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HANGING TOUGH : Learning the Ropes at Psychodynamics Institute Is a Daylong Test of Emotional Fitness and Trust

April 09, 1988|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

The pretty young woman stood alone, swearing she would take a flying leap. Perched about 15 feet above the ground, her back arched against a telephone pole, Marji Mook, a 27-year-old construction management consultant from Tustin, balanced precariously on a narrow wooden platform barely large enough to contain both of her quaking feet.

Below, a crowd of nearly a dozen people watched, egging her on, encouraging her to jump. And there wasn't a priest or cop within screaming distance to talk her out of it.

After insisting again--"I'm going to do it!"--to the onlookers' amazement she drew a handkerchief from her pocket and tied it over her eyes, bent her knees and stretched out her arms, Superman-style. On the ground, fists clenched, teeth gritted, all hearts pounded as one.

Suddenly Mook dove into the air, and for a split second seemed to defy everything Isaac Newton had discovered about gravity three centuries ago. Then, just as her arc of flight turned downward, her hands miraculously found a small, triangular-shaped bar suspended eight feet away, which she clutched with every ounce of might in her slender arms. A cheer went up. She let go and gently floated to the ground, dangling at the end of a taut safety line attached to the metal buckles of her mountain climber's harness.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 21, 1988 Orange County Edition Orange County Life Part 9 Page 6 Column 2 Life Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
In an April 9 article, "Hanging Tough," about the "Great Ropes" obstacle course at the Psychodynamics Success Institute of Lake Forest, Nancy Pearson was identified by the wrong title. Pearson is vice president of the institute.

When she touched down, several bystanders rushed over to congratulate her and offer hugs and smiles at her adrenaline-charged stunt.

Are these folks a little crazy or something?

Nope--it's just another Wednesday night at the Psychodynamics Success Institute in Lake Forest.

At the PSI Center, as its tongue-twister name is commonly abbreviated, Mook was part of a group negotiating a rigorous series of physically and emotionally challenging obstacles dubbed the "Great Ropes."

They grappled up parallel logs suspended from the ceiling by steel cables, wobbled across a cable bridge, seesawed along the tightrope known as the "HeeBee-GeeBee" and, ultimately, made like Flying Wallendas off the "Parrot Perch."

A self-help obstacle course designed to identify and alter behavior patterns, the Great Ropes is modeled after programs used for decades to make Scouts out of boys and Marines out of men. But unlike Uncle Sam's finest, this group of recruits had to enlist for just one night of the sweats instead of several weeks of boot camp.

Stranger yet, not only were the participants doing it voluntarily, they were even willing to pay $120 a head for the privilege of running this unique gantlet.

More than the typical daylong ropes classes, which usually meet Fridays and Saturdays, this was the foreboding "ultimate challenge," customized for those who have pushed their endurance to the limits--and still want to push a little more.

The PSI Center, which houses the Great Ropes course and a couple of administrative offices the size of utility closets, is hidden in a quiet neighborhood mini-mall, next to a pay-for-play racquetball court. In fact, before being converted last summer by PSI owners Ellie Ryan and Nancy Pearson, the room was just one more racquetball court.

Ryan is a practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming, the relatively new study of successful behavior patterns. Using her training as a foundation, Ryan developed what she calls "kinesic engineering," the relationship between physical activity and communication, which adds a psychological dimension to the ropes course.

Before adapting the ropes concept into a compact course in an indoor setting, Ryan explored a variety of unconventional paths to self-awareness, including fire-walking (in which people are taught to walk over a bed of hot coals without experiencing physical harm).

"I wanted to know why fire-walking works," Ryan said. But because of the quackery that can surround activities as exotic as fire-walking, Ryan decided to channel her energies into something a little more down-to-earth.

"The ropes course is more acceptable in our society," she said. While professing that kinesic engineering can help participants achieve psychological breakthroughs without years of therapy, she maintains that the institute is not offering "a one-day quick fix."

But she does say that because of her training, she can assist those who undertake the program to recognize real-world patterns in the way they handle the course's obstacles.

"When you come in, we ask what your goals are, what your limitations are. The main benefits are self-esteem and team-building," Ryan said. "Some people get spiritualism out of it--what I call the 'woo-woo' world. But I try to keep that totally out of this."

For some who have completed the course, the constant references from the staff to the "analogies to life" present in each task can get slightly irritating. "It got in the way for me," said one participant who otherwise praised the course.

Still, most ropes course graduates--everyone who completes the course gets a diploma--say they experience genuine boosts in self-confidence and trust (many of the obstacles require teamwork).

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