Sunday, October 31, 2010

Infusing the Profession

If I can come up with one theme for yesterday - the second day of the conference - it would be that mindful lawyering has moved from the periphery to the core of the legal profession. Professor Rhonda Magee called it an infusion, moving from the margins to the center, but I was trained by an anusara yoga teacher and periphery to core is one of “our” phrases. It all means the same thing. Thank you, Professor Magee, for pointing it out.

But as we learned early in the day from Dr. Phillipe Goldin and Dr. Shauna Shapiro, mindfulness and contemplative practices have infused all professions. I am going to focus on the the neuroscience again because that inspired me so much at AFCC, and it just fascinates me to no end. Certainly, anyone who has some sort of contemplative practice, whatever it is (religious, secular, even “just” exercise) knows that the contemplative practice changes you. But seeing how the brain responds through Dr. Gorldin’s photos and explanations, hearing about mirror neurons, and knowing that this is truly the cutting edge of science, makes me almost giddy.

Last time I wrote about this, I was overcome with happiness tat I could finally “prove” to lawyers that contemplative practices help. After all, because of mirror neurons, we know that if we stay calm in a room, others will follow our lead unconsciously. But I think it is bigger than that. What we (ok, I am not studying this, but the proverbial we) are seeing in the brain is that we really are all connected. What I see from all of this research is that our brains are vastly bigger than our consciousness. In much the same way as I have come to truly appreciate the body (more on that from this conference later), i have come to appreciate all that the brain can teach us.

I want to see this information from all directions. When I practice, I feel it, I know it. In fact, I have known much of this my entire life, though I thought I was crazy. Then I got the words from yoga to talk about it with other practitioners and people who understand energy. But I cannot tell you what it feels like to be dumbstruck at the front of a yoga class telling people to feel their feet, which are not on the floor, reaching as though they are standing or to energetically reach from one finger, through the chest, out the other finger. The neuroscience and psychological research being done is giving us new language, new directions, to explain this information. More importantly, according to the brain research, the more neural pathways we use, the stronger they become, and we can more easily overcome old habits. In other words, we, as practitioners, are giving ourselves, and yes, our brains, a new understanding.

So, I loved, loved, loved, these presentations on neuroscience and psychology. I also attended the plenary on education initiatives, Jack Kornfield’s talk, and the concurrent session on whether these practices are religious or secular. I have spoken before how I feel about that issue  (teachings used to be secret and today are accessible to all), and the information from the education workshop will have to wait for another day. But so far, this conference is going great!

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2010 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Be the change . . .

We all know that Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I think this Mindful Lawyer Conference is a perfect example of that notion. Yesterday, the conference began, and the pre-conference mini-retreat was a 3-hour meditation, with some instruction, some silence, and some discussion. It set the conference tone - one of community and togetherness through paths other than the head/mind. Sitting there, I felt alive. I also felt a wave of emotion; wow, this is really happening, and there are other lawyers out there interested in the same ideas and ways of being as me - AND we are here together. I dare not say “all here” because I know there was quite a waiting list, and some people could not attend who I know would have loved to be here.

The plenary session last night involved an inspirational statement from the Dean of the UC Berkeley Law School (Boalt). He does not meditate (I do not think), but he understands the power of what this conference is about. His words were of gratitude for us utilizing his space and doing the work that we are doing. It was such a delight to hear that from the Dean of a top-tier law school. I know there are many others who believe as he does, but it is always such a pleasure to hear.

Norman Fischer, a renowned Zen Buddhist meditation teacher, spoke to us as did Charles Halpern, the man who began CUNY law school, focusing on public interest work, and brought the mindfulness class to Boalt. The piece that struck me the deepest was the discussion about the need for this in the legal profession. Mindfulness means many things, but one definition is being fully present with yourself so you learn to be fully present with others. At the dessert reception, I spoke with a fellow volunteer (a Boalt student), and she said that, for her, it all boils down to compassion and empathy. I could not agree more. Even the Dalai Lama says that his religion is compassion.

There was a time when meditation and yoga traditions were secret, passed from guru to student, in ashrams in the mountains. Many leaders, including BKS Iyengar and the Dalai Lama, however, realized that the world will not survive if these teachings do not reach the general public. The world is in such a state of disarray that, even if we cannot do these practices “perfectly” we must do them. We must connect, or we will destroy ourselves. So, as the speakers talked about the need for us to come together, and one of the members of the planning committee, Rhonda Magee, talked about the need for people of diverse and unique backgrounds to celebrate together, I felt a twinge of pride and love. These are the deepest teachings, and we are all in this together.

The rest of the conference is about the nitty-gritty of techniques and changes being utilized by lawyers, judges, and academics. I am excited to learn the techniques, the ways to implement these practices in my life and my work, but the opening plenary was about all of us making a commitment just to “be” at the conference. We were asked to use our cell phones away from each other, or not at all and to eat lunch close by the conference to facilitate discussion. In other words, we were asked to be the change we want to see - a community learning from each other mindfully and together.

I’m off to teach the morning yoga class (which should be fun - I sprained my ankle yesterday). Do not forget to follow the conference on Twitter at #mlc10.

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2010, Rebecca Stahl all rights reserved.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Oh Irony . . .

I remember my very last law school exam. I arrived early, sat up front (yep, I was that student) and was chatting with my classmates. In just over three hours, law school would be over. The professor walked in, and I asked her how she was doing. Her response - “I had nightmares about this exam last night.” I had slept like a baby. Are not students supposed to be the ones having nightmares?

Well, I had my nightmare last night - about missing the beginning of the Mindful Lawyer Conference. The irony is almost embarrassing. But I think there is a reason.

I was a student for 19 years. Exams, while never easy, make sense. I know the routine. I know what to expect. While I have attended numerous conferences, even law conferences, this is the first Mindful Lawyer conference. I’m excited and a bit nervous. When I entered law school, I thought I was so different. Today, just over five years later, there is a community of like-minded individuals. This is super exciting, and no, I’m not going to be late. In fact, I’m going to arrive hours early, but mostly because I love walking around the University of Berkeley campus. The trees and the energy rejuvenate me every time, even on rainy days like today.

So what is happening at this conference? Like all conferences, there are plenary sessions and break-out sessions, but this one is interspersed with 30-minute meditation sessions. Tomorrow morning, there are optional yoga and qi gong sessions (I’m honored and excited to be teaching the yoga class). And after it is all over, there is a closing ceremony to honor our time together. I often say that yoga is different because it is about intention. You can stretch and move, but when you move with intention, act with intention, breathe with intention, you are doing yoga. I get that impression from this conference. We are coming together with an intention - to create this new community.

At this juncture of my study and my life, I am extremely excited to learn more about the intersection of mindfulness and neuroscience. I began learning about neuroscience at the AFCC conference in June. It has become a new semi-obsession. As a recent law school graduate, I am glad to see the focus on mindfulness in academia. These programs are popping up all over the country, attempting to bring mindfulness to the legal profession from the very beginning. I could not be more excited.

As promised, I will continue to blog about this conference and the sessions I have not yet mentioned. Do not forget to follow us on Twitter at #mlc10. For a list of other blogs focusing on this conference, click here.

Hopefully, there will come a time in the legal profession that mindfulness will not spark anxiety for me, but instead the community I have been longing to find, in whatever form it takes. After all, this is where I make my first impression in this community of professionals that have bravely set the path for young lawyers like me to feel comfortable as mindful lawyers. For that, I am forever grateful and a bit nervous to show my face, but the excitement far exceeds any nervousness, my unconscious visions aside.  Thank you for being part of this community with me. Your support has been invaluable.

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2010, Rebecca Stahl all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Getting Ready for a New Community

I am currently in the San Francisco Bay Area getting ready for the first ever Mindful Lawyer Conference to be held October 29-31. These jam-packed three days are full of mindfulness meditation practices and studies for law students, lawyers, and judges. Almost exactly one year ago today (missed my one year anniversary on October 24 - also my mommy’s birthday) I started writing this blog. I was striving to unite the duality in my life between yoga and the law, feeling a bit like an outsider in each.

In the past year, I have become a yoga teacher, started teaching Stress Management workshops for lawyers that focus on meditation and yoga, and I have been accepted as a Fulbright Scholar to study family law in New Zealand. Recently, I was asked to determine, for myself, why I do what I do - what inspires me. The answer is simple: I want to help provide people the tools they need to learn to help themselves. From family law to yoga to meditation, that is my driving force.

What does all of this have to do with the conference? Community is what provides the best inspiration. I felt pretty alone in law school. Sure, there were other people interested in yoga, but many of them used it just for exercise. At the yoga studio, I have met some lawyers, but for some reason, we did not connect professionally. But then I started writing this blog, and the universe provided me the connections. This conference feels like the culmination of that to me.

I have written before about the powerful inspiration that occurs in conferences. At the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts conference, I did not sleep, but I never felt more alive because of the power created by the community. The AFCC mid-year conference is this weekend, but I knew I had to connect to a new crowd, one that would help me feel connected and fully fulfilled in all areas of my life by attending the Mindful Lawyer Conference. So, I will continue to blog about it, continue to give updates about it. I am volunteering and teaching a morning yoga class. I am so excited to be a part of this growing community, and I cannot wait to share it with all of you.

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2010, Rebecca Stahl all rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Finding the Breath . . .

As I mentioned in my last post, I am writing a series on the five koshas, or sheaths/bodies. They are 1) the physical body, 2) the breath body, 3) the mental body, 4) the intellectual/meditative body, and 5) the Divine body. Today, I am going to focus on the breath body.

I feel like this topic could be a book – how our breath affects our life and vice versa. I will, however, try to keep it short and perhaps return to the topic again. In many ways, the breath is our greatest teacher. It also rejuvenates us when we are tired and calms us when we are nervous. Our breath is our first connection to the depths of our being once we get past the physical body.

As important as the breath is, many of us simply ignore it. How often do we take conscious breaths. After all, breathing is one of the functions that will continue no matter how little attention we pay it. In this world, where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of issues that arise every day vying for our attention, is it any wonder that the parts of our lives that are automatic we allow to take care of themselves?

As noted in the last post, in order for us to function at our best, all of the koshas must act in balance. Thus, if we are to be able to fully utilize our brainpower and our intellect, our breath must be in balance and must be fully functioning. There are numerous breath techniques, each with its own healing properties, but this post is called “finding” the breath, so we are going to focus on that. The first step, before we ever get to the particular techniques, is to locate the breath and bring our awareness to it.

This is one of those, “easy to say, hard to do” moments. When we get caught up in life, in stress, in physical pain, in mental blocks, etc., the last place we want to turn our attention is to our breath, but often, when we do, and we take that deep breath in and just let it out, the problem we face shrinks in size. Does it go away? Of course not (well, sometimes it does, but rarely). Instead, the breath is our reset button, and it tells the body and the mind that they get to start over. Just like restarting a computer, sometimes that provides enough to face the moment with a new sense of purpose.

So why did I start by saying that the breath is our greatest teacher? Well, when we learn to tune into our breath and notice it, we can begin to understand the state of our body and mind from a new perspective. When our breath is short and shallow, very often our chest feels constricted and our thoughts come and go with no real focus. When, by contrast, our breath is long and deep, we feel more open and lighter, and our thoughts begin to focus, and we are better able to concentrate and move through our days with intention. The breath helps us know where we are.

So, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “what is my breath telling me?” If you lost it before, try to find it and learn what it has to offer.

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2010, Rebecca Stahl all rights reserved. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Where the body can take us . . .

My last post focused on BKS Iyengar’s yoga beginnings: a purely physical practice. The physical body is that which we first understand and see in a yoga practice. But why in a practice designed originally to help us sit in meditation longer is the physical practice the first (and sometimes only) association people make to yoga in the west? The yogis have helped us here as well. Yoga principles/philosophy talk about the koshas or “sheaths.” They are our five “bodies” and can be likened to the layers of an onion - each one revealing something deeper within us.

