I first met Dr. Katia Sol at a workshop which shall remain nameless. While the weekend started on a good note, it quickly went south as the speaker boldly admitted that although he'd never led a workshop or a meditation before, he'd dug up what he thought was a great script for one. He then accidentally opened up a group therapy session, which led to a whole lot of sobbing, hurt feelings, and an eventual coup by our workshop's participants, who, together, expertly turned the ship around as our speaker quietly excused himself from the conference hall never to return. Katia took a key role in that intervention, gracefully taking the reins from the speaker and guiding the group into a moment of reconnection and grounding. Even though we'd been through what seemed like a near disaster, the group emerged stronger and more connected, and I couldn't help but feel a certain reverence for the message it bore about the power of community. As soon as our leader had gone, the group came together, each person thanking the other for the role they played in what had just transpired. Which brings us to the subject of gratitude, which as Katia teaches, often arises out of (and is often most needed in) times of challenge. On this note, Katia is leading her 5th annual GRATITUDE RETREAT this November 17-19 in Marin, with gratitude practice, yoga, a hot tub, raw chocolate, and more...
So, it's funny how we met, being that the subject of your upcoming retreat is gratitude. There were so many tough lessons from that weekend I'm grateful for. In your recent TED Talk on the subject, you talk about being thankful even for the difficult situations -
That's right. We hear a lot about gratitude, and as a result, sometimes people think of it as a superficial practice. In fact it can be profoundly transformative, especially if we acknowledge the deeper truth of a situation. In my perspective, gratitude practice is not about bypassing anything that's going on or sugarcoating; on the contrary it arises from allowing ourselves to feel everything. The more we open to feel our grief, sadness, anger, fear, and despair, the more space we open for gratitude, expansion, joy and love as well. It's like practicing the physical postures in yoga - as we stretch to expand our bodies, we might feel an edge of tightness or challenge at first - but then as we breathe it opens more space and can be transformative. In this way, as we open our hearts to feel both the joy and the pain, the grief and the gratitude, we have the capacity for more aliveness all around. We can even learn to be grateful both in and for situations that are extremely challenging - like in the workshop where we met - the gratitude can arise by finding the good and the points of celebration, even amidst great difficulty. My own conscious practice started during a difficult time in my life; as I was going through a divorce, beginning a PhD program in a foreign city with little support and two small children. During that time, I'd find gratitude for my body, for my breath. It became my anchor. As Thich Naht Hahn writes, 'Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.'
So your retreat is just before Thanksgiving. Of course, that's a gratitude practice. It seems like so many traditions have a celebration of gratitude. You've studied many indigenous traditions over the years. Can you share some practices that have really resonated with you?
Well, Joanna Macy has said that every tradition in the world begins with gratitude. While it is a common practice in many world religions and traditions, here in North America (Turtle Island), Thanksgiving in its origin is actually a Haudenosaunee (Six Nations/Mohawk) practice. Traditionally, they'd spend about 4 days acknowledging every aspect of creation, naming and affirming everything the community was grateful for - from the trees that surrounded them to their food to the stars and cosmos. In effect, it's a way of giving back to creation. It's the foundation for all of their ceremonies and way of being. So in my life, I try to begin my days with gratitude, and to continue it throughout. I practice gratitude with my husband, with our children, with friends, in every work meeting, workshop, and coaching session that I hold, and so on. It is an active practice of choosing to notice and affirm what is life-giving, over and over again.
So this retreat sounds somewhat similar - diving into gratitude for a prolonged period of time!
Exactly. And at the retreat, we'll be practicing different ways of accessing gratitude - including sitting in circle, journaling, yoga, meditation, rituals, quiet time on the land, celebration, giveaways - coming at it from many different angles. And of course, we'll be surrounded by beautiful nature, 360 degree views of the Bay, Spirit House's gorgeous grounds, delicious fresh food, we'll have plenty of time for hot tub and relaxation, and yoga led by the amazing Danielle Devaki Gustafson, founder of Grateful Goddess retreats - it won't be so hard to find something to be grateful for! Danielle will be bringing in Yin Yoga practices with a strong focus on ritual and connecting to our bodies in a way that supports the gratitude practice. It will be very balancing and sweet.
Can't wait! Now, in your consulting work, organizational retreats, and through your Ecology of Leadership Program, you also bring in the practice of gratitude. How does that factor in?
Well, so much of our Western culture is based on finding what's wrong, on trouble-shooting - it's all too much about perfectionism and critique. From my experience working in organizations, many of them need to learn how to cultivate a culture of appreciation and encouragement - that's the medicine that helps people to flourish. And it's proven that works not just in an organizational setting, but in any relationship. In fact, research has shown that you can quantitatively determine which marriages will succeed based on how much appreciation there is between the couple. So I bring this practice into my couples counseling and one-on-one coaching as well. It's amazing how the simple act of looking around for something positive can shift people's mindsets so profoundly - it means they begin walking around focused on what they appreciate. And what we appreciate appreciates!
Can you tell me more about the Ecology of Leadership program?
Yes, so in addition to my coaching work, my husband Christopher Kuntzsch and I lead a 6-month long program called the Ecology of Leadership, which he co-founded with James Stark of the Regenerative Design Institute. We call it Leadership Development, but really I like to think it's about the art of being human! We ask: If we want to create a different world, who do we need to be, each one of us? Because we can't build a new and better world if we're sourcing from the same old operating systems and patterns that created this one. We use the image of a tree as our foundational model, supporting participants to envision what they want in their ‘Canopy’ or in the core aspects of their lives (e.g. home, community, relationship, service path, etc.), and also to examine where are they sourcing their actions from, their ‘roots and soil'. All of this is in the context of deep nature connection, as well as a connection to oneself (which is where the gratitude practice comes in) and to what we call the village." There's a heavy focus on communal support, with a small group support structure, a buddy system and alumni coaching. So no one has to be a lone wolf! While everyone might have different life circumstances and goals, everyone gets to feel the magic of being radically supported. Ultimately it's about empowering each participant to fully embody and live their gifts and to envision the most beautiful version of their lives they can imagine, trusting that collectively this will then also lead us to co-creating a more beautiful, thriving world.
I want to try it! When does the next one start?
Next weekend! November 10-12 in Bolinas. The immersion course is just one 3 day weekend/month for 6 months plus the buddy and alumni support throughout. We may offer a week-long immersion course in the Spring as well.
And can you tell me more about your private practice? Is gratitude a major part of that as well?
Well, gratitude is certainly a piece of it. Helping people to connect with their own guidance and knowing and how to trust themselves implicitly is a big part of it too. I create a container for people to access their own deeper wisdom and knowledge, depending on what they're working with. My goal is to help create an environment where people can access their own fullest potential - my role is to serve as a guide, and to encourage them on that path. Of course, in working with organizations and couples gratitude is a key part of the practice that I introduce - as gratitude will always bring more love and positivity into any relationship.
And do you have any future weekend retreats planned for anyone who may not be able to make this one?
My husband and I have one upcoming in February for Black Mountain Circle, founder of the Geography of Hope Conference, which is all about helping young adults to discover how to offer their gifts in these changing times. I'll likely offer a women's retreat in the Spring as well - stay tuned!
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Katia Sol
Post written for SFYogaMag.com