Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

Today is a special New Year - a blue moon. The last one was in 1990, and the next one will be in 2028. Other than the fact that this is cool, it has absolutely nothing to do with this post. But it's still cool! (As an absolute, but important parenthesis, I want to say that my initial reaction to this was that it was so special, I had to do something huge to honor it. But recently, I have tried to move away from that mentality, to recognize each moment as special, to stop saving good bottles of wine, tourist attractions, etc. for a special day. I could say a lot more about this, but the NY Times already has. Click here for a great article.)

This post is, instead, about community and today's "aha" moment! In a sense, I'm taking a break from my discussion about the yamas, though this aha moment was inspired by one of the yamas, I will get to it later and its significance to this post. But this morning, I was doing Uttkatasana (Chair or lightening pose), and I found myself gripping my toes. Now, I have known for months, years probably, not to grip my toes. I concentrate on it, work not to, and work to ground through the heels. But today that concept took on an entirely new meaning, and it has to do with my pectoral muscles.

As I mentioned previously, I have some hamstring issues, and I wrote about a new understanding of that in a previous post. Something I learned that night, which should have been obvious to me previously, was that the pain in the back body is often caused by tightness in the pectoral muscles. Well, for me, that pain had been traveling down into the hamstrings. Since that day, I have been working on stretching across my chest, and the hamstring is slowly but surely starting to improve. I was stretching my arm against a wall right before my Uttkatasana this morning, and it all came together.

In Yoga Teacher Training, our teacher has often talked about the front body representing the individual, the self, the ego and the back body representing the community and our support. Modern culture, especially in the United States, is all about the individual. Culturally, we love stories of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and overcoming all apparent obstacles. I recently saw "The Blind Side," which was an awesome movie, but I came out of it wondering why we cannot help all those kids. While talking to someone about this, she asked what we should be doing, and I said supporting them. Her response was, "Eventually people have to take control of their own lives." That statement felt like a baseball bat to the chest, and I did not have a good aswer until today.

Buddhism teaches about the Triple Gem or the Triple Refuge: 1) The Buddha (himself), 2) The Dharma (his teachings), and 3) The Sangha (the community of his noble disciples). Jesus also had his disciples. Jews come together to study Torah. In other words, we cannot do it alone. I look around my yoga classes, and I see a lot of gripping toes. I see a lot of people leaning forward when proper alignment to protect ourselves is to lean back. Walking down the street, I see people who have their necks pressing forward, or worse yet, forward and down. Sitting at our desks, many of us hunch forward, breathe shallowly, and often forget we have a back . . . until it screams so loudly, we have bulging discs and need surgery.

We have forgotten the community, the sangha, our back body. We have forgotten that we don't have to do this alone!

I understood before today that the gripping toes were a reminder that I need to let go. I understood that the pecs were helping to cause the hamstring pain. But this morning's "aha" moment was that there is a world of support out there, that I exist within a community, and that our bodies are a constant reminder that it is okay to reach out to that community. Because officially, this blog is about lawyers, I'm going to merely point out that lawyers excel at being individuals. Even within a law firm, new associates literally fight for the best cases, try to outdo one another, and end up burning out. In law school, we were encouraged to find mentors, to attend as many social gatherings as we could. I hate small talk as much as the next person, but I have secretly always loved going to cocktail hours (and not for the free cocktails). It is there that communities are formed, mentors are created, and once that happens, you cannot exist in a bubble. You have to be a good person once the community is smaller. It is at those plastic events where I have discovered that the people I respect the most in this profession are the ones who have never gone it alone.

Thank you all for sharing this journey with me, for being part of my community, in whatever capacity you are, even if I have never met you in person. May this new year be filled with joy, love, and lots of community.

Blessings and Namaste!

Friday, December 25, 2009


Ahimsa is the first yama. As I mentioned in my last post, I am going to examine each of the yamas and niyamas and how they might provide some guidance in the legal community and in our everyday lives. A friend requested that I explain the yamas and niyamas a bit more along the way. The most basic definition is that the yamas are ethical disciplines and the niyamas are about self discipline. Thus, the yamas guide our actions within the world, and the niyamas guide our internal actions. Of course, the two are interrelated, and that which we do to ourselves influences how we interact with others and vice versa. So, with the first yama, we see how yoga instructs us to first interact with the rest of the world.

Ahimsa means nonviolence. This is far broader than physical nonviolence. It really means nonviolence in speech, action, and thought. It is because of ahimsa that so many yogis choose a vegetarian lifestyle. (For the record, I am not a vegetarian, but it is an easy way to understand how some interpret ahimsa.) The other side of nonviolence is compassion for all living beings. This means all living beings, from ourselves, to our best friends, to  those we sometimes do not want to be around, to animals, and even cockroaches (this one is tough, but that is the meaning of ahimsa).

Ahimsa is the first of the yamas for a reason - it encompasses all the others and provides the foundation for all the others. There is no way to interact with the world ethically if you are being violent, in any sense of the world. So what does this mean? How do we live in a nonviolent manner?

I have been facing many situations recently that have tested my ability to follow ahimsa, and many of them have had to do with customer service situations. These are often the situations that try my patience and my nonviolence. The most trying situation was with Sprint. I will spare you the details of the situation, but let me say that it required more than one phone call to the the customer service number, one of which ended with me being routed from a supervisor back to the main line, just to be put on hold indefinitely until I gave up. The final phone call ended up with them making an appointment for me at the service center, and when I got there, I was informed that those appointments are never seen by the service center. Luckily they still helped me - sort of. Throughout the entire situation, I was pretty upset with my lack of internet, and I made this known, but I also tried to be as polite as possible and tell everyone with whom I interacted that while I thought Sprint's policies were ridiculous and I was upset, that I also recognized that it was not the individual's fault, and I tried to thank each person. But I was upset, and I got annoyed, and I know that I was not as nice as I could have been nor as nice as I would have liked. These everyday annoyances, like phone companies and drivers who cut us off test our patience in ways we do not expect. They catch us in the moment, inconvenience us, and in the modern world, that is tough to handle. 

Our legal system is set up in a way that makes ahimsa seem nearly impossible. It is an adversary system, and by definition this usually means a winner and a loser. Lawyers are ethically bound to zealously advocate for their clients, even if it means toeing that ethical line discussed in the last post. But ask any successful and well-respected lawyer, and invariably he or she will tell you that you cannot get to be successful by being a jerk. Instead, respect and success come from treating the "other side" decently and picking up the phone to call the other lawyer before filing a motion complaining to the court when the other lawyer does something you do not think is right. These people have discovered their own definition of ahimsa - how to interact in a system that sometimes appears designed to cause violence without succumbing to it. It's about seeing the situation for what it is, a company's policies, not the person at the customer service desk. 

Ahimsa in modern culture is about not beating ourselves up when we choose to take some time for ourselves. What better day to experience this than Christmas, where nearly everything is closed? There are other days during the year when I have nothing to do, but there are so many distractions. Grocery stores and yoga studios are open. There are places to go, things to do, people to see. On Christmas, however, many of those distractions are gone, and except for movies and Chinese food, we Jews have had to learn to fend for ourselves. When I was a child, I remember being nervous - what if we needed food and nothing was open? To some extent, I felt the same way this year and remedied my fear with a trip to Trader Joe's on Tuesday. But why? Can I not spend one day in my house? What would that look like to others? I originally was going to spend Christmas in my house, but I have changed my mind, and instead, I'm going to take a walk - to the movie theater. I don't treat myself to very many movies in the theater, and it is such a tradition for Jews that I had to partake in it, but on my terms. And on Christmas, it's okay to do nothing because by modern definitions, there is nothing to do, except exactly what matters - spend time with ourselves and those we love. 

I walked out of the movie theater and felt an immense sense of love for the world. Today, even though I am physically alone (by choice), I feel more connected to everyone around me. On Christmas, it's okay to say hello to the person walking down the street. On other days, people look the other way. What a relief to be able to set everything aside for one day, to revel in the feeling of connection and not violence, and to be with each other, on any level.

I began this post by saying that the yamas are about how we, as individuals, interact with the rest of the world - the ethical precepts. But that begins with ourselves. Until we learn to be nonviolent with ourselves, we will carry that violence throughout our interactions with others. In the modern world, it is all too easy to carry our distractions with us, especially professionals like lawyers, whose jobs pay for the blackberry / crackberry. Letting go of obligations, realizing that it's okay to do "nothing," and taking care of ourselves are probably the hardest ways to be nonviolent with ourselves in modern culture. We can turn off our phones; we can say no to another obligation; and we can choose to take a day and not do anything, even when all the stuff and distractions are open. We can even smile at the person walking down the street. 