The five koshas are: 1) Annamaya Kosha (physical body), 2) Pranamaya Kosha (breath body), 3) Manomaya Kosha (mind/mental body), 4) Vijnamaya Kosha (wisdom/meditative body), and 5) Anandamaya Kosha (bliss/divine kosha).

I have written before about how my time in Yoga Teacher Training helped me see the depths the physical practice can take us and how important a teacher the body really is. Each day, I struggle to understand how what is happening to me physically affects me emotionally. But then I go further: In workshops I present to lawyers, as well as my yoga classes, I talk about how the breath is our greatest teacher. When the breath is shallow, we are not living our full potential. A shallow, quick breath often reflects a flitting mind, one unable to focus and be at its fullest potential.

What I did not realize is that I was understanding the koshas without naming them. When the koshas are in balance, we function at our best and act from our deepest potential. Yoga, as an integrative practice, allows us to utilize all of them together, flowing from one to the next, opening us to our deepest spirit and greatest way of being.

Thus, the body is the entryway to the deeper parts of our being. The physical practice leads us to understanding our breath, which begins to quiet the mind, which allows us to be in meditative stillness for longer and longer periods of time, which eventually leads us to our deepest sense of being. When a part of the body is not working to its fullest potential, sometimes the only remedy we need is the breath. Sometimes, we need to revamp our entire way of being and connecting with the world. The closer our koshas are to alignment and balance with each other, the more able we are to know what it is that will bring the body itself back to balance.

But just as going deeper allows us to understand the body, the body helps us understand our deeper self. Iyengar, a very sickly child, came to yoga to cure his physical ailments. As he describes it, that led him down a path that completely transformed his life, and his life has been about yoga, in all its forms ever since that time.

The next posts are going to continue this discussion about the koshas and their balance, but I would like to hear from you what brought you to yoga. Was it for exercise? Stress relief? Fit in your schedule? Friend? Please share your stories in the comments.

Blessings and Namaste!

© 2010 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Western Yogi?

I have finally begun reading “Light on Life” by BKS Iyengar. Iyengar is the man who brought yoga to the West about 50 years ago. His first book, “Light on Yoga” is often called the Yoga Bible, for it contains pictures and explanations of nearly every asana. It is both intimidating and awe-inspiring. Flipping through it, you see a man in positions that appear to be possible only if you remove your spine and perhaps a few other bones along the way. But this new book sheds a different light – Iyengar was born sickly and spent so much of his early years sick that this son-of-a-school teacher fell behind in his studies in school because he could never attend.

Today, he is considered the father of yoga in the west.

I have a feeling that many of my next posts will focus on what he discusses in this book - I have just finished the introduction – but today I want to focus on the relief this introduction has granted me.

Iyengar writes: “Most of those who begin to practice yogasana, the poses of yoga, do so for practical and often physical reasons. . . . Very few people begin yoga because they believe it will be a way to achieve spiritual enlightenment, and indeed a good number may be quite skeptical about the whole idea of spiritual realization. Actually, this is not a bad thing because it means most of the people who come to yoga are practical people who have practical problems and aims – people who are grounded in the ways and means of life, people who are sensible.”

I have struggled, from writing this blog to teaching yoga to presenting workshops to even chatting with friends, about how best to describe that which “is” yoga. How do I bring this practice that changes lives to the practical lives of lawyers and others? Reading that BKS Iyengar started yoga purely for its physical benefits removes some of that pressure. We all come to yoga for different reasons. Personally, I was looking for a way to relieve stress and anxiety, but most people in the West consider yoga a physical practice. This past year, I have learned the power of that physical practice to influence everything in life.

A mere five pages after opening the door to the practical yogi, Iyengar reminds us, “Yoga releases the creative potential of Life.”

