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.


  1. Beautiful words and thoughts to reflect on

  2. Rebecca,

    Excellent post. You've done a remarkable job of highlighting the important connections we need to create in the world, from connecting to the earth and its typical stability (as in yoga) or to each other (when the typical stability is shattered). I'm proud of all you do and the way you see all these connections in the world, along with your effort to help the world and the people in it to improve stability and connections.

  3. Rebecca, thank you for your lovely observations and thoughts. As we move into a new era of a global community and awareness and eventually find peace, experiences like yours will, I believe, become normal, our oneness no longer being deniable. BTW, I found you from Kim Wright's Wall on Facebook, myself a "recovering lawyer, now a teacher and writer.

  4. Thank you, Maitland. I absolutely agree that these experiences will become normal. I used to fear talking about oneness and metta in front of too many lawyers, and now they cannot keep me quiet. I think the more we talk about it, the more it will become normal to others, which will completely change the world. Thanks for the support!