Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flexible or vulnerable?

I want to keep exploring this idea of flexbility that I began in my last post. My conclusion there was, “just start.” Start moving, and eventually the flexibility will start to arise. But the question is how did we get unflexible? (Yes, I know that is not a word, but hopefully you get the idea.) It is (almost) cliche to say that children are flexible, and we lose that flexibility over time. But why? How? Does knowing the genesis of that loss give us some insight into how to fix it? I think it does.

Physically, what does it mean to not be flexible? We lose our physical flexibility when our muscles get too stiff, when they constrict and hold their shape. Certainly, one cause is repetitive motions that are “not good” for our bodies; my favorite culprit is the chair. Oh, the modern chair, in which we constrict our hips, crunch our low backs, round our shoulders, and when the computer is added, jut out our jaws. And many of us spend hours upon hours a day in a chair.

But what are we holding in those constricted muscles? Our muscles hold our past. They are havens of our emotions, our memories, and our thoughts. People talk of bursting out crying or laughing in particular postures. Sometimes, I will have the most random thought pop into my head of a distant memory during yoga. That is usually when the lawyer in me takes over, and I start wondering what it is about that posture, that muscle, which causes me to remember one moment over another. Oh well.

Perhaps the greatest gift children can give us is openness. Certainly I am not going to glorify childhood. It has its downsides for sure, but the open eyes with which children see the world is awe inspiring. Have you ever been with a group of people when a baby or toddler arrives? Every one's eyes turn to the child; we yearn to be back in that space where life was exhilarating, and where each moment was an opportunity to learn something new.

How do we lose that? Shall I call it innocence? Openness? Spaciousness? Acceptance? Dare I call it flexibility? In some sense, we must lose it. After all, a baby would be lucky to last two days without an adult taking care of it, and toddlers not much longer. Why? They are too vulnerable. Animals must protect their young from predators, and humans had to as well until civilization. But today, a baby could walk into the street, or not be able to reach the food in the cupboard. They are vulnerable and need the support of adults. Eventually, they become those adults who then long for their lost flexibility and gawk and laugh as children go by.

Yoga helps us find that inner child. We begin to open our stiff muscles, go deep into our memories, and start to see the world through children’s eyes again. After all, “child’s pose” and “happy baby” are both hip openers. But just as children are vulnerable, so too, can we become vulnerable as we begin to open. Some are not quite ready to face that past and may have held it deep for a long, long time. That is why yoga is a practice, a process. It gives us time to open slowly and carefully.

I am quite scared by people who want to get flexible overnight. Instead, I hope that people, especially those who are extremely stiff, both physically and perhaps mentally, to take time in yoga. It takes a long time to become the people we are as adults, and we cannot go back immediately. More importantly, if we give up too much, we lose our ability to care for ourselves. We lose our personal strength . . . but that is a post for another day.

So, I hope to encourage people to get started, but be careful and give yourself the time and space to grow and open safely.

Namaste and Blessings!

© Copyright 2010. Rebecca Stahl.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What is flexibility?

In my yoga class tonight (as a student), the teacher told me that I am almost too flexible. I almost burst out laughing, but she was looking at one part of my body, my shoulder blades, and telling me to breath into them. She was right; I needed to fill them with some air, but too flexible? Not I! Not even close!

I have been focusing on flexibility a lot this week. I was presenting at a conference on Monday where someone’s emergency caused me to have to change my presentation plans. Then my flight was delayed. I also spent much of this past week writing my handouts for my yoga workshop for lawyers. One of the best benefits of yoga for lawyers I could find, besides balance, is flexibility.

The most common reason/excuse/justification I hear from people as to why they do not do yoga is that they are not flexible enough. I rarely know how to respond to this. Very few people are flexible when they start yoga, at least not physically. But what does the phrase, “I’m not flexible enough” say about a person?

Usually the person saying it means in the physical sense. Flexibility, however, is much deeper. Our flexibility is about how we relate to each other, to situations that arise in life, to other ideas, and to our own beliefs. Flexibility is life. Imagine a plant - we know it is alive when it is malleable, when it can sway with the wind. When plants die, they become hard and static, unable to bend without snapping. (Yes, all beings follow this pattern, but the most common dead thing most of us encounter are plants.)

An ability to take life as it arises is something I admire in people. Yoga has helped me let go of my controlling tendencies, my need to know what is happening, my desire to know the future, but I am far from feeling fully flexible. Some days are easier than others. But even though tonight in class, my shoulder blades were dipping, it was mostly because my chest is tight, and they are overcompensating. So, once again, I find myself seeking a balance, this time between front and back. Once again, my body is teaching me what my soul needs to learn.

So, my new answer to “I’m not flexible enough” is going to be, “just start.” Start testing the waters. Start moving with life. Start moving your body. Each and every day, I see my body change. Some days, like today, I feel strong and flexible all at the same time. But even on days like today, I see those parts of me that feel stiff as a board. Those places, those moments, are my best teachers.

I hope to encourage others to trust themselves enough to take that leap, to begin to let go, and to see what the world has to offer.

Namaste and blessings!

© Copyright 2010. Rebecca Stahl.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Are you free?

So, this post is a bit late - it was supposed to coincide with July 4, but I was in California helping my mom move out of the house where I grew up. What better opportunity than cleaning out the past to consider freedom in the yogic sense?

I subscribe to many legal blogs, not the least of which is Above the Law. For those of you who are not lawyers, or those of you who have not been graced with ATL, it lovingly refers to itself as the legal tabloid. More than anything else, it focuses on BigLaw - in non-lawyer speak, this means large law firms, the international ones that drive the legal market. To be honest, I subscribe in order to keep tabs on what lawyers in BigLaw are thinking, as I find that I am very disconnected from that reality in how I view the world.

I do not think it would surprise anyone that the legal job market is grim - so grim that lawyers are fighting over unpaid internships with county attorneys in California. Unlike many people who are out of work, recent law grads are often in debt far in excess of six figures. Another legal / psychological blog I follow is The People’s Therapist. An ex-lawyer, turned psychotherapist, comments not only on psychotherapy, but also on how lawyers can benefit from it. He writes often about the belittling life that many BigLaw attorneys (Especially associates) lead. When I take the time to read the comments on his blog posts about how crippling the legal profession can be to the psyche, the most common response is akin to, “I want to give it up, but I have too much debt, and I must work.”

Translation: “I’m trapped!”

These comments reflect a world in which people cannot see their freedom. All they see is the oppression caused by the need to have a good job, make money, have possessions, and pay off the debt. There is no doubt I have felt this way. In many ways, I feel that way now. As of August 20, I am out of a job until January when I leave for the Fulbright in New Zealand. But while the daily ups and downs come, deep down I know that I am free to move beyond these limitations. Even my debt and society cannot imprison me. This santosha, or contentment, has only come through yoga.

But how does breathing and stretching with intention create such freedom? Yoga helps us see the bigger picture. I tend to be more logical than emotional, like many lawyers; if I am in debt, I better make money to pay it down. In that sense, I am trapped by this society and not free. But yoga has helped me see that my Being is always free even when external forces might predict otherwise. Yoga has opened my eyes to the world that obligation cannot reach.

In addition to seeing a bigger world, yoga can give us the tools to be free within our daily lives. We can go to work grumpy and upset. We can go to work upbeat and happy. That is our choice. I can work at a law firm because that is what lawyers do, especially after clerking for two judges. Or I can do what makes me most interested - help children in the law and bring yoga to more people, especially lawyers. Neither is right or wrong. What we have to ask is, are we making the choice from a place of freedom or a place of obligation/oppression?

By taking us out of the world we traditionally inhabit, yoga allows us to look beyond and find that which makes us love life. It opens our eyes to a deeper connection, the one to ourselves and to each other. It is not about money or prestige or possessions. On a yoga mat, the only things that matter are breath and movement. We are able to see that these are the guiding forces of our life. We take the moments to stop and reflect, ask ourselves whether the traditional path is the one for us. In these moments of reflection, we can find that the traditional path is our path, and that is wonderful - or we can discover that we need a different path.

Yoga creates the space to ask these questions. What makes you free? What gives you life? What opens your eyes?

Namaste and Blessings!