There is much more to say about ahimsa - about our speech, our clothes, our interactions with ourselves and each other - but for now, I'm going to leave it here. Thank you all for the support, the connections, and the opportunity to share this journey with you. I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Blessings and Namaste!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A ladder to something new

When I began writing this blog, I envisioned it beginning with this post. I wanted to start with the yamas and niyamas, the ethical teachings of yoga and the first two of the 8 limbs of yoga. I wanted to discuss how they could be useful to the legal profession. Instead, I went off on a tangent, which has been useful to me, and I hope, interesting to you. Well, the universe has intervened again. We are currently on break for two weeks from the yoga teacher training program, and our homework over break is to write about one of the yamas and niyamas each day and journal about how we could use them as themes for yoga classes. I will spare you from my postings each and every day for the next ten days, but I will write them, and they will be posted at a rate of probably two per week, and over the course of the next month, I hope you share your thoughts and ideas with me and each other.

So what are the yamas and niyamas? Well, the easiest and most relevant explanation is that they are like the yoga ten commandments. They help guide the yogis actions with himself and with the rest of the world. They guide the yogi practitioner on the spiritual path. Specifically, there are five yamas and five niyamas, and they are the first and second of the eight limbs of yoga. As reference, asana (postures)is the third limb and pranayama (breath work) is the fourth limb.

Lawyers also have a code of ethics, and it has always been the most difficult part of the law for me to reconcile with the rest of my life. First, when you start talking about lawyer ethics, the joke, of course, is that lawyers have no ethics. I am going to refrain from going down that path, but the perception exists, and I believe there is a reason it exists. By no means do I believe that lawyers have no ethics; I actually believe lawyers have wonderful ethics. That is, if those ethics are judged by the code. I see the Code of Ethics as a floor, not a ladder. (For you non-lawyers, a common legal argument is that something is a floor, not a ceiling). I say ladder here because that is exactly what the yamas and niyamas are. They are the ladder that begins the yogic path. They are the foundation, but they also travel along with the other limbs, providing guidance along the entire path, not just the baseline below which the yogi hopes to never fall.

By contrast, a lawyer can go an entire career without violating the code of ethics and be far from moral. Any ethics (sorry, Professional Responsibility) professor with whom I have spoken says that if you judge your actions by the Code, you miss the point. The Code, therefore, is a floor. It is the bare minimum by which you will not be disbarred. It does not create a higher path, a pursuit, a ladder to something greater. There are, however, many legal organizations that do strive for this higher goal. One of them, Phi Delta Phi, is known as the legal ethics fraternity. At one time, a majority of the United States Supreme Court were members. There are also the Inns of Court, a group of lawyers, judges, and often law professors and law students to discuss issues of professionalism and ethics in the profession. These organizations use the Code as a baseline and look for ways to be the best professionals, guided by something different than a Code. They create their own ladders.

I used to differentiate between ethics and morals in my head, saying that the Code of Ethics could keep you out of trouble, but morals should guide your actions - at least mine. I do not want to get into those semantics. If ethics is what you strive to achieve, that is great. But should it be a floor? Should you strive to walk the line as closely as possible? I would say that the vast majority of lawyers I know go far beyond this minimum. In fact, I can think of only one or two who walk that line with any regularity. But that is not the point. The point is that there is a difference between expecting the minimum from people and asking them to achieve their best. That is a semantics argument I am happy to make.

The following analogy may first appear to make no sense, but please bear with me.  When I lived in France, you had to buy your plastic bags at the grocery store. They cost between 3 and 5 cents - certainly did not break the bank - but I would rarely see people leave the grocery store with more than one plastic bag, and usually they brought their own. That was just the way it was. In the United States, you get 5 cents at many grocery stores (or the chance to win $25 at Trader Joe's), and I rarely see people take their own bags to places like Safeway, Albertson's and Fry's (Trader Joe's and other natural food stores are an exception, but for a different reason, I think.) The difference is the mentality between "saving" five cents or spending an extra five. Saving five cents is not much of an incentive. It takes a long time for that to add up to any "real" money, but they are not going to make me pay an extra five cents for a bag when it should be free! That's the difference between the floor and the ladder.
When you offer people a floor, what's the point of going higher? They must look externally for motivation and insight. When you offer people a ladder, promising spiritual enlightenment as the result, people act differently.  So, going back to basics on this blog, I am going to begin to explore that ladder.

Here is a taste of what is to come . . . a list of the yamas and niyamas:

Ahimsa - nonviolence
Satya - truthfulness
Asteya - not stealing
Brahmacharya - dedicated to the divinity of life
Aparigraha - non-grasping

Shaucha - purity
Tapas - burning enthusiasm (this could explain Spain)
Santosha - Contentment
Swadhyaya - self-study
Ishvarapranidhana - Celebration of the spiritual

Before I go, I would like to thank the universe and my yoga teachers for nudging me, through a homework assignment, to go back to where I always wanted to be.

Blessings and Namaste!

© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


"You are the only lawyer I actually like." This is one of the most disheartening sentences I hear, and I hear it often. Lawyers get a bad rap. Yes, there are lawyers who are unethical. Yes, there are lawyers who are only out to make a buck and ride the ethical line as though it were a tightrope. But like so many professions, there are amazingly good people who are lawyers. From Gandhi to many of the people working in Legal Aid to the people in large, civil litigation firms who use their jobs to help people navigate the fearful and uncertain legal world. All of these people are lawyers, and all of them aim to really help people. And while I hope to be a lawyer that people can and will respect, I sure hope that I am not the only one. Being a lawyer is an amazing profession, and it is through misconceptions about all lawyers based upon hearsay about some laywers that provides the lawyer misconception.

When I tell people I do yoga, the most often reaction I get is that I must be really flexible. When I tell people I don't really exercise, if they know me, their first reaction is, "but you do yoga." As I have said before, yoga is not just about the asana to me (though as I also said before, the asana practice has new meaning for me). Yogis come in all shapes and sizes, all degrees of flexibility, and all degrees of standing-on-one-hand-while-their-legs-are-in-full-lotus ability. Those who can barely touch the floor in a forward fold probably outnumber those who can even put one leg behind their head. The covers of many yoga magazines and the image of Jennifer Aniston selling her yoga teacher provide the yoga misconception.

The general misconception, then, about lawyers is that all of them embody this evil empire, with no regard to the rest of the world. The general misconception about yogis, then, is that they all embody the ability to reach their legs over their heads while standing on one finger. Of course, neither is true. So what do we do about it?

Yoga teaches us to look inside - of ourselves and of others. Nearly all yoga classes end with a simple gesture - a head bow -and word - "Namaste." Namaste has many, many meanings, but it essentially means, "from the light that is within me, I honor the light that is within you." We learn to see that this light really does shine within us all, and once we begin to see that, we can move beyond these misconceptions. Then why do I hear from so many yogis that I am the only lawyer they like? Well, we're all human, and yoga is not an overnight answer to our societal misconceptions.

Again, what can we do about it? Most importantly, we can live our own truths. Good lawyers can continue to help those in need, whether that need is civil rights or a contract dispute - both are noble. Struggling yogis can continue to struggle, whether with a forward fold or meditating for more than five minutes - both are part of yoga. Living these truths will allow more and more people to see that they exist. Holding them, taking pride in them, and being them, will prove to others that they are really the foundation of the law and yoga. The law is essentially about doing good, and yoga is essentially a practice, not perfection. Thus, these misconceptions lead to misunderstanding the heart of both worlds, not just individuals within them. The more people that vocalize their truths, against the grain of yoga magazines and Enron scandals, the more people outside those worlds will learn to appreciate the truth.

This blog began as a way for me to honor both of these worlds, and to help me find a way to understand what drives these misconceptions, and therefore, ways that we might debunk them. I find it my job to defend lawyers to yogis and vice versa, but instead I want it to be my job to bring them together. Recognizing the inherent misconceptions is the first step. I want to learn to fully embrace the fact that I care deeply about people and the law, and I want to fully embrace the fact that my leg hurts in asana practice and my mind wanders in meditation. It will get better, and I will find a way to ensure that families and children are treated well in the legal profession. (Disclaimer: there are many noble paths in the law, including civil litigation, but my path is with children and families.)

Thank you all for your support and love. In what ways do you find yourself believing that which you know is not true about an entire group? Do you find yourself caught up in that misconception about yourself? Do you hold yourself to a higher standard as a result? As always, comments are welcome and appreciated.

Namaste and Blessings!

© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.