For thousands of years, spiritual teachings were hidden away in caves, to be passed from guru to student, hidden from regular people, but the generation of teachers who consist of BKS Iyengar, the Dalai Lama, and Trungpa Rinpoche (Shambhala Buddhism), knew that if we are to survive this crazy time in the world, the speed with which we obtain information and the ability to travel the world in 24 hours, we would have to have a foundation. So, they brought the teachings out of hiding, and they gave us ways to use them in everyday life.

We are the beneficiaries of their courage. We may get it wrong, not go as deep, not fully understand everything those teachings contain, but it is a path, it is a practice. And it is the practical aspect of yoga that this blog is aiming to pass on. How can we learn from the body what we can do in our lives? How can we learn from the breath whether we are stressed? How can we learn from our inner selves what we need to do each moment? These are what make yoga so powerful, and it need not matter why we begin to practice or even how we begin to practice, only that we do begin to practice. The rest will take care of itself.

I hope that Iyengar’s words can inspire you to begin somewhere and allow yourself to open up to the creative potential of your life and our shared Life. Why did you start yoga? What did you originally want to gain? How has it transformed you in ways you never expected?

Thank you for being part of this community.

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2010 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The life and work of Transitions

When I stop to consider how yoga has affected my daily life, how it affects each action, two thoughts come to mind - intention and transition. As this period of my life is a long-winded transition, that has been my focus these past few weeks.

Yoga is the perfect opportunity to notice those moments that we often ignore, and when we ignore, can lead to physical and emotional turmoil, or in the case of the workplace, stress. Yoga, when viewed as meditation in motion, brings us back to the present moment, each moment. Our breath is our reminder that we are here now, and we can focus on now. While this is a wonderful meditation, and one I will explore more fully another day, there is a more physical way that yoga teaches us to transition gracefully and with strength - vinyasa.

Vinyasa literally means breath synchronized with flow. When broken down into its roots, however, it means “to place in a special way.” So, when we are flowing between poses in a yoga class, we are being asked to place each movement in a special way, to notice each movement between the postures.

As a yoga student, I have had days where I move through the transition poses without any thought, other days where they are the focus of my practice. On the latter days, I leave class feeling more connected, more focused, and more centered. Noticing the transitions allows each moment, each asana, to be strong and steady. It also helps bring me to the more esoteric place of being in the now - the eventual “goal.” Those days, I see that every moment is special, just not the moments during the day that we think are supposed to be special.

As a yoga teacher, I see students who practice without the conscious awareness on the transitions. Between plank (push-up) and chataranga (bottom of a push-up), their hearts literally collapse, with no awareness to hold them up. Often, this is because people in a yoga class do not want to put their knees down to provide the strength for that transition, but want to prove to themselves that they can move without that aid. I did it for years. But as a teacher, it looks painful, and that moment of awareness is lost. I know that without proper alignment, these students can hurt themselves physically, and that physical pain can lead to emotional and psychological pain and stress. I see people rush through transitions to get somewhere, but the next posture is not the goal - the goal is awareness.

It has taken me years to fully grasp the importance of transitions in the physical asana practice. I “got it” intellectually. That’s the lawyer in me. I never understood is physiologically. But the day I got it, my practice changed; my life changed.

During a day at work, we can have 15 things to do. If we refuse to take the time to transition between them, our brain never gets a break, and each item on our to-do list becomes one confusing mess. Those moments of transition are moments to reset, to acknowledge that one item has ended, and it is time to move onto the next one. For lawyers, this can help us remember that each client is different. We stop putting Bob’s name where Jane’s should be. (After reading what some lawyers write, I know that this is a common problem.)

Outside the workplace, learning to transition with awareness reminds us that nothing in life is permanent. We are constantly in a state of change, and that is nothing to be feared, but rather revered. Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” It can be easy to get caught up in the big moments in life, the phone calls, the memos, the clients, the vacations, the school day, whatever those big moments are, but it is the awareness we bring to the moments in between that define the strength with which we can move into, and be fully present with, those big moments.

Transitions are where we create the strength and the awareness that can make the big moments in our lives full and unique. How do you transition between tasks and daily actions?


Ⓒ 2010 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved