Thursday, April 28, 2011

Freedom to . . . be what you "might be"

“Sometimes you have to let go to see if there was anything worth holding on to.” Anonymous

In the last post, we discussed what it means to break free from our modern lives of slavery. A friend sent me a long response asking me to consider the difference between freedom from and freedom to. So I have. What I found is that it fits nicely with this week’s theme on the Is Yoga Legal facebook page, where the Monday Intention was, “thinking outside the box.”

The notion that we must break free “from” something insinuates that where we are is not where we should be. While it is important to recognize the parts of our lives that are causing us more harm than we might like, we can also see these “problems” as teachers. They can provide us with the baseline to see where we might go.

We often hold onto our ideas of ourselves so hard that we forget why we started in the first place. We think of ourselves as lawyers, as yogis, as mothers, as fathers, as Americans, as Jews, etc. We let these labels define us instead of defining our labels. And we stay there. We believe what these labels expect us to believe, and we live our lives accordingly. For lawyers, this often means doing legal work long past the moment when it no longer works for us. As yogis, this means getting upset when we do not live up to the yogic ideals we believe we should.

But we have the ability to have freedom, freedom to think outside the box created by these labels. As Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Choices we make along the way as to who we are need not define us the rest of our lives. We can think outside the box and be creative about who we are. But it requires letting go of our preconceived notions.

The quote at the start of this post questions whether our preconceived notions are worth it. How do we know until we try something new?

Yoga provides a great means to explore new ideas and new ways of seeing ourselves. Through yoga, we begin to understand our bodies and minds in new ways. We start to understand how the smallest adjustment in a posture can lead to a completely different experience. We learn to listen to the breath and notice when we are holding onto tension. Finally, as the same friend pointed out, savasana (corpse pose) remains a great asana for moving through these different ideas of freedom. It is in savasana that we have that moment to let go of the past, breathe into our present, and open our minds to what and who we “might be” in the future.

This path is not always, and perhaps never, straight and easy. I went to law school to help children, and along the way I did asylum law, worked at a law firm, and clerked for two judges. Now I am getting an LLM. Interestingly, I am more convinced now than ever that I want to work with children. But I had to let go of those ideas to ensure that they truly were worth holding on to, and yoga gave me the courage to do that. It gave me the courage to turn inward.

Most importantly, yoga gave me the courage to step outside of the box. The lawyer world would have put me at a law firm. And there was a lot of pressure to go, including the pressure of student loans. I read other law blogs where people lament their lives to no end but say, “I have to pay off the loans, so I am living my life at a job I hate.” That is the box. But yoga gives us the courage to have freedom to . . . step out of that box and be the person that we “might be.”

Who might you be? Are you ready to be free to find out?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Breaking Free through Savasana

It is one of those years when Passover and Easter coincide. Together these holidays represent breaking free from our bonds of slavery and being reborn into something better. For many people, they represent far more than that, but I am going up the abstraction ladder on purpose and mean no disrespect to anyone who believes in the reality of these stories. 

Going up the abstraction ladder, Passover is about breaking free from the bonds of slavery in our lives, whether in Egypt or the ones we create for ourselves. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder, when Jews come together to tell the story of the Exodus. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, finding new life. Taken together, the idea is that when we choose to break free of our bonds of slavery, we may lose our old selves, but we are reborn as free people.

This is not a blog dedicated to religion, so where is this going? Lawyers and yoga are perfect examples of how to integrate these ideas. Lawyers, as a whole, exemplify the slavery of modern life. Yoga, through savasana, reminds us how to let go of those bonds and find new life. 

There is no question that slavery in the traditional sense still exists in the world, but most people able to read a blog about yoga and lawyers probably do not encounter it on a daily basis (though we might take a moment to reflect on that fact and ask ourselves what we can do to counteract slavery around the world). So, what is modern slavery in the “free” world?

Individuals have many different aspects of their lives that enslave them: Family members who excel at guilt trips, relationships that spiral out of control, and beliefs entrenched since childhood that you are not good enough tend to dominate the list. On a macro level, however, there is another type of slavery, and one that keeps so many people miserably waking and going to jobs they hate. Student loans and families and wanting the BMW and iphone convince people that the only way to survive is to work at any job that pays them enough to have it all. Check out the comments on any post written by The People's Therapist, a BigLaw lawyer turned psychologist. We become slaves to blackberries and deadlines, forgetting the real reason we went into our profession – whatever that reason is. Our personal enslavements of fear and living up to expectations dominate our decisions in life. This is modern slavery in a world where we consider ourselves to be free.

Just like Passover and Easter, Yoga reminds us that there is a way out of this. Savasana means corpse pose in English. It is that moment at the end of yoga classes when the only instruction is “lie down and relax.” And yes, it is the hardest pose for many, many people. (For some people, it is physically difficult because of particular body types or injuries, but here I mean difficult in an emotional and psychological sense.) Savasana is literally where we lie down allowing our bodies and thoughts to “die,” and at the end of it, we are reborn full of the knowledge we gained throughout class and hopefully a little more relaxed.

Physically, savasana is where our bodies integrate the physical aspects of a yoga class or session. While we go through postures, we are teaching our muscles to work in new ways, and we are learning to stretch and grow. During savasana, the body integrates that information, so the next time you “do” yoga, you have the muscle memory to do it.

Psychologically, savasana is where we let go of our enslavements. For the 5-10 minutes we are in savasana, we need not worry about Outlook or the boss. We need not worry about dinner or the weather. We need not worry about whether we are doing the pose “right.” We get to just be. We get to let go of everything that enslaves us and breathe.

Thus, through savasana, those parts of us that hold us back and enslave us can die. Then we can begin to wiggle our fingers and toes (one of my favorite things to say as a yoga teacher) and awaken without all that baggage. Of course, it does not go away immediately, and we must come back to savasana each time we practice. But if we could learn these lessons immediately, we would not celebrate Passover and Easter every year either.

What holds you back? What do you do to enslave yourself? What do you do to break free? I hope this time of rebirth, in whatever form you choose to celebrate, help bring you peace. 


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

License to Fidget

Have I mentioned how much I hate chairs? Seemingly unassuming, these flat ledges for our bums on top of four little legs are one of the most toxic additions to modern society. And yes, most lawyers (including me) spend hours upon hours per day sitting in them.

The problems are numerous – they tighten our psoas muscles, creating low back pain, they cut off circulation to our feet, and they force us to be in a position that nature never intended, certainly not for the number of hours per day we are there. But these are small potatoes compared to their allowing us to spend our days completely inactive.

The last post was about the bouncing foot syndrome that permeates law. The problem with the bouncing foot syndrome is that it is often caused by stress, and it is done usually unconsciously. Certainly, it is something about which we should be mindful, but is it all bad?

The NY Times reminded me again this week, however, that the bouncing foot syndrome serves another purpose, one that is far less problematic and is actually probably very good for us. When we bounce, we move, and when we move, good things happen in our bodies from a reduced waistline to increased brain power. Chairs mean we enter the physiology of inactivity (an old NY Times article on the topic), where our metabolism slows down, our neurons turn off, and disease begins to take over.

The good news is that the littlest movements make a difference. A recent study found that the difference between slim people and obese people who were forced to follow a strict diet without exercise was that the slim people just move more in general – the little movements, including tying shoes, and yes, bouncing feet. These little movement contract muscles and move neurons, and they help prevent the disease and other problems associated with the physiology of inactivity.

So what does yoga have to do with it? The difference between the bouncing foot “syndrome” and movement to counteract the physiology of inactivity is the very basis of yoga – mindfulness. To the outside observer, there may not be a difference. You, while sitting in a chair, can make these small movements, and others will not know whether they are stress-induced or mindful attempts to reduce the problems associated with our sedentary lifestyles.

To you, however, the difference is huge! It is also not discussed in either of the NY Times articles above. When we act from a place of mindfulness, asking our bodies to move, we are actually in the process of managing our stress rather than being controlled by it. Much of our stress is caused by the sedentary lifestyle, by the demands that we associate with sitting in a chair in front of a computer all day; we associate the desk with work and deadlines and stress. But if instead of allowing that stress to control us, we choose to control it, we can begin to move beyond the stress.

What can you do? Start by taking a breath. Ask yourself where your body wants to move. Is contracting your toes enough? Is tapping your foot enough? Is rolling your shoulders enough? Is standing up and sitting down enough? Do you need to take a walk down the hall? What does your body need now? The good news is that most of these little movements can be done while working at a desk, and each one will aid in counteracting the slowdown of metabolism and the stress caused by sitting all day long.

Call it your license to fidget – but to fidget mindfully.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bouncing Foot Syndrome

I first noticed it in law school. One of my professors could not sit without bouncing her foot or shaking her leg. During my summer clerkship I noticed it again with a couple of lawyers at the law firm. As we got close to graduation, my fellow students began to bounce their feet. Then I became a judicial clerk, and daily I saw lawyers come into court, sit down, and legs start to bounce. Perhaps this is just an American thing? Nope, first day sitting in court in New Zealand, and one of the lawyer’s feet were bouncing along.

So what is this cross-cultural foot bounce infusing the legal profession? Absent-minded stress!

Stress is a lot of things, but one of those is a release of hormones, a release of energy. In evolutionary terms, stress is what allows us to run away from the lion that is attacking us – the fight-or-flight response. Thus, when our stress response kicks in, we are ready to run. The problem is that we are forced to sit. We are forced to sit in long meetings, forced to sit at a desk, or forced to sit in court. As much fun as it might be, and probably good for everyone, to have a little stretch or a short walk, it is probably frowned upon to stand up in the middle of a court hearing and walk around the room. Thus, the energy has to get out another way.

Imagine one of those squishy toys, where if you squish one part, it pops out in another area. Our stress is the same way. If we do not release it the “normal” way, by running away from an attacker, it must come out another way – by tapping the foot. We become prisoners to our stress and its need to release while we try to force it to stay inside by sitting and not moving. It finds a way to move, and most of the time, we do not even notice.

Thus, it becomes absent-minded stress. We are so used to being under the stress, so used to living in a state of chronic stress, that it just becomes normal to need to get out the energy. So while we are exhausted from the overexertion, the stress hormones continue to release, and we continue to need to release them. It becomes second nature to the point where we can sit right next to someone and not even realize that we are tapping our foot at them.

Luckily, there is a way to stop this cycle, and it is actually fairly simple, though not necessarily easy. The first step is awareness or mindfulness. Ask yourself, what are your stress-induced habits? What are your nervous habits? What do you do to let out the energy when it would be uncouth to run around in circles? Once you notice the habits, notice how often you do them. Is it every time you sit down? Just in particularly stressful situations? Just when you are around one particular person?

The next step is a bit more difficult, and it involves beginning to change patterns. But if my ability to look right before I cross the street is any indication, changing patterns can be done. Once you know how and when your stress response kicks in, the next time you notice it, stop and take a deep breath. The breath moves energy, and it has the added benefit of counteracting the stress hormones and beginning to slow them down. Thus, the necessary energy is moved, and the need to continue moving energy is reduced.

This will, of course, take time to begin to change. You may find yourself taking a deep breath and tapping your foot at the same time. Most importantly here is to not stress yourself out more by getting upset. Forgive yourself and take another deep breath. Allow yourself to feel the stress reducing, and see what possibilities open. 

What stress responses do you want to change?

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Friday, April 8, 2011

Oh, the Pain!

This story begins with On Campus Interviews (“OCI”) during law school. Likened to speed dating, OCIs go from 8am until 4 or 5pm, and each interview lasts 20 minutes. Firms and organizations inform students who has gotten and interview, and the students sign up for a slot. Students wait in the waiting room and are called into the interview room where interviewers have sat all day asking the same questions and probably getting similar answers. Students get asked similar questions from everyone and give their canned answers. A long and tiring day for all.

I once had an interview with one of the big, international law firms. It was scheduled for close to the end of the day; we were exhausted. When I walked into the room, one of the interviewers apologized for having to stand up during the interview because his back hurt too much to sit down. Anyone who sits at a computer all day knows the pain it can cause.

The “normal” remedy in modern society is to take a pill, hope the pain goes away, but a “new” discovery has been found that works even better – meditation. The April 6 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience published the results of a study showing that meditation can lead to pain-relieving effects in the brain. How do you do this meditation?


Yes, it really is that simple. The study used a device that heated the participants’ skin to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and the results showed a greater reduction in pain than even morphine. And this was after only 4, 20-minute sessions focusing on the breath.

I am fascinated by all the neuroscience research that is happening these days, and I know that everyday it is “proving” what yogis and meditators have known for years, but I cannot explain what causes this to happen. I can only talk about my own experiences and what I have seen in those I know.

Pain, especially the pain caused by sitting hunched over a computer all day, is caused by stuck energy. The body was not designed to be static. It was not designed to sit in a chair. It was certainly not designed to sit at a computer (says the person who now spends 8-12 hours a day at a computer). The body is designed to move. When we sit and stare at a computer, the flow of the body ceases. It stagnates where we hunch up our shoulders, and when we sit, we tighten our hips increasing pain in the low back. Years and years of the same static placement, and you have chronic pain.

Breath is a tool to release that. First, consciously meditating and breathing usually means sitting differently. You attempt to sit with a straight back. You consciously try to relax. Your focus can turn away from the ding of the email, the RSS feed, the phone calls, etc., and you can focus on just one thing – breathing. That’s quite an uncommon practice in society, and it does wonders to allow the body to move and relax. All of a sudden, we take the body out of its habitual patterns and begin to release them.

But the study found more than that. The study found that the act of meditation actually changed the brain functioning and increased pain tolerance. Thus, meditation has a dual benefit. It allows the pain to release, allows you to relax in the moment, and it also allows you to feel the pain less the next time it comes. Is 5 or 10 minutes of meditation a day worth enough to you? Is it worth giving up the advil addiction? Is it worth not having to stand through an interview after a full day of them?

After all, can you get any work done when you are in so much pain? Five minutes to release the pain might just give you hours of pain-free time to work.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Monday, April 4, 2011

Your Inner Guru

For over a year now (I cannot believe it has been that long), we have mused together about the intersection of yoga and law but also about yoga and life in the 21st century. After all, much of what makes law practice so difficult is that it is a product of the 21th and 21st century rat race – except on steroids (or worse, but we shall leave that post to another day). But we have always focused on the “what” of yoga, e.g., the asanas, pranayama, meditation, and even some yoga teachings. But today, let us focus on the “how.”

As the American Hindu Foundation is making clearer each day, yoga came and comes from Hinduism. Like everything in life, however, it has evolved and changed and become its own all over the world. The beginning of this evolution into various “schools” was the result of the “how.” Yoga was essentially a guru-student teaching scheme. A student would seek out a guru and would study for many, many years, then go off and teach himself, yes always men at the time.

In fact, this is how many religions and philosophies have evolved. The martial arts are about a sensei (teacher) and the student – well illustrated in “The Karate Kid.”  In Western cultures, Jesus taught his disciples, and even Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle who influenced the rest of western philosophy for centuries. In other words, the student-teacher relationship is traditional and cross cultural. But does that make it the best for everyone?

Without being too personal, one of the reasons I have never claimed a particular religion or practice (though I learn from and discuss ideas from many both here and in my life) or become a devotee is because the concept of having one guru does not resonate with me. I do not see it as something wrong, and I actually think it can work great for many people, but it does not work for me personally. Longtime readers of this blog will know that I prefer community. Buddhists teach about “the three jewels,” the Buddha (either the historical person or the enlightened state), the Dharma (the teachings to get to enlightenment), and the Sangha (the community with whom you study the dharma). This works better for me, but it still does not fully resonate.

Yesterday, I had a discussion with someone who is incredibly passionate about mentoring, and I came away from the meeting feeling inspired. I started thinking about why I love community so much, what it does, and going back to the conference where I felt my heart open from community and inspiration, it finally clicked. Community is about inspiration; it is about finding the inspiration to keep on going. And that can come from anyone at anytime.

But external inspiration is not enough. I have been watching a lot of TED talks, and they are incredibly inspiring, but they do not always spark that seed within me that makes me want to do something great; they do make me glad that others are doing great things, and that makes me less scared about our future, but I realized that we have something to learn from the “how” of yoga, from the concept of a guru. I must find the balance between strict guru-student and aimless wandering.

Your guru can be one person or many people, but what matters is that you are inspired to do what you love to do. It could be your longest-time friend who can remind you that you always wanted to be a veterinarian (what child did not?), and now you are a lawyer – leave it completely and find something new! It could also be your longest-time friend who reminds you that you always wanted to be a lawyer (yes, those people exist), and on your toughest days, remind you why you wanted to do law. If you still think you can fulfill the why while practicing law, you have your guru.

In short, your guru is anyone who reminds you about your inner guru – that voice that has motivated you and driven you since you were young and idealistic. So, like the yogis and others of old, who studied for years with one teacher, delving into ideas and striving to find enlightenment, I implore you to surround yourself with people who inspire you, who make you want to be great, who make you believe that you can achieve that state of “when you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.”

Who are the people that inspire you to be your best?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The zero-sum Approach

Lawyers therefore tended to think of children's preferences as being about outcomes, with the available choices being defined by the parents’ respective positions.” – Judy Cashmore and Patrick Parkinson, The Voice of a Child in Family Law Disputes

My thesis for my LLM in New Zealand is focusing on the role of the lawyer for child in custody cases. One of the big issues lawyers face when representing children is whether they will advocate for their client’s best interests or be more of a “traditional” lawyer, advocating for their wishes. Without getting into the debate (and yes, it is a big, big debate) about which should be the lawyer’s role, I want to discuss the yoga problem I see with one aspect of the debate – the zero-sum mentality.

When lawyers discuss custody cases, especially with respect to children’s wishes, they discuss the child being asked his or her wishes between two parents. The traditional mentality is that a lawyer sits down with a child and says, “With which parent would you like to live?” The United States is one of only two countries in the world that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and one of the reasons is that it gives children a right to be heard in judicial proceedings that affect them. Many people argue that it is unfair to ask a child to choose between their parents.

Those people are correct, absolutely correct. The problem with this view, however, is that it conflates the issue of child’s voice into child’s choice. The argument makes two assumptions: 1) the child will get to decide, and 2) there is only one choice to make. These assumptions leave us with basically two choices - either Mother's argument or Father's argument will "win," and the child will decide the outcome. (To be clear, this is not what actually happens in cases, only the fear of what might happen.)

This brings me back to the quote at the top. In a book co-written by a psychologist and a lawyer, the authors found that lawyers assumed children’s views were about one outcome or another, based upon what the parents were arguing as their positions in court. Interestingly, the psychologists and mediators interviewed, saw the child’s views as having many possible outcomes and often shedding light on new avenues about which the parents and professionals had never thought. In other words, the children did not live in the same zero-sum world as their parents and the lawyers.

Why does this happen to lawyers?

Lawyers are often stuck in a zero-sum world. There are winners and losers, and we must decide which is right and which is wrong. Yoga, by contrast, shows us a different world, one in which two or more possibilities can exist together (did anyone else notice the irony of putting that sentence there?).

When we allow ourselves to break free of the fight-or-flight mentality, we can begin to see the bigger picture. Options become clearer when we open our perspective. Yoga helps us get there by helping us slow down. A zero-sum mentality is heightened by the constant stress and the legal tradition of guilty vs. not guilty, winner vs. loser. Those paradigms, however, work less and less well in complex situations, especially when peoples’ lives are involved. Many family law judges have said they know they do a good job when both parties leave upset - it means that no one won, but a compromise was reached.

Breaking free of the zero-sum mentality means taking a moment to reflect instead of react and opening up to creative possibilities. Luckily, yoga is great for improving our creativity by calming the mind enough to allow us to think clearly once again.

In what ways do you find yourself getting stuck in a zero-sum mentality? What is your favorite way to get past it?