. I was trained in a breath that was also connected, the Reichian breath tends to be connected like that where it's in-out-in-out. But with the natural breath, there's actually pauses. I call it tidal breathing — that's the natural way to breath. There's an inhale, there's a pause, there's an exhale, there's a pause, there's an inhale, there's a pause, and it goes on like that. And the pauses are very important. And I found that you really don't have to leave them out. The same things happen to the body, the same things happen in terms of freeing up the emotions, freeing up the energy, getting in touch with who you really are, but they happen more gently. Maybe a little slower, but for me it's worth it to not overdo it. I got most concerned about this when I began to study Buddhism and Focusing, which really stress the gentleness — being compassionate and being gentle. And I thought about what I was doing, and I saw what I was doing was gentle, but it could be more gentle. So I came up with this, and wanted to see if it worked or not, and it sure does. Basically, that's really the model; you don't need pushing, you don't need forcing, you don't need trying. We're an accomplishing society; we're always trying to accomplish something. And I really feel what I'm most teaching people is about Being rather than Doing. So we're human Beings, not human Doings. And we don't need to accomplish, we will in a different way.

Diana Alstad: When you say the general approach works, can you say what you mean by "works"? Because you're contrasting with the more forceful approaches; apparently they "work" too but maybe differently, or something?

BL: That gives me a few things to say. By "working" I mean, any breath work helps you get in touch with your emotions. It helps you breathe more fully, and get more going on in your body. And also getting in touch with your emotions, However, breath work that involves hyperventilation, can sometimes get you out touch with your body.

TM: I can speak to that, too. I've done Reichian breath work and I've done Groff breathing, and I've had some marvelous experiences with that. But I do feel that the work that you do and what works about it, is that, in a sense, anyone who is working on themselves or is in therapy, has some level of trauma. It may be little traumas as we go through our lives. But we are in a sense, trying to recover, use our own resources, and manage in our lives, and I find that your breath work is so natural; it's so non-invasive. Nobody's putting something on you, and you're not revving your body up to do something to you. I wanted to offer that as part of answer too for myself, about what Diana is bringing up, that's a way it has certainly worked for me.

BL: That's my goal, so it's nice to know it's actually happening. I'm interested in working with the breath as the breath is. What I work with is not really a breathing technique, it's just breathing. So you can really bring it into your life immediately; it's not that different from what you do. It's just an expansion, a focusing on what you do naturally. It fits right in. And in terms of trauma, it doesn't tend to traumatize you. Basically trauma, which we all have some of, are places where we never quite navigated, something went wrong, and we're still holding it in some form in our bodies, in our minds. My work is designed to be as gentle as possible around that area. In other words, if there's a holding, there's a good reason for the holding. Reich came at a different time, and his theory is that you blast through it. And there is some logic to that. Some people feel like they need a good shot of something. And it does work in that way, that's another "work" definition. But for me there's the possibility of a rubber band effect, where you blast through something and then it comes right back again even stronger. My work is if you go through it more gently, if you let it dissolve. You find out that it kind of goes away, in steps, like baby steps. And then there's not that resistance and that rubber band of tightening.

DA: And you said the other more forceful approaches can put you out of your body, or out of touch with your body?

BL: Particularly if you're doing hyperventilation, you can lose touch with your body, in fact you go into an altered state. Which is really interesting. It's an interesting experience; I'm not knocking it, but it's not what I'm interested in. I'm interested in keeping people in their bodies and in their consciousness. It is an altered state in a sense, because everything is an altered state, but it's not a drastically altered state. It's not like "I'm here, and now I'm in a totally different place and now I'm going to come back to here. Maybe I don't even remember what happened to me, I said that was fun, that was interesting, but I don't quite remember what it was." Whereas this is more connected.

TM: One of the things I've hear so often about some of these other styles of breath work, is that it is an isolatetive experience, and you have developed this method in your groups of really working so closely and intimately with a partner while doing this work. I know just in my own theoretical background, that you can't heal the self in isolation. That there is that object relations, that I-Thou experience, and you really foster and create a way to do that in conjunction with the breath work, and that's missing sometimes in some of those other methods.

BL: That's my goal. I developed this originally with a companion, and that's the way I see, it, just what you described, you really need an I-Thou. Another way to put that is "it's never too late to have a happy childhood." And even if we weren't nurtured properly as children, we can receive the experience of nurturing in that way. I had a student who was extremely aware at one point and bright who pointed out that this was an experience of being nurtured in a way that most people aren't nurtured from really young childhood, if at all. You're lying on the floor and you're having somebody cater to your needs — we spend about a half hour with just getting comfortable. "Do you need a pillow under your head? Is that too big a pillow, do you need a smaller pillow? Do you need a blanket?" It's like nap time back in school, but it's to provide this really safe holding environment, so you really feel held, and you're able to re-experience what you got earlier or maybe you never got.

TM: It has definitely been my experience, I feel to much like a baby or a young child in doing this work, and going through the whole spectrum of emotions, from fear to joy to giggling to wanting mommy, to being afraid — everything. I have really got a lot out of this work.

DA: I think it would be good for Bret to describe the fact that he's not really doing therapy as much as training people in something they can do with partners in their lives. That's really important for people who don't want to do therapy or keep being hooked into a therapist. He's teaching a basic skill that's part of our human heritage.

TM: We're all talking about this in a sense, the idea that in a way we're paying attention to and expanding on and riding on both of these things, which are totally natural processes. Breathing, and being aware of how we feel and what's going on, and communicating with others about that — so it is a very natural process, both of those things.

BL: I think you used the magic word, paying "attention." Paying attention is the key. The line I like to use from Moshe Feldenkrais which is "awareness without judgment is the first step to change." And if I am able to do anything that would be the biggest thing I would be wanting to do, which is to help people become aware of what's happening for them without immediately trying to fix it or change it or make it better, We're addicted as Americans to accomplishment and to making things better. And sometimes if it aint broke, you don't need to fix it.

TM: Yes, you bring that incredible, non-judgmental accepting feel to these groups.

BL: I want to say that I don't have that all the time, unfortunately, but I do have it when I teach. One of the reasons I teach is it gets me to that non-judgmental place and I really like being there.

DA: I might add to that "if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it," "if it is broke, don't try to fix it either." Because the thing that motivated me to expand my skills of getting into my body and emotions and things, was there were 3 deaths in my birth family. My mother and sister died in one year, and my father just before that. I just felt, I don't have the skills that I need to cope with these heavy emotions, and the tragedy, not only mine, but the other members of my family. That's when I started studying Focusing and breath work, and I've found them to be very comforting and useful to gain a grounding in my being when there's so much pain, And just a way of being present with my emotions. It's been tremendously supportive and helpful to be able to go inside and to just get into my breath and my body and be present with whatever's there and reduce the anxiety through this awareness and paying attention to breathing. It has been very much part of my daily life. That's what I was interested in, getting skills that would help me in my daily life. I think there are a lot of heavy emotions out there in the world right now of all different types, whether it's political, or familial, or economic or work stress. I think these very basic skills that we've gotten out of touch with in our overly technological civilization, of breathing, of being in our bodies, inhabiting our bodies, living in our bodies, and being aware of that, instead of being obsessively in our thoughts or worries or fears. It's been tremendously supportive and helpful. It gives a grounding that's very strengthening and supportive and very basic. It's so simple that you almost miss it — what, breathing? How can that be important, we do it all the time? But the very fact that it's so simple. Bret you could say in other languages what breath means, to show how important other cultures acknowledge it, as opposed to ours?

TM: You spoke so beautifully there, Diana, about how it translates to your daily life, and just processing what is going on with you, especially because you've had such heavy things going on for you, and how you've been using that. Thank you for that. Bret, can we talk about the concept of energy flow, and the concept of armoring and energy blocks.

BL: Let me talk about Wilhelm Reich. Wilhelm Reich has influenced modern society in ways which are really remarkable. He actually died in an American prison, brought there by the Food & Drug Administration, I won't go into the whole story of that. He really was a disciple of Freud. And Freud's earliest theory was that all neurosis was basically blocked sexual energy. Freud was using "sexual" in a very broad sense; Freud saw all energy as basically sexual energy, it's a kind of "reaching out" energy. Reich really took that and ran with it. He said "let's get that energy and find it, let's measure it, let's begin to free it up." And independently of the Eastern traditions, he came up with a theory that really resonates with things like yoga or Chinese disciplines like Tai Chi or Chi Gung, those kinds of things. His theory was that energy basically runs up the back and down the front! And then there's armorning, places where it blocks up — it stops running. In Chinese medicine they talk about the chi and the dantienne (the central point two inches/two fingers below the belly button). That's really where the energy flows from.

TM: It's amazing all the things that come together. The hara in the belly, kundalini.

BL: The rising up the spine is the kundalini energy, it comes over the top of the head and runs down the front of the body. The two places it's easiest to put energy into the body are the head and the feet. The head is toward the sky and the feet are grounding. We want to be grounded and also spiritual or "up." And we're the only animal that walks fully upright and is designed to walk fully upright. So Reich began to work with sexual energy and started what would be the first sex clinics. In fact, we can really attribute the sexual revolution in this country to 3 things: the pill, the automobile, and Wilhelm Reich. And he was kicked out of several countries including Norway for doing sex research. He found that a baby has much more energy flowing through its body than an adult has. Much much more. Reich's work is about returning us to what we're born with. As we get older and we face social pressure and we face disappointment, we harden, we stiffen, and we armor, as he put it. So the job is to release or soften the armoring, and let the energy flow again.

TM: I'm thinking of our lifestyle sitting in cars and not really using all the different parts of our bodies. Sometimes, you'll make a big sigh in public or you roll your head around or kick your leg out because your hip feels funny. People are kind of astounded that there's this body next to them moving around and making sound. I hope that this will start a new revolution of people moving more naturally and making sound out there in the world.

BL: I want to say another thing about the baby. As I studied Buddhism I began to read about this thing called "natural Buddha nature," that we're getting back to our natural nature. That's the same thing Reich is saying. That we really need to get back to what we start out with. It's not a question of getting better, or learning something new. It's a question of relearning what we came in with, and undoing what we put on top of that, so we can get back to that essential core child's nature or Buddha nature. That essential core place.

TM: It just reminds me that the whole Recovery movement is about recovering the child's self, the natural self, before all the blocks and trauma. Getting back to that place.

BL: My belief about addiction is that addiction comes from an inability to stand the feelings and the energy flow that naturally want to be there. It becomes a way of shutting that down. People who are addicted very often are very very sensitive people who just can't handle all the energy and all the feelings that are there. We all have different ways of shutting them down. I've never had to be addicted because I can shut them down real easy. I have my own system. We all find in this society that there's not a lot of support around having feelings. So we do learn as children even, and certainly as we get older more and more, to shut them down, shut them down, what Reich called armoring. And we do it either internally or externally. We can do it by tightening the muscles, we can do it by stopping the breathing, we can do it by taking substances that tune us out — all designed to get away from the feelings. The irony is that if you shut down the quote "bad" feelings (like sadness or anger), you also shut down the good feelings.

TM: Diana, can you speak to what your experience has been in feeling and expressing your emotions in this work? You talked about how you were able to translate this into your daily life, really processing your grief. Is there anything more you'd want to say.

DA: A few things, one is that I experience a lot of peace when I get into my breath. Just a basic animal groundedness in my body. I focus on feeling the breath run all the way through my body to my feet, and it' very pleasurable, so it's given me a new relationship to my breath and to my body. In yoga, you focus on your breathing, but you don't always focus on it after yoga's over. What I like about this work is it carries it over throughout the day any time you want to tune into it. And if you're feeling emotional, that's a good time to tune into that because it grounds you and supports what needs to be supported. Gets you out of your head — the mind is often amplifying the emotions and causing more distress. As opposed to giving you a support for running them through you and letting them flow through you naturally like a river. And change. The mind often keeps them stuck in various frameworks or obsessive ways of looking at things, instead of letting it flow through you.

TM: For me there's almost a question of faith when I get into a difficult emotional place. I too lost my mother fairly recently. And really knowing through this process that it has a rhythm of its own. That actually there is that fear that "oh my god, if I get into this, it's never going to end." And having faith. And having this experience with Bret where you're giving permission all day long in the workshop to take it wherever it's going to go for however long it takes. And you really start to trust, and it's really intense, and then it's gone. Where did that go? I've learned so much, too, from this work. Bret, I'm wondering about talking about anger and aggression, and surrender. And maybe even about how being able to work with those really strong feelings that often were not allowed in the society, can help in terms of feeling your own health and power.

BL: The basic theory is that all emotions are all manifestations of energy flow. Both the flow of energy and the blocking of energy. The "anxiety plus oxygen equals excitement" comes from Fritz Pearls. The expression I love from Trompe Rinpoche is "energy plus story equals emotions." What Diana said is exactly right of the mind amplifying the emotion by telling the story over and over again, the specific story that leads to the emotion. And my work encourages you to just let it flow through you like a river. Exaclty like Diana described it. So you begin to tune into the energy rather than the emotion. Now we are emotional beings. We're designed to have all these emotions. And as far as nature is concerned, there are not good emotions and bad emotions, there are just emotions. And it's like the magician's magic hat with different colored handerkerchiefs. You pull out one handerkerchief, and another comes out and another comes and another comes. That's how emotions are designed to work. You have one emotion and you move on to the next emotion. But in our society we get into story and we shut off that flow. So people feel that there are certain emotions that are negative. Ironically, they are different in different families and there are also gender differences. For most men, signs of weakness, vulnerability, sadness, are emotions that are blocked off. For many women, anger, assertion, aggression are blocked off. That's a common distinction, though it crosses over. For everybody there's a tendency to block off a certain level of gentleness and compassion in our society. Anger is seeded in the pelvis. Anger and sexuality are extremely tied up emotions. And if you're blocking off your sexuality, you're also blocking off your anger. Reich's theory was that you release the body from the head down, because by the time you get to the pelvis (that's the energy center), you don't want a train that's going 150 mph on a track that's only equipped for 35. You want that body open. Emotions are meant to be expressed. They don't have to be expressed to the person you're angry at.

TM: An important point.

BL: Very important. When people come to the work sometimes they think "I want to break windows. Can I break windows?" I say, "no, it's not; there are some rules, and that's one of them." But you don't need to do that, the unconscious doesn't know the difference between whether you really do it to that person or whether you just have a sense of releasing and letting go of and expressing. If you just push you anger down, it just really saps your energy in a really difficult way. I believe it's the source of a lot of illnesses.

TM: I remember in your book, I remember the phrase, "the danger of non-expression." That is definitely a reality. I want to be sure and get to the issue of spirituality. What are your ideas about how this work relates to spirituality?

BL: This work actually got me from being a New York cynic to being a pretty spiritual person. It was from the experiencing of this work both with myself and with my students. In this work, there is the real potential of experiencing inner peace and what that really feels like, and the sense of connection with everything. There's a great Einstein quote I read the other day that "our real task is to somehow get over the illusion that we're all separate." It really helped me do that, because I certainly grew up in that illusion and it was reinforced by my family, which was very intellectually secular. This experience does something different, you really start to have a spiritual experience whether you believe in it or not. But you like it when you have it. But it's something that Reich actually didn't get into, and that's why I needed to move on and begin to study some spiritual traditions. Actually I was always interested in religion, I was a philosophy and religion major in college, but I was outside it. I always looked at it kind of objectively. And then I found that this work really does something. In every spiritual tradition, there is a huge emphasis on the breath. We know this in yoga, in chi gung. The words for breath and for life and for spirit are interchangeable in many languages. In Greek, the word psyche is the word for soul and for breath; in Latin it's anima — soul and breath; in Hebrew, in the Bible it's ruach, God breathes ruach into Adam, and that's how he lives, ruach is spirit and breath — the breath of life.

TM: Interesting how the soul, spirit, and breath are all incorporated in the same word.

DA: And in Hawaiian, aloha.

TM: I know for myself the feelings of being centered in the body and having a sense of being, and the self-acceptance in the work, the ability to stay in the moment. I have to say this work that you do has really brought me to a place for myself of centeredness and grounding. You wife, Jenny, who is also an author, kept saying this phrase the other day at your workshop, "Whatever you are, is Okay." And just really getting that; it's so beautiful.

DA: I'd like to add something about the spirituality aspect. I see spirituality not as something otherworldly, but as imbedded in matter. And the body is matter. Spirituality is embedded in our bodies. The body is sort of like a transformer — the connection between the external world and the inner life of experience. And the breath occurs in the body, it's the taking in from the cosmos and putting out. I look at spirituality as connecting, and so the breath is a very basic way that we connect with the outside. As you experience the breath in your body, you're experiencing your inside more than you normally do, when the focus of civilization is on thinking, and split between the mind and the body. So the breath is a way of cutting through, and integrating that dualism.

BL: That's why I call my work Body Breath & Being. I see the Breath as the transformer, between the Body and the sense of Being. They flow into each other; there's a connecting there, that it's All One. That sense of it all being one is what keeps coming up over and over again for me.

TM: I remember the first time someone explained to me the idea that we breathe in what the trees breathe out. And what we breathe out, the trees breathe in. And, oh my gosh, what a miraculous system this life is of ours. I have a strong Twelve Step background and you talk a lot about surrender. I know for myself, here I am in my middle fifties, and I'm just coming to getting a more clear understanding that it is about surrender, not about control. And when you can really implement that in every way in every circumstance. And I guess what you're teaching is how to do that. How to have that relationship with your body, that instead of forcing and efforting and pushing and controlling, that we are just surrendering to this natural process of the breath and that it can be kind of miraculous what comes out of that.

BL: I'm glad you said that, and I just want to say that surrender is not the same as submission.

TM: It's good to say, though.

BL: Surrender is a mechanism that is actually built into the body, and it really is a mechanism of full acceptance. Of just allowing instead of trying to control, and accepting what's there. Surrender is a form of being in the present. We actually have physiological mechanisms — the fight or flight response is an automatic thing that happens. In the startle reflex, which we all have, if there's a sudden loud noise, the shoulders go up, the head gets crunched in, and the whole body freezes. It's from that place that we make a choice of fighting or fleeing or possibly freezing, which is what trauma is, the freeze that happens when we can't fight and we can't flee. That same area where the head and the neck meet is the key to the basic surrender mechanism of the body. The head actually rolls back slightly and is extended, there is a barring of the throat, and the pelvis moves slightly forward. Actually the motion that ends up happening, is an exhale motion and the motion that happens at the end of an orgasm. Reich worked a lot with the sexual flow.

TM: Much to the dismay of the rest of society at the time.

BL: Now he's old hat, but at the time it was a big deal. That's where he tied surrender in. His image was sexual surrender. I believe that sexual surrender can be made much larger into spiritual surrender. Spiritual surrender really is not submission, but an acceptance of what is, rather than a constant fighting, fixing or trying to change what is.


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