Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stop and Breathe

Stop. For just a moment, stop. Before you read any further, stop and take a breath.

Now take another one.

Now take a slightly deeper breath.

Ok, keep reading.

Regular readers of this blog will know the breath makes an appearance fairly frequently.  The first act we take as independent human beings is to breathe in (and usually start screaming), and the last act we take is to exhale. In between, we inhale and exhale billions of times.

So, if the breath is such a natural occurrence, and one that happens whether we think about it or not, why should we stop and notice? Why should we care?

The breath can serve two main functions besides simply bringing oxygen physically into our lungs. First, it can indicate how we are feeling and coping. Second, it can change our physiology and help us create more calm. And the best part about bringing awareness to the breath is that you can do it anywhere and anytime. Sitting at your desk slumped over a computer? Notice your breath. In a tense meeting? Notice your breath. Out walking on a beautiful spring afternoon? Notice your breath.

But this post is part of the series At The Desk because it is at a desk where so many of us spend so much of our time today. But no matter what we are wearing, who is around, or how much time we have, we can use the breath to tell us how we are doing and use it to calm us, release pain, and give us strength to move forward.

Practically speaking, here are some questions you can ask yourself about your breath at any time:

  • Is my breath deep or shallow?
  • Is the breath slow or quick?
  • Am I breathing into my shoulders? My lungs? My abdomen?
  • Is it easier to breathe in or out?
  • It is easier to breathe through my left or right nostril?

There is no right or wrong answers to these questions. It is just an opportunity to notice the breath, to notice the state of your greatest teacher. From there, you may notice that you are holding tension in one part of your body, or that your breath is shallow because you are stressed or worried. You may notice that you are breathing deeply and fully and loving life at that moment. The important thing is just to notice.

If you notice that the breath is shallow and quick, and you also have a worried and fast-paced mind, you can modify the breath to help bring you calm. The greatest part is that this practice is incredibly simple. In our hurried lives, it may be easy to relearn how to bring conscious awareness and modification to the breath, but it absolutely can be done . . . by anyone.

The steps are simple. Slow down. Breathe into the abdomen. Exhale fully. Repeat.

Even taking five conscious breaths will help calm the mind and body and bring focus back to your work or wherever you are. I encourage you to start with 5 deep, conscious breaths every other hour. Discover what works for you, and before you know it, you may be bringing conscious awareness to your breath throughout the day.

Do you take time for the breath during the day?


Stop and Breathe 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

Friday, August 19, 2011

When the going gets really tough . . . we still have a choice

In the last post, I talked about how the snow here in Dunedin helped me see how important it is to prepare and how much our response to events influences our understanding of those events. As I mentioned, the post was not only inspired by the snow but also by a film I saw. At first I wanted to put them in one post, but there is no way to compare a snowy day to what the film portrayed. I have been thinking about the film all week, and I finally have the words to put down about its impact on me and what I think it has to teach us about yoga in everyday life.

The film is called "Brother Number One," and it is a documentary about a New Zealander who accidentally drifted into the waters of Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge regime. He was taken as a prisoner, tortured, forced to confess, and eventually killed. It was gut wrenching, and I was openly weeping, as were many others, even though there was not one scene of violence, and only a few grotesque pictures during the entire movie. I’m really hoping the film makes it to the United States and around the world. I highly recommend you see it. Here is a link to the film's website, and here is a link to their facebook page.

The last post was about snow and a yoga reminder that we can face just about any challenge life throws our way if we prepare for it and confront it with joy and wonder rather than fear and anguish. I thought about that as I walked out of the film into the snow. I had decided not to drive into town that day, but that meant taking a bus home, and the buses going up the hills were cancelled. I was irritated that I would have to walk up the hill, in snow. Then I caught myself. I just watched a film about torture, and I was concerned about walking up a hill? This is no small hill, but it still seemed petty after the film. It was not until the next day that I had my fun in the snow walking back down that hill.

So, when life throws us snow, or other minor issues, it is easy to say “be prepared,” and confront those situations with openness. But what about real torture? What about those situations that go to the core of our being set on destroying us? Remarkably, even in those situations, we have a choice. We can still choose how to respond.

Perhaps the most moving part of the film was when we got to see the “confession” of the tortured Kiwi. The Khmer Rouge required him to confess that he was a member of the CIA and/or KGB (honestly as I think about it, I cannot remember which one because the confessions were always about one or the other or both). In this “confession,” he wrote about learning spy techniques from Colonel Sanders and about his commander S. Tarr (his mother’s name was Esther). This man, while being physically and emotionally tortured, found a way to make a few jokes and pay tribute to those he loved. The Khmer Rouge were oblivious to his humor, yet I find myself thinking that he relished in it. He could play his own game, get outside of the horrific situation and embrace his inner self. It is impossible not to compare these actions to those of Viktor Frankl during the Holocaust.

And speaking of the Holocaust, that is my own family’s history. I have one remaining great, great aunt who was in Auschwitz, and many members of her generation died at the hands of the Nazis. I have visited Auschwitz. But to tell you the truth, I had almost no emotional reaction there. Instead, I cried while walking through Anne Frank’s house. The enormity of a situation is hard to conceive, but one person, one story, touches us in different ways.

These individual stories, from humoristic confessions to a grown man finding his peace amidst the horrors of concentration camps, to a young girl grappling with looking for the good in all people while hiding from the darkest side of humanity, remind us that even in these situations, our response remains within our control. The documentary reminded me that we all have capacities beyond that which we consciously know.

These stories, while painful and inspiring all at the same time, are not to show us that these responses are easy. But they are possible. Personally, I would rather come to know these capacities through yoga and Antarctic winds than torture or even disease. When we take the time to do yoga, to meditate, to be conscious of our responses to the little things in life, we train ourselves to be conscious of our responses to the harder parts of life. Learning to respond is like a muscle that can get stronger with use. Each time we stop and respond rather than react, we remind our conscious and unconscious selves that it is possible.

I am grateful to this film for this reminder. I hope the story can spread. And I hope we can all use it as a kickstart to begin being more mindful of our reactions and responses to that which annoys us, or worse, in our everyday lives.

Do you try to respond consciously to situations in life?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Monday, August 15, 2011

Snow in August

I promise this blog is not going to become a weather report between this post and the one about Frost in June, but these have been big events for me. This time, it is not about respecting our limits (though I still keep saying and thinking that it is December), but actually about seeing our ability to handle what is thrown our way by entering the world as it is rather than what our imaginations make us think it might be.

Yesterday morning I awoke to not only snow-covered Dunedin but “bitter cold southerly gales.” Kiwis know that a “southerly” means the wind is coming straight from Antarctica. There is no land to warm it up between the icy desert and a little town called Dunedin. In other words, it is cold and fierce. But I had to get to town for something. So, I bundled up; I put on my waterproof pants, my hiking shoes, my brand-new thermal jersey, my merino jersey, my awesome winter coat, and I even learned to use the hood on the coat to keep it on even in the crazy wind. In other words, I prepared. But I was nervous.

Before leaving the house, all I had to go by was a weather report online and snow-covered streets and footpaths (sidewalks) as far as the eye could see. I imagined how bad it was out there, how terrible it would feel to be there, and how much I just wanted to stay inside where it was warm(er). (New Zealand is not well known for its indoor heating; that’s my judicious way of saying how obscenely cold it is inside here.) Yup, the imagination is a powerful tool. But I put on the proper clothes and walked out the door.

This is the first hill I walked down. I live just at the top there.

And this is the hill I had to walk down. Beautiful view of snow covered Dunedin, eh? (And no, the buses were not running.)

Guess what? By the time I made it to the university (over an hour later), I was sweating and also had some fun!

Halfway down the hill, I realized something important as I was laughing at myself and enjoying the snow. I realized preparation and mindset make the difference. When we are prepared, we can handle just about anything life throws our way. It means we do not have to let stress and fear determine our lives. Our state of mind allows us to determine our response to our situations rather than allowing the situations to run our lives.

This is never more apparent to me than every six months watching the bar exam ritual. The bar exam is the legal version of hazing. I remember the summer of study when stress took over peoples’ lives, when imaginations ran wild with all sorts of ways to fail. Many people do not sleep the night before the exam. Some people pass out during the exam. People get so worked up and nervous about the exam they forget how much they actually know. They forget how prepared they really are.

Life can throw any number of situations at us. From little quibbles with our friends, families, and colleagues to unprecedented weather situations. We can, of course, ruminate on these situations, think about them and how terrible they could be or could become. But we can also throw on a few layers of preparation and walk out the door.

Yoga is one way to help prepare us for those times in life when simply putting on a few layers and a windproof jacket are not enough. It helps us slow down, take a step back, and meet each situation as it is rather than as we imagine it to be. Yoga, through our breath and attention to our bodies at individual moments, provides us the insight for being with life rather than with our crazy versions of all the ills that might occur.

After all, when you walk out the door, you may just find that things are a lot more enjoyable than you had expected.


Postscript: This post was dually inspired – partly by the snow and also partly by a film I saw. I could not put them in the same post because of a) length and b) the film confronts torture, not snow, and I want to write about it on its own terms. That will be the content of the next post.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Being Careful with Words

I love words. I am really only starting to understand this phenomenon in my life, but I love them. Perhaps it stems from reading and writing about philosophy in my 6th grade research project. Perhaps it stems from learning French and majoring in Comparative Literature and French and living in France two different times. Perhaps it stems from living in a house with 6 people, 3 of whom were either linguists or closely related and another one whose vocabulary rivals the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps it is even why I went to law school and probably why I blog. Yes, words are important in my life.

The more I realize how important words are, the more I realize how careful we must be with them. While the exact percentage changes every time I see it, there is no question that the vast majority of our communication remains non-verbal. So as wonderful as words are, they are never the entire story. Thus, words on a page can be misinterpreted. They can be read with a tone not intended by the writer. This is part of the phenomenon that leads to the Downward Spiral of Email.

But there is another problem with words. We assume that they have one meaning, when in reality they can have different meanings in different languages, but sometimes in the same language but across countries. When living in France, I expected this would be a problem. We spent some time learning about les faux amies – “false friends” – words that look the same between the languages but have very different meanings.

My favorite example is the English word preservatives. While in English, this is something that is put into our “food,” in French, the word “preservatif” is the word for condom. This creates a slight problem for American students who head to France and inform their French host families and friends that they love France because there are no “preservatifs” in the food. You can imagine the look of surprise. Luckily, we were forewarned, so I did not make that mistake – came close at least once though.

I knew there were differences between English around the globe as well. When teaching in France, a French student once asked an English woman and me if we spoke the same language, and we just laughed. Examples? I learned not to tell her that I was pissed when I was around children, but to say pissed off (not at the children, do not worry, but at a situation in which I found myself where children were also present). I also learned that pants means something different, and I should use the word trousers when stating that they can be worn more than once. And to stay on the French topic, the one word I would not teach the French children was rubber, the Commonwealth word for what those in the United States would call an eraser. Are you noticing a theme to these words?

But I thought I knew them all when I came here to New Zealand. I thought I would be able to communicate effectively. Before arriving in the country, however, a friend who had spent substantial time in Australia warned me that you do not root for teams on this side of the Pacific – rooting has a very different meaning.

What does this look at words have to do with law? With yoga? I hope it is a reminder that we cannot just assume that people understand us. We cannot assume that what we think others are communicating is really what they mean. Yes, it is much quicker and easier to assume that our interpretation is correct and that others will somehow magically understand us, but that is not how the world works.  Unfortunately, the modern world requires us to move faster and faster, taking less time to ask questions, less time to clarify, and less time to actually have the face-to-face interactions that help minimize (though not eradicate) miscommunications.

Yoga off the mat means reflecting on these issues. While there are sometimes humorous interactions, believe me, there are also disastrous ones. Miscommunications become misunderstandings, which become downward spirals, which become intense dislike. But a few moments of awareness and clarification can help alleviate this problem. A few moments of yoga off the mat can ensure that we are communicating as well as we can and not gaining the essence of words rather than a knee-jerk reaction and assumption to what is happening around us.

Where have you most noticed miscommunication in your life? How have you tried to alleviate it?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved