Saturday, November 28, 2009

A fundamentalist yogi . . . what?

Yoga is not only about asana (postures)! This statement is far more controversial (and dangerous) than it appears at first glimpse. The people who started Bikram Yoga have a goal to make yoga asanas an olympic sport, to be judged on who does the postures the best. When I tell many people I do yoga, their first reaction is usually either, "wow, you must be really flexible," or "that's weird stuff and not for me." Usually, however, the reaction is about the asanas, and many people consider yoga to be a good form of exercise.
Personally, I started doing yoga for emotional reasons; I needed a way to center myself, de-stress, and get out of my head. I learned asana from my sister-in-law and early on discussed meditation with her and my brother. That was yoga. In law school, I attended my first yoga classes, and while the asana practice was important to me, I found my home in the classes with long periods of meditation or savasana (corpse pose). Yoga and meditation helped me get through law school and take two bar exams without freaking out about them (for the most part). When confronted by people who considered it exercise, I became defensive, always pointing out that yoga for me was about the spirituality, not the asana practice. After all, asana is only one of the eight limbs, and only two or three of the yoga sutras discuss asana.
Of course, my body suffered. I was going through the asana motions without fully engaging in them. I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. Somehow I had convinced myself that asana was not an integral part of the practice while I continued an almost-daily asana practice. My practice got "better," as in I could go deeper into the poses, but I was not using the correct muscles, and my body let me know. And then I started the Yoga Teacher Training. I wanted to deepen my spiritual understanding of yoga, so I found a school where that would be a central theme. I also wanted to learn more about asana, but I kept telling myself that was not my number one goal. For those who entered the teacher training with an exercise mentality, I'm sure that the class seems deeply spiritual. For me, the class's focus on asana and everything else has finally allowed me to give myself permission to truly enjoy the asanas.

This new focus on asana (without letting go of the rest) forced me to see a less-than-yogic part of myself. I realized that I had become a fundamentalist yogi. I was so convinced that asana is only one part of the practice that I had essentially ignored its power. But there was my body reminding me that I had better pay attention. In last week's class, the spiritual, emotional, and physical came crashing together, and my fundamentalism slammed me in the face. Throughout the teacher training, I have gained a new appreciation for asana, a new love of the physical practice. But it was not until I was forced to confront how ignoring it had caused me such physical pain that I realized how much I truly had ignored it. I had become judgmental about asana, and while it may be only one limb of the practice, it is still one of the limbs. All eight are essential. All eight lead us to our highest selves.

During teacher training, we were placed into groups to present on one type of yoga, so we could gain an understanding of many of the most common types of yoga being taught in the United States. Of course, coming into class, I would have loved to have been assigned Viniyoga or the Himalayan Institute, both yoga practices based more on the spirit than the physical. Instead, I was assigned Ashtanga Yoga, more commonly referred to in the United States as Power Yoga. The universe has a funny way of working out.
Ashtanga Yoga began in Mysore India by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who studied with Krishnamacharya. At the time, Krishnamacharya was teaching adolescent males, who benefited from the physical asana. Pattabhi Jois believed that we must learn the physical asana before we can begin studying the spiritual aspects of yoga - our bodies and minds must be open to it. Thus, for him, the physical practice was the beginning of the path to spirituality.
Many people would probably argue that yoga and fundamentalism do not mix, but anyone can be a fundamentalist about anything. When we fail to see the entire picture, when we decide to defend only one aspect of the whole, we lose the ability to think objectively and to learn from that which we are choosing to ignore. I can think of no better example than the legal profession. Lawyers get paid to see only one side of the story, to present only one side of the story. To do otherwise may be unethical. In law school, we are taught (at least at the U of A) that the best way to help your client is to know the other side's argument better than he does and to anticipate arguments the other side will make and rebut them. In practice, however, I see lawyers calling the other side's arguments ridiculous, unfathomable, and other choice words that need not be repeated. Those statements are usually made, however, by the very people who would be making the same argument if the other side had just hired them first. So, are lawyers nothing more than trained fundamentalists? If so, what can we do about it?
Fundamentalism arises when we start to take things personally. The legal arguments that turn into "that's ridiculous" are made by the lawyers who get too caught up in the client's story. My views on asana were too caught up in what other people thought about my yoga practice, about it being exercise and not spirituality. I will refrain from commenting on other religious and political fundamentalism because that could fill several tomes, but the idea translates. It's when we let ourselves get too involved, too intertwined with whatever the belief is, that we become fundamentalists, and when that happens, all hope of discussion is lost. Whether a lawyer or someone who loves Macs instead of PCs (come on, we all know a fundamentalist Mac user), this hook of the personal, of the judgment, is where the pain arises.
Instead, something will force you to see the other side. For me, it was my leg. While limping out of yoga classes, I realized that I had ignored an essential limb of yoga (no pun intended). I had ignored an essential piece of my spirit. It just happened to be physical. My leg still hurts, but like any path, it cannot be attained over night. What did change overnight, however, was my attitude to the asanas. I have a new love for the poses, can play with them, laugh at them, and learn from them. In this week of gratefulness, I am deeply grateful for my body's not-so-little hints that I was missing the mark. The trick now is to remain unhooked from that place of judgment and continue to love the entire path. I'm sure that if I forget, I will go limping out of many classes to come.


© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Taking it to the edge . . . and beyond

The yoga paradoxes continue. Yoga teaches us to go to our edge, but not beyond. What is this edge? In a posture, it is the point where "awareness" becomes "pain" (as my teacher so eloquently puts it). Awareness is when you feel the muscles, feel the stretch, feel the strength, feel the core. Pain is where you cannot walk, where you want to cry. This edge is not, however, static. As our practice grows, the edge moves. As our awareness increases, and our bodies adapt, they can go farther. As we recognize our bodies changing, the mind, heart, and spirit follow (or guide - sort of a chicken/egg argument).

I learned this week that there is a huge difference between knowing this in your head and knowing this at the deepest level of the soul. Like many lawyers (and many others who have gone through 20+ years of education), I live my life in my head. That is what I have been trained to do. That is what society teaches us is best. We are taught that just being, doing nothing, these are signs of sloth. We should be more productive. For years, as my yoga practice has evolved, I have spoken often of its benefits, of letting go, being at peace, and breathing. I have spoken of relaxing and the physical benefits that yoga can create. And I have been in acute pain. I hold my tension in my shoulders, and recently it has moved to my leg. Not awareness, but pain. Though my brain was telling me one thing, the ingrained learned responses were doing another, and my body was none too happy about it.

In the middle of class on Thursday, I winced in pain, and the teacher saw it. From across the room, she mouthed, "if it hurts, don't do it." Well, duh! But that is when the light bulb went off. That is when I finally got it - inside my being, not in my head.

What do we prove by going so far? To whom are we trying to prove it? Does showing up at work earlier than everyone else and staying later than everyone else make you a better employee if you are unable to be productive because you are so tired? Is it possible to be productive when you have neglected your body to the point where you cannot even sit through interviews? I once had an interviewer stand the entire interview because his back hurt so much - why would I want to work at his firm? Prior to class on Thursday, I had been less than fully productive at work. Friday, I was a maniac and got more done in one day than I think I got done all week. There's the yoga paradox - when you finally let go, finally give in, the world opens up, and you suddenly have all the time you thought you had lost. My working edge had shifted. I had reached it earlier in the week, but on Friday it moved, and I was able to move, and work, with it.

As I sit here today, the leg has not miraculously healed, and even with my best intentions, the shoulder is still tight. But the pain is subsiding, and the awareness is growing. My personal practice today was slow but nearly without pain for the first time in months. The lawyer in me thinks that I can learn anything by reading about it. I mean, that's what we do as lawyers, we read. The societal American in me thinks that I can be successful by being "perfect" and "productive." The yogi in me knows that neither of these work. On Thursday the yogi pushed its way in a little bit farther. And yes, the lawyer and the societal American started to do better. This is a topic to which I know I will come back often, as Thursday's kick-in-the-butt was just the first of many. But it was still huge. Lest we not forget, "the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step." Until Thursday, I thought I could take that step in my head. Today, my feet are on the ground, and they know which way is forward.

Going beyond my edge did nothing for me except cause me pain. Going to our edge, and being aware of it, is how we grow. It is at the edge that we learn, that we hold steady, that we build strength. Then the edge moves, and we grow with it. Going past that edge causes pain - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This edge is an important place. It is at the edge that we see ourselves at our very best and risk being our own worst enemy. When we learn to recognize our edge, anything becomes possible. In this week of Thanksgiving, I am so very grateful for finally understanding this on a deep, deep level.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me, for your support and your comments.

Blessings and Namaste.

© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I have always been intrigued by hugs. I was slightly surprised and extremely moved the first time I saw two teenage guys hug one another - I was at a Jewish camp, and I thought that it could only happen there. Most guys thought themselves too tough for such displays of closeness. My family is very huggy, and it was not until I went to college that I realized how important those hugs really are. I can remember the first hug at college. It was a big deal; it meant I finally had a friend. There were probably thousands of hugs after that, and each time I see those college friends, we embrace.

Both times I lived in France were nearly devoid of hugs. I remember being so excited when some friends from Ann Arbor came to visit; there were lots of hugs (not to mention when my parents came). And then I moved to Arizona. Let's just say that law school was not hug central for me. For the first time I lived alone, and I did not open up to people at school with hugs. They came - infrequent but there. (Now, those law school friends are huggers; it just took some time.) And then I started doing yoga. At first, I was anonymous at Tucson Yoga, but law school required more frequent attendance at the yoga studio, and before I knew it, I recognized half the people in most of my classes. Out of nowhere, the hugs began. They were greetings and goodbyes, quick and long, and sometimes reassurances, but they were always a sense of connection.

Last week, I stayed after my yoga teacher training class chatting with another student (considering class ends at 9:30, I usually bolt out of there, but this was an important conversation). We were talking about drug addicts, dangerous neighborhoods, and prostitutes. What, you ask, does this have to do with hugs? Well, everything!

I have spent a lot of time in courtrooms watching people who presumably once loved each other have such contempt and hatred for one another that they cannot sit next to each other and are willing to tell the world (aka the judge) every bad act the other one has ever committed - numerous times. I have spent just as much time in courtrooms watching people fight to keep their children, often losing or giving up that fight eventually, because drugs have become easier than facing reality. I have heard both these groups of people called a lot of names. My professional career is dedicated to making the system work better for them and their children. But all that time in courtrooms, I wanted to do the one thing I absolutely could not do - give them a hug.

There has been one other time in my life where I was told I could not give someone a hug. I was a camp counselor. As a society, we have become so fearful of pedophiles that I was told by the powers-that-be that hugs were off limits to the kids. At the time, I worked with school-age children and preschoolers. How do you tell a 2-year old she cannot sit in your lap? How do you tell a crying 6-year old you cannot give him a hug? How do you tell the 10-year-old who is just happy to see you that she cannot hug you? Well, I didn't. Luckily, I didn't lose that job, but I decided that I was not going to tell those kids they couldn't get a hug.

But a courtroom is different than the playground. Sadly, the parents in the courtroom were in just about the same emotional state as the children on the playground. But the rules are different, and this time I followed them. But I couldn't help thinking, how much better would these people feel if instead of an order, we gave them a hug? Hugs have been shown to work miracles; people travel from all over the world to meet Amma, the spiritual leader who gives hugs. But what would a client do if his lawyer hugged him? What would a patient do if her doctor hugged her? Our knee-jerk reactions to these questions are, "that's unethical!" Maybe it is. That's sad, at least in my opinion. Luckily, I have also seen those happy endings, especially when parents get their children returned to them, and their cases are dismissed. And yes, I have seen hugs on those days. Perhaps that is why those who work in juvenile court love it so much.

But a hug can melt away sadness. A hug can be the support someone needs. A hug can be a source of new strength. Who are these people I saw so often in the courtroom? They were people who had fallen out of love - no more hugs. They were people who had lost their children - no more hugs. They were people who felt all alone in the world. I know; I have been there. That first hug in any new home is powerful. It's a sign that you belong. It's a reminder that we really are all interconnected.

And yes, my (almost) first new-friend hug in Phoenix was at the end of a conversation about drug addicts and prostitution. (I actually thought it was the first until I remembered one at the end of another YTT class from one of the teachers.) My part of that conversation was based exclusively on what I learned in the courtroom watching all those families being torn apart. What better way to honor them and their stories than with one of my first Phoenix hugs? This blog is about connecting yoga and the law, finding a way to do both. And here, I have an answer. While I may never be able to hug someone in court, yoga has taught me that energetic hugs are almost as good. I send one to each of you reading this and to all those families, past, present, and future.

Who have you hugged today?

Namaste and Blessings.

© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tuning Out

While practicing qi gong the other day, there was water running in the background. Even during a pose where envisioning water running, I was tuning out the actual running water. A few days later, while doing the same pose, the sprinklers came on. The universe has a way of smacking us in the face when we don't want to listen.

Tuning out seems to be our modus operandi. It is so much simpler than being present and focused on what is in front of us. Yoga, meditation, and qi gong have helped me tune in these past few years, but of course that tuning in easily becomes tuning out in this culture . . .  even while engaged in those activities. 

There is no question that tuning out is absolutely necessary. If we did not do it, we would probably lose our minds. We are aware of only a fraction of the information our brains receive every second. But tuning in can benefit us and allow us to be more aware of the world we inhabit. When I was a young child, my family dubbed me "wrong way Becca" because I could not make sense of directions, always turning the wrong way and getting lost. When I moved to Michigan for college, I would constantly call my parents (who had not lived in MI for 20 years) to ask for directions. But then I moved to France, and all of that changed. I had no choice but to tune in and be vigilant in France. I was more scared to ask for directions than to tune in. Then I traveled in Poland, Germany, and Spain, all places where I could not have asked for directions if I wanted to--I simply did not speak their language. All of a sudden, I had a good sense of direction . . . or I had just started to pay attention. It is no surprise that I started doing yoga the summer before I first lived in France. 

In a world of twitter, facebook, RSS feeds, and sound bites instead of news, if we did not tune out, I think we might explode. But when tuning out becomes the norm, we have to relearn how to tune back in, or we will become "wrong way people." I think you're going to start to see a trend in my posts here; we need to find a balance between tuning out and tuning in. We need to recognize that which we need to tune out in order to focus on that which is important right in front of us. I just spent 3 days in Reno at a family law conference, and I was amazed by all the wonderful new information being presented. I was also amazed at all of the hunched shoulders in the rooms, focused on their blackberries instead of the presentations. Ok, I was not actually amazed, but how can we learn to tune into the wonderful information being presented when we are more focused on our twitter and email accounts? I am guilty of it as well, and the day I presented was tough because I had to actually pay attention instead of check my email. But I learned a lot that day from the other presenters, and I'm glad I was able to tune in.

Just like my sprinklers, however, tuning out will cause the universe to force us to tune in. For lawyers, this means a malpractice suit for failing to file a claim before the statute of limitations runs. For students, this means getting sick during finals or every vacation because of ignoring the body's pleading for some TLC before that. For all of us, tuning out means missing the most important parts of life. It means missing the falling leaves in the fall (ok, not in Phoenix, but I can dream, right?) and the beautiful full moons this time of year that lit the harvest for so many generations before electricity.

Finally, tuning in allows us to exist from our essence and not our frantic, caffeinated selves. As professionals, we can only be there for our clients (or customers or colleagues) if we tune into our own guidance. When we tune in we can see all that is important in front of us. Tuning in helps guide our ability to tune out that which takes away from what we need to be seeing. 

There is a lot more to say about tuning in . . . what do we see when we finally do? What are we willing to tune out consciously in order to tune in consciously? How do we reenter this world and balance the two? But these are for another day? For now, I ask you, what have you tuned out instead of facing? What results have you seen by failing to tune in? As always, I love hearing from you.


Sunday, November 1, 2009


"Work hard. Play Hard." It's the motto of many, but is it exactly what is harming us?

When I started walking I was very, very pigeon-toed. I have been told that I was tripping over my own two feet. This worried my parents and the doctors, so they decided to fix the problem--I wore a brace on my legs, which every night would turn my feet out. Eventually, I was walking normally, the brace was removed, and except for photos of this strange contraption, it is no longer a part of my life . . . or is it? My body appears to be telling me differently. As I grew up, I continued to be slightly pigeon-toed, and I was very conscious of it, so I worked hard to walk straight. Enough yoga classes where I turned my feet in a direction they did not want to go, and my leg started to hurt, and it got to the point where it felt like a pulled muscle. What started as a good idea--not tripping over myself for the rest of my life--led to pain in my leg (and if you want the details, yes, a pain in my butt as well). I had overcompensated.

We all do it; we overcompensate for that which may or may not harm us if we were to just let it be. Overcompensation is just another form of going to the extremes. I started this blog by saying that I have found dualism as a defining characteristic of my life, at least these past ten years, and one of my favorite songs is Billy Joel's "I Go to Extremes." In one of my favorite quotes in the song, he says, "Either I'm wrong or I'm perfectly right every time." It is this all-or-nothing attitude that defines so much of modern life and leads us to overcompensate--to work hard and then play hard.

The legal system is the epitome of overcompensation. At its core, justice is designed to help people, and help people it can. Let's not forget Brown v. Board of Education and NY Times v. Sullivan (where the Court said that it was okay to print the Pentagon Papers). But like any fix, it can, and has, gone too far. As a lawyer, I have spent most of my time studying and witnessing family law and juvenile law. This is where emotions enter the picture, and all bets are off. I have seen divorcing spouses spend $50,000-100,000 arguing over $10,000. Talk about overcompensation!!!

From the outside looking in, that seems crazy, and it probably is, but it is not, by any means, abnormal--even outside the realm of family law. We all get caught up in this overcompensation. What appears to be a good idea--a cleanse perhaps--can result in severe health problems, and even death. Getting back at your ex-spouse can seem like a good idea until you realize how much emotional (and financial) energy is wasted. Overcompensation and extremism result from knee-jerk reactions to our everyday events and lead us to results perhaps far worse than the original problem.

It makes perfect sense that we would overcompensate in a world of extremes. We are seeking to balance whatever is "wrong" in our lives. The most accessible yoga teaching I have ever received, in fact teaches doing just that: "If you're feeling down, move around. If you're feeling great, meditate." The yoga classes that have sprouted up at Juvenile Detention Centers do not result in those kids saying that they loved the physical aspect of the yoga. These kids, who spend their lives on the streets, in gangs, and doing crazy drugs, love to meditate. In the name of balance, we act as pendulums going from one extreme to the other.

But what happens when compensation becomes overcompensation? How do we recognize it? How do we, shall I say, center ourselves? We have to learn to put on the brakes. In the yoga teacher training class these past two weeks, we have discussed the tailbone as that break. When standing, the tailbone is the center of the body, and when it is down, we can reach high into the air while remaining grounded through our feet. Physically, the tailbone keeps us from overcompensating in any direction. Emotionally, it is not quite so obvious, but a deep breath and a little reflection can go a long way. Stepping outside the situation, removing yourself from the back-and-forth for just a moment can provide the insight to at least acknowledge what is happening. From there, we can determine the next step from, hopefully, a more centered perspective.

Perhaps we need to trip over ourselves a little bit in order to find the balance between the extremes.

© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.