Monday, February 28, 2011

Creating Stability

"Our American friends were absolutely petrified. We were all as one in a moment under the table." -- Auckland Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive talking about the Americans he was with at lunch on Tuesday in Christchurch as part of the NZ-US Partnership Forum

As I said in the last post, I was in Christchurch during the huge earthquake that hit. Here is a link to another, more personal, look at what we can take away from that experience, and what I took away. But here I want to focus on the world of professionals and modern life.

I love the quote above as much because of who said it as what he said. I think the first sentence is almost humorous, having been with several Americans who did not know what to do in an earthquake and all of us trying to get them under a table (I grew up in CA), though I was not with the man who said that at that moment. But the second sentence is what is really important.

It seems so long ago that I posted about "The Downward Spiral of Email," but it was less than two months ago. That post was about an article in the American Bar Association e-Journal about lawyers attacking one another by email to the point where one attacked the other’s child and his intelligence. 

Since that post, Gabrielle Giffords was shot, I moved across the Pacific, and a major earthquake led the Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive in the largest NZ city to say, “We were all as one in a moment under that table.” In the not-to-recent past, such a comment would have been only heard from a hippie and ridiculed by the business/legal community. But then stability was lost and a new paradigm opened.

Lawyers and other professionals have a tendency to work very, very hard, at the expense of their health, their families, and their happiness.  The stress and need to win, especially for lawyers, leads to the ability to see the “other” side as somehow lesser, as someone to whom you can send nasty emails. The stress also leads to disease. Sometimes people get very, very sick.

How many times have you heard about someone who worked 60-80 hours per week, got a deadly disease and realized that life was not about the work? How many times have you heard about people being in a natural disaster and realizing that life is worth more than all their possessions? How many times have you heard about tragedy and disaster and sickness bringing people and communities together?

Disease, disaster, and tragedy are wake-up calls. They force us to see life in a new way, and we realize, perhaps without acknowledging it, that the definition of yoga, “to yoke/unite” is really what matters. We must all come together as one. We must live our lives to help each other. The US-NZ Partnership Forum was, in many ways, a trade conference. The main delegation consisted of business and political leaders from both countries discussing how to increase cooperation between the two countries.

It took an earthquake, however, for one of those leaders to stop and say, “we were all one.” But he went on to say, “for a moment.” Why? Do we only wake up to our oneness in disaster? Do we only learn to care for ourselves and others when disease and tragedy strike?


We have an opportunity, with all that is happening in the world, from Gabby Giffords to Christchurch, from Queensland to Libya, from Egypt to Wisconsin, to carry our unity and oneness forward. In fact, we have an obligation. We can choose to go down the spiral of nasty emails, or we can choose to recognize that our health and our lives and our togetherness are far more important than anything that can happen in the courtroom or the boardroom. It might be petrifying for a moment, but once we are all under the table together, we are one, and we can hold each other in that space and grow together, in business and in life.

After all, it is always about community. What can you do to increase your community today?

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When Stability is Lost

As you have all probably heard, on Tuesday at 12:51pm New Zealand time, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch. I was there, and after a few days of reflection, shock, etc., I have decided to blog about it on this blog. For those interested in my personal story about that day, please check out my other blog dedicated to my time in New Zealand, having little to do with yoga or the law, but for what I encounter in my daily living. 

Although I spent many years in Michigan and Arizona, I grew up in California, so Tuesday’s quake (for ease, I am using NZ days, not US days) was by no means my first encounter with a shaking Earth. It was, however, the strongest feeling earthquake I have ever encountered, though not highest magnitude, and it has affected me differently than anything before.

Yoga and law intersect in a myriad of ways, but one of my favorites to discuss is the concept of balance. As I have pointed out fairly recently, vrksasana (tree pose) is my favorite pose to do wherever, and it is wonderful for helping create a sense of balance both internally and externally. Lawyers are constantly struggling to find balance in their lives, in all different arenas, and balance postures of all types (but of course tree!) are a great step in the right direction.

When teaching a balance posture in a class, my most typical instruction/statement is, “feel the support of the Earth for steadiness.” An earthquake, by contrast, eats away at that steadiness, and it literally shakes the one stable part of our lives. That is a really big deal. It is the reason that the 4 months of aftershocks the people in Christchurch felt since September had been so wearing on their souls. Tuesday just ripped them apart, emotionally as well as physically.

But what happens on a broader level when that which is supposed to be stable in our lives is completely lost? For the briefest of moments, it forces you to go by instinct alone. Being raised in CA, we know what to do in earthquakes, and before I knew what I was doing, I was under a table covering my head, making sure others were under the table as well, hearing the kiwis (also well-trained) yelling at us silly Americans to be under the tables. No thought, just action. We were on the 5th floor of a Rugby stadium (I was in Christchurch for a conference/forum that was taking place at the stadium, though many of the delegates were not at the stadium at that time, my group was), and by the time I got to the bottom outside, I had emailed my parents. No thought, just instinct. When stability is lost, thoughts are lost, and we can only act on instinct.

Our bodies are designed to survive. That is what stress is – a survival instinct. It gets us excited, shuts off non-essential functions, and we are able to do what it takes to survive. In this instance, stress was what allowed me to cover my head before my computer. In these moments of non-stability, stress is what keeps us alive, our instincts guide us.

Down on the ground, outside the stadium, I saw the next step – the coming together, the community creation. Still unstable, and probably slightly in shock, we did what we did without thought. Hugs, including group hugs, were common for hours. Stadium employees, citizens of Christchurch, helped us all afternoon long. They brought us blankets, gave us updates, directed traffic, etc., all while being unsure about their own homes and some of them, unsure of their families. As the delegation boarded a bus to leave the city, I hugged a new friend. I will probably never see her again, and I do not know her name, but I will never forget her. In those moments of instability, we seek comfort and community. With each aftershock, we all grabbed whoever we were near and held on. Not only did we try to hold one another up, but if we were going to go down, we were going to go down together.

So much of this blog has focused on the problems with letting stress and survival instincts get out of control, but this is all the more reason to remember what instincts are really about. The Forum I was attending was the NZ-US Partnership forum (that page has a photo of the cathedral on it from before the earthquake), and I was part of the first-ever Future Partners Forum. When asked how to increase partnership, what we want the world to be in 20 years, and what changes we think we need to make, I kept coming back to interconnectedness / community, which I am sure is not surprising to anyone who reads this blog regularly.

As I sat on the C130 Air Force Jet taking us away from the Christchurch war zone, I started to cry. I wondered how we get to places where instead of banding together, we create enemies, whether in war or in the office. I heard story after story from the main delegates who were in the main city center when this happened, not to mention my own feeling of community, and I knew that our deepest instinct is to support one another and find stability together.

As we got off the plane, I told a high-ranking US politician that if we are to survive, we have to act, at all times, as we acted that day. The best part was that he agreed. For a brief moment, idealism, from my yoga background and my generational attitude, was able to come through. 

So, when stability is lost, we look to recreate it, we look to community. What a different world this would be if instead of looking to our small community, we looked to humankind as our community, and we realized how similar we all really are. Yoga, meditation, and even legal conferences, have helped me find community, but we are at a point in history where instability is becoming the rule of the world, from governmental overthrows to the Earth fighting back, and we have to make a choice whether we tune into our deepest instincts for connection or whether we allow ourselves to see our differences, our otherness, etc.

There is so much more to say on this topic, and I am sure I will come back to it. Christchurch was an intense experience, and its teachings fit so well into the theme of this blog. But when stability is lost, we seek to recreate it. Instinct is immediate, but after that we have a choice. What choice will help as many people as possible? What choice can create the biggest and strongest community that will become unshakable, pun intended.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not express my continued gratitude to all who were there with me, but especially to the US Embassy and its staff, and to Fulbright New Zealand and its staff. Together they informed the world quickly and efficiently that we were okay, and they got us (and our kiwi friends) safely out of Christchurch before 7:30pm.

Namaste and Blessings! 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lessons from Yoga and Tea

There is something I am having trouble understanding about he modern world – the easier and quicker it becomes to do certain tasks, the less time we all have. Emails go unread or responded to in the briefest fashion, briefs and motions are filed without grammar and spell checks, and more people have sleep and health issues as a result. This is all true despite the immeasurable conveniences of the modern world. I simply do not understand, but I know it to be true, even in my own life.

What does this mean for our bodies? Constant stress! - also known as the “fight or flight response.” Stress is not necessarily bad for you. In fact, stress can be incredibly beneficial. It is the reason we survived as a species. When we were attacked by animals long before urbanization, our fight or flight response saved us from becoming lunch. Even today, eustress, or “good” stress, gets us pumped up before a big hearing, deposition, or meeting, and gives us the excitement to get through it and think on our feet.

But we are not designed to live in a state of chronic stress. Our bodies, and our minds, need to come out of that mode. When we are in a state of chronic stress, our bodies turn off these “non-essential” functions. They are, of course, not essential when running away from tigers, but they become far more essential in our day-to-day lives in a law firm. We need to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and recharge us, allowing us to relax so we can sleep, digest our food properly, and do all sorts of other bodily actions that so many people choose not to discuss at the dinner table. Perhaps the even more difficult aspect of fight or flight is the loss of ability to concentrate, which disrupts our ability to remember and be creative. All of these symptoms can result from chronic states of stress, and this is a state in which more and more people are living everyday.

If we gain nothing else from a yoga practice, we can learn to take a break, to take 5-10 minutes at a time and devote them to recharging our minds and bodies.  Yoga may be one of the best opportunities for our bodies to recharge. It is a time when we allow our bodies and minds to come out of the fight or flight mode and back into a state of relaxation. What is wonderful about yoga is that the more you teach your mind and body to enter this state, it becomes a pattern, and one to which you can return with a 90-minute yoga/meditation session. Although, as I mentioned in my last post, those longer periods are still necessary to refill the yoga reservoir. (As an aside, I felt 100% better after just one yoga class, and it has stayed with me throughout the week.)

But yoga is not the only way to recharge and renew. The New Zealanders have one that appears to kill two birds with one stone – a moment to relax and a moment to create community. It is teatime. Here, teatime appears sacrosanct, at least in some circles.  Offices still take morning tea breaks, and during presentations, tea may be served prior to starting the Q and A session.  Afternoon tea, especially on the weekends, ensures more togetherness and a wee moment of quiet and rest.

This is not to say that New Zealanders have mastered the art of relaxation. It is to say that there remains an understanding that time away is necessary to ensure we can be at our best when the stress hits. Even the law school at the University of Otago has a tearoom. The culture is a constant reminder that it is okay to take a moment to reflect, and instead of stealing a few seconds by a water cooler, embracing a few minutes together around a cup of tea. It may seem quaint and old-fashioned, but if our bodies and minds are to function at their highest, we may wish to embrace the idea.

Yoga and tea go together in my mind. Both create a sense of momentary peacefulness and restoration. Both are healing and give us an opportunity to spend some time either alone or together with others. In this world where we never seem to have enough time, the paradox is that when we take a few moments away, we come back to our work refreshed and better able to work more efficiently from the inside and not only as a result of modern conveniences.

What do you do to take a break and refresh yourself?

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Coming home to yoga

My life has been unsettled these past few months. I have not had my own place to live since mid-December. I have traversed the date line, spent weeks in hostels and hotels, and eating out, and it has caught up to me. For the first time in years, my back is sore in ways I do not understand, and I am feeling stuffed up for no good reason. In short, I have the effects of not doing yoga.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I often talk about yoga off the mat. The entire point of this blog is about putting yoga in your everyday life. As I said in this post, yoga can and should be done anywhere by anyone. Thus, tree pose around the world was born. On my travels, I found some opportunities.

But as beautiful and fun as those opportunities were, I learned another big lesson. Although yoga can be done anywhere, we still have to make time for it, more than 5 minutes at a time. You do not need 90 minute classes everyday, but truly setting aside time for yourself, to learn the tools that you can use at all times, is essential.

I think the world of yoga, especially for lawyers looking to utilize it throughout the day, is like a bucket. You fill it up, and you continue to top it up when it begins to run low, but if you are not topping it up enough, the reserves run out, and so do its benefits. Thus, if you are doing five-minute yoga every few hours, it stays full. If you go without for a few months, the reserves run out as well.

The good thing about yoga is that you can always go back. You can start easy again, reformulating how you want yoga to look in your life and in your work. Being without for a period of time is a great way to reassess. What was really working? What was not?

As the last two posts (here and here) have discussed, patterns can get in the way of our true growth. Yoga can become a pattern, especially if you are only doing one kind of yoga, with the same teacher, or doing the same five poses at your desk each day. Forcing ourselves out of our patterns is a great way to reassess and determine how best to move forward, how best to use the practice as a benefit in the future.

So, with my sore back and stuffy nose, I am headed to a yoga class tonight with a new kiwi friend. I know nothing of the studio and nothing of the teacher, but yoga is internal. I am going to start creating a new community, something yoga and the law have both taught me is essential to growth. Hopefully, I will find new ways of integrating yoga into my life, my work, and the world.

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Through the Eyes of a Child

Fulbright orientation has begun, and we have had a wonderful introduction to Maori culture. Part of that orientation included a story about a Maori child learning to read English. The child’s first language was Maori, but when she was about 5, she attempted to learn to read in English. There is an electronics store here called Dick Smith, and the logo has a picture of Dick Smith’s head in between the words of his name. The young, Maori girl stared at the sign and then grinned largely, stating, “I get it – Dickhead Smith!” Her parents laughed out loud, and her response was, “that’s what I saw.”

As adults, and especially lawyers, we are good at tuning out the entire story, and seeing only our own story, our patterns. Instead, we read only what we want to see. In this case, we ignore the picture of the head between the words and just read it as Dick Smith’s electronics. A child, by contrast, sees the entire picture, and here the child read the entire picture as dickhead smith. What a great reminder that changing our patterns makes all the difference!

When we get too caught up in our own filter, we run the risk of not understanding the world in which others live. We run the risk of not being able to see the world from their point of view. But if we are able to train ourselves to see the entire picture, we not only become more empathic human beings, we become better lawyers. But how do we do this?

Yoga teaches us to be aware. From the smallest movements in our bodies to the thoughts that constantly flood our minds, yoga is about awareness of all that is happening. This awareness does more than just allow us to see the world from different perspectives, it actually increases our brain functioning power. There have been many, many neuroscience studies on monks who meditate several hours per day, as well as studies asking people to start meditating a certain amount of time per day. These studies show, over and over again, that those who meditate have longer attention spans, are able to concentrate better, remember more, and switch between tasks faster and better.

Thus, there are “palpable” benefits to learning to be aware, but the story of the Maori child is a great reminder of the less well-studied benefit, but perhaps the one that is more important. This is the reminder that we all see the world through our own eyes, our own biases, our own agendas, and learning to recognize that everyone does this is the first step to understanding ourselves and each other.

There is nothing inherently good or bad with how any one person sees the world, but when we think that our way is the only right way, we stop being able to interact as well with others, or "the other," as lawyers tend to see the opposing party. When we recognize that our views are only our views, and not right or wrong, we begin to be able to hold the perspectives of others. Increasing our ability to be aware of all our surroundings, seeing the entire picture, even if it results in seeing Dickhead Smith, helps us understand the ways others function in the world as well.

This notion of awareness and personal thinking is a constant theme on this blog, especially since my time has begun here in New Zealand. The reason, though, is because I think it is vital to our lives as lawyers, but also to our lives as human beings, especially in a world in which we interact so constantly with people who have beliefs that differ from our own.

What instances have reminded you that you have gotten stuck in your way of thinking?

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Great Debate - Individual or collective?

These past few weeks have gotten me thinking a lot about two vastly different world views, one in which we are all individuals able to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and one in which community influences and changes the way we are as individuals. These thoughts were sparked through political discussion, but they are continued by living in New Zealand.

In the United States, and especially in the legal profession, we consider ourselves individuals. The “American Dream” is about making it on your own, even if you do not have family wealth, having your own family, and sticking together. The legal profession is much the same way, it requires individualism, and even the difference between law school and business school is the lack of group activities in law school. In law school, I liked that, group projects are hard, but togetherness and community in other areas mean a lot . . . and can change the world.

This blog has focused on community in many, many areas, and now I am seeing it again – in New Zealand. Yoga here has been off the mat for me, but taking yoga into daily life is what this blog is about, so it just seems natural. New Zealanders “get” community. From the moment I have arrived, I have felt accepted. My host mom offered to let me stay with her an extra 3 weeks,; I stayed at the home of my sister-in-law’s sister’s in-laws while in Auckland. Did I mention that I have never met their son? A group of four of us are traveling together right now, and one asked a friend if we could stay with her. She said yes, but when we arrived, it turned out there was not enough room, so we stayed with her parents’ friend down the street. And the other day, I saw someone pick up a hitchhiker!

One of my travel companions has noted that everyone here has an air of happiness about them that others seem to be missing around the world. Could it be this sense of community? A sense that what we do in our own lives has an effect on others?

Before I got here, I was reading a lot about New Zealand, and a constant theme is that New Zealand is a bit far from the rest of the world, so New Zealanders have always felt a need to work together to make the most of their country. They pride themselves on their hospitality, their openness, and their joy for life. After all, it is the adventure tourism capital of the world.

Yoga teaches that we are all connected, that what we do, and even think, change the world and change other people. Decisions are not made only for you as an individual, but for the community and world as a whole. There are not legal or ethnic boundaries in yoga. While I would not say that New Zealanders see the world as completely connected, their sense of community and support for one another is a huge part of the culture and influences their decisions, both as people and “as a people.”

Lawyers (and everyone) can learn from this. As I noted in the post about patterns and the post about the downward email spiral, these problems arise when we see other people as separate from us, as “the other.” We cannot exist alone, and in a country on the other side of the world, they know this well enough to take in strangers, feed them lamb and wine, and give them a warm Kiwi welcome. Individualism can be a painful way to live life, always believing that someone is out to get you. Perhaps we need to start thinking that everyone is out to help, and maybe we could all start picking up hitchhikers.

What do you think are the advantages/disadvantages to individualism and collectivism? How can we learn from one another?

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved