Saturday, July 30, 2011

Inspiration, Ego, and Letting Go Part 2

In the last post, I talked about the tension between inspiration and feelings of inadequacy. We can look at those who come before as inspiration for what we might achieve, or we can be paralyzed by fear that we are never going to be as good as they are. While I believe Nelson Mandela was right when he said, “It always seems impossible until it is done,” I also know that bodies and life get in the way of us sometimes, and that is okay! If we learn to listen, these bumps on the road in fact become our new inspiration and our new paths.

In asana, this is easy to express -- everyone’s body structure is different. Therefore, it really is impossible for certain people to do certain postures, even without any injury. Paul Grilley, who teaches Yin Yoga, does a great explanation of anatomy that focuses on how bone structure influences our asana practice, and he “proves” that some bones just do no move into particular positions.

With the asana book discussed in the last post, one of the most amazing “abilities” the yoga teacher had was to do incredibly deep backbends almost seamlessly. Guess what? Our teacher, who has studied with him, informed us that he has a squishy, almost spongelike, chest. In other words, where most people have very solid ribs, the front of his chest is more malleable. Thus, he can do a backbend easier, and others may never be able to do it . . . simply because of our bone structure. 

Thus, we can do our daily (or whatever time period) practice and find the inspiration to keep going, but forcing ourselves into postures and places that do not work for our bodies will only result in injury. And believe me, it is no fun when your hamstring informs you that you should have backed off. It is no fun at all!

This blog has focused on the topic of letting go before, including the second post (it is sort of strange for me to go back and reread old posts, but I thoroughly enjoy it!). Today, however, I want to focus on how inspiration and letting go can work together. By looking to what others have done before, whether it is on the mat or off, we can see what is possible in the universe. But we can only know what is possible for ourselves when we look inside. When I look at an asana book, I am not necessarily inspired to do any particular posture. Instead, I am inspired to keep practicing and working toward my own edge, my own limits, in order to help them expand and grow.

Again, this is harder for me professionally – perhaps because the modern world is so focused on success, and it is often measured relative to others. But taking the knowledge from the mat, from my asana practice, to my work life, I notice something that I have discussed before – we all have our own paths! A yoga teacher can help guide us into new and exciting asana, but at the end of the day, we must look inside to ensure we do not hurt ourselves. No yoga teacher can know what any posture feels like for you.

The professional world is no different. We can have mentors and friends, heroes and inspirations, but at the end of the day, we have to follow our own paths. We do not have to be a Supreme Court Justice or a Partner at a Top 10 law firm or even what we thought we wanted to be last week. Instead, we can seek out inspiration, move to our edge and then reevaluate and ask ourselves if this path is working for us or whether it is time to move in another direction. 

In a world blindly focused on one definition of success, such a shift might be called giving up. In a world that recognizes that we each have our paths, such a shift might instead be called perfect for you. Thus, know that your bone structure may never allow you to do pigeon pose perfectly but that same hip structure gives you better stability in a backbend and take that knowledge to know that your path may not be to be the head of a corporation, but instead to give children a chance in life. In this scenario, those who have come before are inspiration for what can be achieved when you follow your own path, not a particular outcome, whether on the mat or in your life.

We can be inspired by people on a different path than us, and we can learn from how much they have accomplished, but we can only measure our own success based upon our own path. Are you on your path?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Monday, July 25, 2011

Inspiration, Ego, and Letting Go Part 1

One day a few weeks ago I attended a yoga class taught by an Ashtanga teacher. I do not normally practice Ashtanga, but she was subbing for someone, and I have always been intrigued by it (though honestly a bit weary of its intensity). Before class began, several of us were talking about various postures, and she brought out a book by her teacher whose name escapes me. We sat in a circle looking through this book on asana simply stunned. Some of those postures looked like he needed to be missing vertebrae to be in them. It was like looking at a modern version of "Light on Yoga," which if you have not read and are at all interested in amazing asana explanation, give it a go. It remains the asana bible to many.

Flipping through this asana book with a group of non-Ashtanga students, some of whom were fairly new to yoga, instigated a discussion that has been running through my head ever since and in various forms. Interestingly, it also crossed the yoga-lawyer line. A few people bemoaned the fact that these postures looked impossible. Even though I was a student in that class, I went into teacher mode and made two remarks. First, everyone’s body is different, and that just means that there are certain postures that some people may never be able to do (a discussion for the next post). Second, I look at a book like that and find inspiration.

And so the conversation began . . . The teacher mentioned she also turns to such books for inspiration rather than a reminder of how far she has to go. 

As students, are we to look at those more “advanced” in the posture as proof that we are lesser? Are we to feel inadequate because we have not achieved as much as they have? What if we have been practicing for nearly a decade and still have injuries, pains, and fears? Does not being able to fully express a posture make someone a bad yoga student? Does it make someone a bad person?

Of course not! Quite the opposite, in fact! 

Having a posture to aspire to provides the basis for the practice. When I started doing yoga, I could barely touch my knees in a forward bend. Today, if I am warm enough, I can place my nose on my knees. But I am also that person who has been practicing for almost a decade and still has injuries, and there are other “basic” postures I can barely do, if at all. Thus, I know where to work. I know what must be done.

That is why asana books are inspirational. Yoga has helped me learn that it can take years to increase flexibility and strength, but it is possible. We can go from not understanding our bodies at all to listening to them and letting them guide us through life. We can go from no balance to Dancer. Seeing others who have gone down the path before is inspiring because it helps me see how much is possible. On the yoga mat, I understand this concept.

I find this harder in the professional world. What really inspired this post was not the discussion around an asana book, but an email from an organization I love. The new President wrote her first President’s Message, and even though I have known her for years, I was amazed at how much she has done. I wrote her an email telling her how inspiring she is. I meant it. What I left out, however, is how it was also a bit like looking at an Asana book thinking, “there is no way I could ever do that.”

The reason I came to New Zealand to study was to learn about a system that I thought was working and share it with the United States. My inspiration was to bring a model of children’s representation in custody cases to the States, to give children support during a difficult time in their lives. That same organization I love provided the inspiration, and the connections, to make it possible. But now I am here. Now I am learning. Now I am seeing how difficult it really is.

It is like standing in a forward fold with my hands on my knees thinking that the ground is a mile away. The professional world is different than a yoga mat because our actions and internal awareness cannot change others. It can seem overwhelming at times, impossible even.

But then I remember that I did not touch the floor overnight, and the new President did not become the President of an international organization overnight. Change comes in increments, slowly but surely. And change comes from within first, and then we can share it with the world and make a difference in the professional world in which we inhabit.

So we can look at the “great” practitioners, on and off the mat, and think, “I could never do that,” or we can look at them and say, “I am going to do that!” With teachers and mentors, we can begin to reach closer and closer to the floor in our forward folds and higher and higher up our dreams in our lives. The first step, though, is to see those who have come before as inspirations and not proof of how far we have left to go.

Who inspires you? Do you allow yourself to be inspired instead of paralyzed?

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Take a Walk

As I mentioned in the 100th post, I want to see Is Yoga Legal taking on some new tasks, and one of those is practical advice for the modern world. I love to write about the interaction of yoga and the law, but I also think that people want some practical tips. Many professionals, especially lawyers, spend inordinate amounts of time sitting at a desk. This fact results in all sorts of physical and emotional problems. Therefore, I am starting a new series called At the Desk, and this is the first post in that series. All posts in the series will be labeled At the Desk. I would love to hear your feedback on this series or any others you would like to see.

A book could be written on all the problems associated with sitting at a desk all day, but those can be the focus of later posts. With this first post in the series, lets discuss the best way to counteract any problem associated with desk-life.


Sitting is static, and sitting at a desk is static in an uncomfortable and unnatural position. Thus, in order to counteract it, we need to do some natural movement. And what is more natural than walking (well, at least since about the age of 1-2)? While taking longer walks is well known to help with many medical issues, short walks are also great. They may not trim the waistline, but they can counteract the physical effects of sitting.

Taking a walk does not need to be a long exercise routine. Instead, take a 2-minute walk every hour and a slightly longer walk 1-2 times per day. How often do you feel yourself falling asleep around 3pm? Taking a ten-minute walk can help get the blood flowing again, wake you up, and prepare you for the rest of the day. Instead of considering it a waste of time, ask yourself how much time you waste by sitting at your desk feeling as though you are going to fall asleep. My productivity increased 10-fold when I just started taking short walks throughout the day.

Here are some simple tips for adding walking to your day:
  • Set a timer: Have a timer go off every hour to remind you to get up and move.
  • Go to the bathroom that is farther away: Is the bathroom less than 20 steps from your office door? Go to the one down the hall. Then you have a destination, and a bit more movement.
  • Ask a colleague a question: How often do you send an email to the person just down the hall? Do you pick up the phone and call? How about picking yourself up and walking down the hall to ask the question? If it will take a few minutes to answer, you can walk together and discuss it.
  • Get a buddy: Ask someone else in your office to share the burden of remembering to take a short walk. Then, when you need your two minutes, you can count on each other to ensure it happens.

Do you have other ideas? Please share them in the comments.

Short, frequent walks are key to counteracting the static stress of sitting at a desk all day. What may seem like a waste of time at first has the potential to increase productivity and reduce pain. And with a reduction in pain, we can reduce medication, time away from work, and time complaining. Sometimes the first answer is simple – just take a walk.

Taking a Walk is part of the series At the Desk, which focuses on practical tips from the yoga world (and other interesting finds) to help those of us stuck at the desk all day long. If you are interested in other tips, click the label “At the Desk,” and if you have any specific questions you would like to see discussed, send them my way. 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Finding Compassion when the stories differ

The last two posts have examined our memory. First, there is the issue of losing and storing memory, and second is the issue of whether our memories are “true.” The question now is what do we do with the knowledge that our brains are not the source of all our memories, and those that we have may not always be true?

While the issue with memory permeates all of modern society, it is exemplified perfectly by the legal profession. The legal profession is one of stories. And when it comes to stories, family law is at the top of the list.  Everyone has their own story in family law, and usually the two parties have stories that drastically differ. Both sides tell their story. Most of the time, each side assumes the other one is lying, and the neutral people (evaluators, judges, child’s representative) assume they are both lying.

But what if they are both telling their truth? What if their memories are exactly what they are telling the court? Would our impression of them change? Would the system have to change? 

As professionals, do we have an obligation to inform the client that the other party may not be lying? Do we have an obligation to question our own client’s views of the truth? Does that border on unethical? Should we be concerned about what our ethical rules require if it does?

The greatest lesson we can take from recognizing the possibility that our memories are fallible is that we can understand that other people may have misguided memories as well. As with most aspects of life, we can use this as a sword, or we can use it to have more empathy and compassion for others. Once we recognize how malleable memory is, we can understand how others may remember events differently than we remember them. We can be willing to let go of our own story.

As professionals, we can understand that getting caught up in our own client’s story as though it were gospel may not be the best way to handle a case. As colleagues, we can discuss cases and situations with more perspective, understanding that there may be more to the story than we first perceive. As fellow human beings, we may be able to hold multiple stories, even if our own memory remains intact with only one of those stories.

Most importantly, in a time when we talk about being so divided, divided as never before, we can start to understand how other people may see the world differently than we do. It is nice to think that facts can change attitudes. It is nice to believe that if we just provide enough data, we can win a case, or we can win an argument with someone with whom we disagree. But sometimes, the stories are too ingrained. (Here is a link to a great article on the topic). Sometimes, our own stories are too ingrained. And sometimes, what we think are facts are just our stories, our patterns, our memories that have been conditioned over time.

So now what? Can we believe anything as truth? This question is much bigger than this blog, and certainly than this post. But the first step is simple, if not easy, a theme familiar to this blog. The first step is to recognize that we all have our stories, and those with whom we interact have their own stories. Thus, instead of jumping to a conclusion that someone is simply wrong, we can recognize that peoples’ truths may be different than our own. It means we can have a bit more understanding when we talk to them.

Can we convince family law litigants that both of them have valid stories? Maybe not. But can we convince ourselves that we should take a second look at other people before making assumptions about their views on the world? I think we can. Then, when our memories appear from our bodies while doing some physical asana, we can also recognize those are merely part of the story. We need not judge our memories, and we need not fear them just like we need not judge others based on the memories they hold dear.

What do you think we can learn from validating other peoples’ memories? What can we learn about ourselves? What can we learn about the world?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The fallible mind

As I mentioned in the last post about where we store our memories, today I want to explore the reliability of our memories. Does anyone remember the beginning of Remember the days when you not only had to have a college email address to use it, but only certain universities were eligible? It was a big deal to have an account on I distinctly remember being a little sad that I could not get an account because I had let my University of Michigan email address lapse after graduation, and the University of Arizona (where I attended law school) was not one of the “elite” universities. Bummer. Yep, I remember being at the University of Arizona without a facebook account. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Of course, this memory is factually incorrect. My friend remembers using facebook with me when I lived in France, which was before I went to Arizona. She was so certain that she went all the way back to 2004 on her wall to make sure. She was right; she found a post from me while I was in France.

But what about that memory of mine? It may seem trite to use a memory about facebook on a blog post about the fallibility of memory, but unfortunately it is my clearest “incorrect” memory.

Can our memories be so fallible? Are we really unable to trust what we “know” to be true? The answer is a perfect lawyer answer – it depends. We have known for years that eyewitness testimony can be very unreliable, but few of us have turned that knowledge on ourselves to ask whether our own memories are true.

One psychologist who has studied the fallibility of memory for decades had the table turned when her uncle informed her that it was she who discovered her mother dead in a pool when she was a child. The death, which she had repressed for years, started to come back, the memories of finding her mother floating in the pool, began to flood her daily thoughts, but then her brother called to say their uncle had been mistaken; someone else had found her mother. So where had the “memories” of finding her mother originated? If this can happen to a woman who studies these issues, it could happen to any of us.

Think about your memories from childhood. Do you remember them, or has the story become family lore, and with the story, the memory embeds itself into your mind? Think about the stories you tell over and over again. Has anyone ever told you that you used to tell it differently, that you now embellish it?

But then the question becomes – does it even matter? What is true for you remains true for you. I still remember not having a facebook account until I was in law school. But now I’m starting to second guess it . . .

Certainly this is an issue when we talk about repressed memories and whether they are real, but that is not the point of this post. Memory is our definition of our Self. It is our history. It is what we think makes us . . . well, us. To think that our memory might be incorrect is to think that we are not who we think we are. That is a big suggestion and one that many of us are not willing to accept, even if there is evidence “proving” us wrong.

This is where yoga can help. What is another perspective of memory? What if we look at it as a pattern? It is a story we tell ourselves, a story that is sometimes grounded in fact, sometimes grounded in other peoples’ stories about a fact, and sometimes factually incorrect on all accounts. Yoga, as we have seen before, helps us recognize our patterns for what they are. Patterns, like memories, are neither good nor bad. They are simply our patterns. Memories are neither necessarily factual nor false. They are simply our memories. And as memories, they help make us who we are.

And just as some patterns can lead to destructive behaviors over time, holding onto memories that may not be based in reality can be harmful. This does not mean that we need to start distrusting our every thought and our happy memories of childhood Thanksgivings spent with our family. But it is important to understand that they might be false, and that if someone has a different narrative of the same event, that their story might also be true. And yoga helps give us the ability to reflect. It gives us the tools for learning how to question our past, and recognize that what we remember is our own reality, but it may not be based in an external reality. The awareness of our bodies, our breath, and our mind, that come from yoga is the first step to seeing our memories as something that may be just a pattern.

Once we begin to recognize this in ourselves, we can use it as a path for empathy and compassion for others, but that is a topic to be explored in the next post.

How about you? Do you have any memories that you have since learned are false? Do you have any memories that are the result of family lore or a family photo? Are you willing to believe that what you believe may not be fact? Do you think it matters?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lost Memories

I have trouble remembering things. I have very few solid memories of my childhood, and sometimes I forget conversations with friends last week. I have a feeling I am going to be one of those people who tells the same story several times to the same person because I can never remember if I told it before.

I have a friend, however, who remembers everything. She can remember what her family ate on a vacation 20 years ago. I know that when I need to remember an event in college, I can ask her. These past few years, I have thought about this a lot and wondered why some people have great memories and others do not. 

Moreover, it is not as simple as saying that I have a bad memory because that is not true. For some reason I can remember case law and case names, but I cannot remember the incredible adventures I have taken around the world. For that, I take photos. And I take a ton of photos – over 3000 since arriving in New Zealand in January. I want to remember. Traveling around the north island with new friends when I arrived, one of them did not take a lot of photos. Instead, he said, “I am remembering it.” I tried. Then I whipped out the camera. I did not want to forget. 

Of course, some photos were to share asana with the rainforest and prove that I was really doing Tree Pose Around the World.

But recently, especially through yoga, I have found my memories. They are not in my brain. They are in my muscles. When doing asana, I often have memories of these trips, memories of the past, even memories of my childhood. I remember things I thought I had forgotten. 

When you Google muscle memory, you get information about golf swings. After all, the best golfers use the memory of a previous game to play today. But that is not the muscle memory I mean. We actually store memories in our muscles. Emotions as well.  

At its simplest, pain is energy that is stuck in the body. Along with that stuck energy is the memory of what caused it to be stuck. When I started yoga teacher training, I was angry at the way yoga had become so body-centric in the United States. It was not until I began to truly understand the body and its knowledge that I learned to love asana for its ability to help us go deeper. When I learned about the koshas, I finally understood. Our bodies are the gateway to our inner selves.

But that means we have to deal with our bodies. We hold these memories in the body for any number of reasons. Often it is because we do not want to deal with them. Stress, something with which modern society is intimately associated, is our number one muscle memory. Headaches, lower back pain, and tight hips can all come from stress. With that pain, however, is the memory of that stress. Releasing the stress in the body can release those emotions and memories.

I hope it is obvious from the previous 100 posts that I think yoga is an amazing tool for handling our modern lives. It has so much to teach us from breathing techniques, to meditation techniques, to new ways to use and understand our bodies. But I also think that we need to be conscious of what it means to begin to tune in to these new ways of seeing the world. It means opening up memories we have stored. It means facing emotions we placed in our bodies, so our brains could forget them.

Western medicine and society are finally discussing the mind-body-spirit connection. What we hold in our bodies affects the mind and spirit, and around the triangle we can go. Recognizing this is an important step when integrating yoga into our daily lives. It is important because we must be aware that some days remembering is going to be difficult. Some days, yoga can make us more anxious.

The good news is that yoga also gives us the tools for handling those moments. When we notice a memory or emotion come up, breathe through it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about memories; they are just stored, and when we let them go, we can simply watch them and let the pain/tension dissipate. Several months ago, I posted a link to a story about how meditation can help decrease pain. I believe that our muscles as memory storage is the major reason why that is.

Of course, our memories are fallible, but that is a topic for the next post.

Do you notice memories arise during yoga? Do you ever notice a pattern to them?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved