Skip Sub-navigation

The Secret to Creating Transformational Workshops

By Ken Nelson and Lesli Lang


As a physical therapist and yoga teacher from New York City, Nora knew how much her work was helping people. Yet, she felt blocked and dissatisfied with her impact in the world and felt that she hadn’t reached her depth and capacity as a facilitator. When she came to our training program for workshop leaders, she had already created and led workshops and she was brimming with new ideas, but she couldn’t bring her projects to light in a way that fulfilled her.

Nora had come to appreciate that teaching experientially is not intuitive. Just understanding the power of transformational learning does not make it any easier to facilitate. And she would discover that there’s no formula for creating the circumstances in which people have deeply heartfelt experiences, no one way to offer tectonic shifts of awareness and create tipping points for the inevitable Aha! moments.

At the same time, creating the conditions for transformation is not accidental or coincidental. It’s a cultivated awareness and a conscious process. For more than a decade now, we have been devoted to sharing the unique approach to experiential workshop facilitation developed at Kripalu, a recipe that respects the rational, safeguards the uncertain process of learning, and nurtures the whole person. It’s a model of workshop design built on three key components: safety, experience, and integration.

The secret to designing transformational workshops lies in this natural sequence, which creates a complete cycle, a story with a beginning, middle, and end. When leaders weave these threads of safety, experience, and integration throughout their workshops, people feel held in a fabric tough and tender enough to hold the energy of transformation—safe yet challenging, predictable but not inevitable.

safety first

One of life’s central mysteries is the nature of the relationship between the individual and the group. As workshop leaders, when we consider the question of safety, we address fundamental concerns: How can I be myself and a member of the group? How can I let my guard down with a group of strangers? How can I be autonomous and be in community at the same time?

Good workshop leaders foster safety by creating a low-threat, high-challenge environment. To help people embark on a journey of discovery, we must meet them “where they are,” which means we acknowledge their resistance and baggage and address their need for reassurance when entering unknown territory.

An important way to do this is to let your participants know that you value acceptance. You can clearly say, “Nothing has to be different; you are already okay as you are. You can’t do it better by trying harder. This experience is perfect as it is.” Restating and reinforcing the values that underlie your group agreements, or conscious guidelines, builds trust. Researchers call this priming—a powerful culture-setting technique in the biotechnology of group formation.

The key to unlocking Nora’s inability to birth her workshop projects came during a fish bowl experience—an opportunity for participants to enter the circle and take part in an experiential exercise while being witnessed by other group members, who hold the rim with their simple and compassionate presence. Facilitating this fish bowl exercise was Rachel, a gifted and experienced leader who had come to our training to immerse herself in the Kripalu approach. Lesli and I held the circle with the others.

Rachel suggested participants reflect upon how they were “daughtered” or how they had been received and treated as daughters, and what that role was like for them.

Rachel established safety first: “We are entering a powerful process that can heal wounds and shift worldviews. The reconciliation circle is a valuable facilitation tool for bringing unity to division within groups, and to reconcile issues of gender, class, age, and cultural or sexual orientation. But, nothing has to happen—just allow yourself to feel what you feel, and report whatever comes up as best you can.”

Nora reported that she wasn’t sure beforehand what would happen for her inside the circle, but that she felt accepted, supported, and nurtured by Rachel and the group. She allowed herself to enter the stream of experience.

getting into experience

Mind-body experiences are the catalysts that workshop leaders use to engage participants in authentic interaction with themselves and others. Experience in the mind-body develops our innate potential by reteaching us to “sense ourselves, perceive the world, move our bodies, cultivate emotions, visualize, imagine, empathize, and intuit,” says John Mann, a pioneer in experiential learning.

Orchestrated immersion into authentic experience is not about offering secondhand, prepackaged information. The role of the facilitator at this stage is to be “the guide on the side.” The value of experience lets people discover the answers, own what they create, and share it with others. Learning is a paradox: Often we don’t know what we need to learn until we teach ourselves by actually doing it. Doing the experience reveals hidden agendas that drive us all without our knowing it.

Nora and the others in the center of the circle shared one at a time how they had been received as daughters. The rest of us held the rim of the circle as witnesses. The room lit up as each daughter told her personal story. Rachel fostered a balance between the action of telling, the reflection of remembering, the sensing of energy as a palpable force in the room, the interaction between the individuals and the group, and the application of the experience as a whole. Rachel’s intention, clear directions, and presence helped each participant to source their unique and genuine experience in the world.

In the fish bowl, Nora discovered that she had been living out a story she had heard again and again as a little girl. Her personal myth, her way of being in the world, was shaped by a daughtering that told her, “Life is hard.” Instead of navigating life from her own feelings and experience, this message unconsciously guided her choices and decisions.

integration time

Integration is the exit strategy, the debriefing. Digesting the experience involves an active process such as journaling, reflection, and/or sharing that helps people make conscious what they’ve received. It allows participants to sift out what is personally meaningful and opens the door to understanding.

Nora wrote to us later about what happened for her as she integrated the fishbowl experience. “As I listened to the stories being told, so many memories, emotions, and sensations flooded my body. There were no words associated with this and I chose to listen rather than speak. I heard people tell stories of being held in the loving embrace of their mothers, how they learned strength, resilience, joy, and tolerance. I wanted these to be my stories. I tried to come up with something to share that was positive, glowing, and filled with happiness, but it felt false. Then other stories began to emerge filled with anger or sadness. These were more familiar.”

“When I realized that the most powerful lesson I got from being my mother’s daughter was that life is hard, I saw that this was impacting my ability to ‘birth’ my projects. I couldn’t take them beyond conception. I began to see that I actually recreate situations where life is difficult—‘life is hard’ is a belief I am comfortable with. I am recreating my family history. I continually lead myself to places that don’t satisfy. The world isn’t doing this to me—I do it to myself. I can choose another way of being. I can begin to birth my workshop now.“

Revelation is what people get when a guide on the side encourages reflection on the facts, feelings, insights, and the patterns of belief that hold us in a smaller orbit, smaller than the one great universe that moves us all. Rachel brought closure to the circle by acknowledging and affirming a shared commitment to taking compassionate action in the world.

exploding the myth of born leaders

Transformational leaders are not born fully formed, or forged by great events. They are primed by a process that we can all learn. In training workshop leaders, our goal is to create so much acceptance and support that participants can’t help but succeed. Rachel’s skill and compassion as a leader enabled Nora to unearth a hidden agenda, to feel empowered enough to shift a stubbornly narrow perception of herself, and to move toward offering her gifts to the world.

Facilitating transformational workshops using the safety, experience, and integration model can help people to recognize the unconscious stumbling blocks and the semi-conscious beliefs that are running the show but don’t serve anyone. “The hero is the one who comes to know,” says legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell. The spiraling design of the transformational workshop restores movement and rhythm to life, like a hero who hears the call, sets out into the unknown and returns with her gift to the world.

Several months after our workshop, Nora left her job of 10 years to start a private physical therapy/yoga practice. She has been offering workshops related to yoga, pain management, and holistic medicine.

Ken Nelson and Lesli Lang regularly teach a program at Kripalu on facilitating powerful experiential workshops. Click on their names to find out when the next one is being offered.

©2008 Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.