Monday, January 25, 2010


The essence of bramacharya is that it signifies the point in a young man's (of course) spiritual quest where he would begin studying under a Guru and become celibate. So what does it have to do with modern life, especially a lawyer's life? At face value, probably nothing, but if there is any profession that is expected to look beyond face value, it is lawyers. Not just lawyers, but all of us, gain so much by looking past the surface and understanding the essence of the teachings, and the essence of bramacharya is, perhaps, the most important yama for lawyers and modern society. 

Bramacharya is when we recognize that yoga is a spiritual discipline, first and foremost. Like many Native American societies where adolescent boys would go on their Vision Quests, and like a Bar Mitzvah, where Jewish boys accepted their place at the Torah, bramacharya is the point at which a yoga practitioner becomes a spiritual seeker. After learning about nonviolence, truthfulness, and nonstealing, we might give up sensual pleasures and begin serious studies. So, bramacharya is about freeing ourselves from our senses in order to continue on the path. I feel a bit scared writing this - spiritual path is a loaded phrase. The great thing about living in the 21st century, however, is that we get to choose what that phrase means for us. Bramacharya, for us, can be the point at which we make the conscious choice to make a conscious choice, the point at which yoga is no longer about the yoga butt and deep breaths, but about a way of life.

The question we must ask ourselves, put best in my Yoga Teacher Training manual, is, "Who is in control? You or your senses?" It is almost cliche to say that in modern society we are bombarded by sensual (and I mean this in its true form - that which pertains to the senses, all five of them) stimuli. Everyday our food tastes sweeter, our music gets louder, our computers get faster, our movies jump off the screen, our tvs are clearer than live, and have you looked around? We are literally exploding! Obesity, heart disease, cancer, and chronic pain have taken over the world, and we have no idea what to do about it. Or do we? Who is in control? Do you consciously choose to text message while driving, while eating, while listening to music? Did you stop and take a deep breath before you did that? I saw "Avatar." The effects were absolutely amazing, but I needed some serious cool-down time after. I needed to tune out - literally. Our senses are being overloaded. In order to practice bramacharya, we need not become monks, but we must be conscious of who/what is in control of our actions.

Yoga used to be a secret spiritual path, passed down from guru to student. In the small world of the Temple or ashram, it was easier to live a life of asceticism. It is the same way that nuns and priests could live those lives in a convent and a church (I'm not going to talk about the priest issue, but that is very interesting to this topic). Today's spiritual and yoga masters have, however, recognized that this secret, but small world, is no longer possible. Not because of modern technology entering their secret worlds, either. It can no longer exist because the world needs more people following the path, even if it is not a "perfect" path. While yoga studios are ubiquitous, and various forms of yoga are taught at LA Fitness, more than asana has penetrated peoples' thoughts. Ancient texts have been translated, women have become monks, and the Dalai Lama (not an Indian yogi, but one of the masters who recognizes the need to teach the masses) speaks to sold-out auditoriums wherever he goes. I was honored to spend an evening with Paul Grilley (yin yoga / chakra teacher), and he mentioned that we are at a point in evolution where these teachings must come forth, or humanity might destroy itself. Some people will take these teachings and run, people like James Ray who turned an ancient and beautiful sweat lodge into a place where people die. But even with people like Ray, and in my humble opinion Bikram yoga, the world needs more people willing to step onto the path, to make yoga a daily practice. As I watch the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh dominate the news, I know that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is light popping up everywhere, and bramacharya is a reminder that yoga is different than running. It is a spiritual path, but it is one we can formulate to ourselves. (I plan to write a lot more about the personalization of yoga in future posts, so stay tuned.)

So, where are we left? We need not move to an ashram, give up all worldly goods, and become celibate. We need not spend weeks fasting, nor meditate 3 hours per day. But being conscious of our senses taking over will help open us to the possibility of connecting with ourselves and others more deeply. Spring would not be as lovely without the winter before it (trust me, I live in Phoenix now). We all know you cannot pay full attention to the road when you are texting. Being overrun with advertisements, emails, the news, food, drink, etc., however, takes our focus away from each moment of life just as strongly. But we can control our senses while still enjoying life. We can truly enjoy our dinner instead of inhaling it - each day needing something sweeter, more potent to entice us.

Some days an ashram sounds nice. But the path today is to get out into the world, to bring the light to the masses. Many yoga teachers talk about integrating yoga off the mat, into your life. Seane Corn (another popular yogi) has an organization called Off the Mat, Into the World, in which she travels to poor regions of the world to provide a week of volunteerism while also teaching yoga classes. So yes, we can be lawyers, psychologists, teachers, students, friends, partners, whatever, and integrate these teachings how we want. In fact, the masters have asked that we do. That is why we even know these teachings exist. So, here is to taking that deep breath before eating, putting down the cell phone in the car, and watching something live instead of on HD in our living rooms . . . at least sometimes.

Blessings and Namaste!

© Copyright 2010. Rebecca Stahl.

Monday, January 18, 2010


It has been far too long since I last posted. I have been busy in a way that I have not felt busy before, sort of juggling life in so many different ways, not responding to emails, and actually not even doing yoga for this past week. And I have realized two very important things. First, I need to do yoga. It has become my life force, my energy, my source of strength, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, and this past week has been painful. Of course, that is literal - I hurt my shoulder, which is why I have not been practicing, but I realize that is just an excuse. I feel like I have stolen something from myself, which goes right into today's yama - asteya, which means not stealing. 

The second thing I have realized is that while I have been "violating" this yama, the main source of my time consumption has been fulfilling its other side - charity. The opposite of stealing is giving, and I have been spending all my free time creating an email list for an organization to which I belong. It felt great to do it, but I realize how taxing it was on me. I was consumed with getting it done. Of course, a major reason I had to spend the last two weeks doing it almost exclusively is because I took so much me-time over the holidays. 

Once again, I find myself looking for balance. I cannot think of a religion that does not command that we do not steal. I certainly know that the law forbids it. But how often do we think about stealing from ourselves? How often do we think that to truly fulfill the notion of not stealing, we are required to also give? I know that Jews are commanded to leave 1/10 (I used to think it was 1/7 until my uncle corrected me) of their crop for the poor. But I never considered that the other side of the stealing coin. I never put the two in the same boat. How often do we think about not stealing in the abstract? If nothing else, thinking and writing about the yamas and niyamas has opened up my eyes to what these basic notions mean. When you really take a step back and consider them, they are incredibly powerful.

The legal world is full of situations where we can either promote asteya or violate it. Ethically, lawyers are encouraged to provide 50 hours of pro bono (free) service each year. That is more than a week's worth of work per year. I cannot say that every lawyer does it, but I know many who do, and I know many more who far exceed those fifty hours. I work with an organization in which people volunteer hours and money to not only ensure the organization functions, but this year, with so many people out of work, the scholarship donations were larger than ever. I cannot help but be inspired by this. 

Of course, the law provides numerous opportunities each day to steal. I could talk about lawyers stealing money from their clients or the clients themselves being criminals, but those are obvious. What about all the time we steal from one another? What about the frivolous motions that are filed instead of picking up a phone and working something out? What about taking extra time on a project in order to make a few extra dollars? This is not stealing that is either unethical or criminal, but it is stealing in the asteya sense. It has consequences larger than the minute action.

Like all of the yamas, asteya is part of the ladder that supports our interactions with each other. When we take small pieces from each other and from ourselves, those pieces add up. As we get away with one, we think that it was not so bad and take a little bit more next time. Before we know it, we have created a Ponzi scheme out of our own life. Though most of us will never have the ability to steal as much as Madoff, stealing non-physically is potentially more dangerous. Recognizing what it truly means to give and to steal is vitally important.

When I was in law school, I volunteered a lot. I volunteered in legal clinics and in the law school community. Because of my current job, I am unable to do much of what I used to do, and it hurts. I miss giving. I miss being charitable. Interestingly, I have started to donate more money - perhaps because I finally have a paycheck, but I think it is actually to make up for not being able to give with my time. I actually feel like something is missing, is stolen from me. Luckily, yoga has provided one outlet. It is also what changed my yoga practice from only a calming/physical practice to 
that which guides my life. I have started dedicating each class to someone or many people in need of it. Some days, that dedication is to a family member or friend. Other days it is to something much larger, such as those in Haiti. But this ability to give my practice to others has made my practice that much more fulfilling for me.

Asteya, therefore, is about being able to find that joy in giving, about being able to give and be fulfilled by it, not feel like you are stealing from yourself or others. It certainly is about not stealing money and items from others (as my teacher said, remind your students not to steal anyone's mat). But it is about the non-physical acts as well. I think my shoulder injury was a reminder of how important yoga is to me. I needed to be forced to give it up in order to realize how much it has given me. And the greatest gift I have received is the ability to give to others through my practice, the ability to practice asteya even when ethical constraints prohibit me from always giving externally.

Thank you for sharing this time with me. I hope to be back on here more regularly as I continue to open my eyes and heart to the yamas, niyamas, and all that yoga has to offer to me, the legal world, and the world in general.

Namaste and Blessings.

© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved. (of course it would violate asteya to post this without my permission, but with a link to the blog, you certainly have my permission).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Satya is the second yama or ethical precept, the first of the 8 limbs of yoga. Satya means truthfulness. I have been a bit worried to write about truthfulness on the blog about lawyers. Isn't this where all lawyer jokes begin? But that is the point of this blog, to move beyond these preconceived notions. Truthfulness has a lot of levels; it means a lot more than not lying. When I was a YMCA camper and counselor, I was guided by the Four core values: 1) Respect, 2) Caring, 3) Honesty, and 4) Responsibility. In a sense, they were the precursor to the yoga principles by which I try to live my life today. There were always jokes about them back when I was a kid. We would be goofing around, poking fun at one another, and someone would say, "that's not very respectful." The obvious retort was, "yes, but it's honest!" Satya, for this very reason, is broader than always being truthful.

According to my Yoga Teacher Training Manual, the ancient texts say, 

Speak that which is true.
Speak that which is pleasant.
Do not speak that which is true and unpleasant.
Do not speak that which is pleasant and untrue. 

A different way to say this is that being unpleasant, seeing that which is negative, by definition means you are failing to see the truth. As usual, there is a thin line between truth and tact, but is that always the case? Must we fail to see the forest for the trees? If we take a step back, we can be both, and we can live from this truthfulness in a meaningful and respectful way.

Of all the yamas, satya may be the one that touches me the deepest. I have struggled with being truthful in my life, and if asked now, I would probably say that I struggle with being tactful when the truth needs to be stated. I have found that this tension comes up over and over again in the law and life, and how we handle it sets the foundation for our relationships. 

I think the most potent example of satya in the law exists in how lawyers interact when the other side makes a less-than-plausible argument. Without going into specifics, it is safe to say that lawyers generally do not choose their clients, and short of frivolous arguments, lawyers must make arguments to the court if their clients want them to do it. What has always fascinated me is that in many types of law, lawyers will represent both sides at various times. In Family Law, for example, a lawyer could be hired by the mother in one case who wants to move to another state with her child, and the father in the next case trying to stop his ex-wife from moving (not the same parties, obviously, but the same situation). The lawyer will be asked, therefore, to represent both sides of a legal argument, just with different facts. In these situations, lawyers living and working from a place of satya would be able to recognize that when the other side makes an argument, it is just that, an argument. And the legal system at its best is just searching for the truth. Lawyers failing to work from a place of satya will see the other side's argument and call it ridiculous, or worse. But we all know that both sides are just doing their job, right?

I have never seen a better example of needing to step back, and consider another perspective. Satya teaches us to both see that perspective, honor it, and if we disagree, to do so pleasantly. In politics, politicians are derided for so-called flip-flopping. While I will never condone changing a viewpoint for political gain, I am genuinely inspired by politicians who put their reputations on the line by saying, "I was wrong" when they recognize that their old views were not in line with their current views, usually after learning more facts. It happens rarely, but when it does, it is an opportunity to recognize that they have allowed truth to win over politics. I wish we lived in a world that could honor this sort of reflection and not turn it into a punchline.

In my own life, the punchline of satya from my childhood has informed my current struggle with the tension. A friend, who is a lawyer, and who has only gone to yoga once in her life recently said that both yoga and lawyers "are trying to find some ultimate truth." For someone who has struggled with truth for so many years, I am glad to have both of these systems guiding my future. 

Blessings and Namaste!

© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.