Monday, October 31, 2011

Even Breaths

I have a yoga teacher who starts nearly every class in a similar fashion; she asks us, “is it easier to breathe in or to breathe out?” Inhales and exhales have different energies. On the inhale, we are filling our bodies with what the world has to offer. On an exhale, we are letting go of stale energy and anything in our bodies that no longer serves us. Over the course of our lives, we will have exactly as many inhales as exhales. Our first experience of the breath is an inhale, and our last experience is an exhale.

How often do you notice how they interact? How often do you notice which is stronger?

Lawyers and other professionals have a tendency to live on the edge and to struggle to find balance. It is no coincidence that one of the hottest topics in the professional community is work-life balance. The ubiquity of the topic indicates just how out of balance so many of us really are (and yes, I include myself in this category somewhat more than I would like). 

There are countless ways yoga can help us find balance, from asana (including tree pose) to noticing the equinox’s effect on our balance systems. But the simplest technique is to turn back to the breath. The breath and breathing is no foreigner to this blog, but somehow this simple technique has not yet graced its pages. And instead of focusing exclusively on the reality of balance, it focuses on the quality of balance, more easily expressed as evenness. 

The simplest technique is to bring evenness to the breath, evenness to the inhales and the exhales. Try this. Close your eyes (after you read this paragraph) and just notice your inhale and your exhale. Notice which one is longer and which one is stronger. They may not be the same one. Then consciously start to bring even them. Count the length of each, and try to inhale and exhale to the same count. Then slowly start to increase the length of each. See if you can double it from where you started.

Simple, right? All you have to do is breathe and count. Bringing evenness to the breath is a quick way to take control of our out of control lives and bring some semblance of balance back to them. A simple breathing technique cannot pick up the kids from school on time, but it just may help you slow down enough to focus and remember what time they have to be picked up. It can remind us that we carry this sense of evenness within us at all times. We just have to remember to tune in and notice.

The best part about this technique is that it can be done anywhere. Whether you are sitting at your desk or stuck in traffic, evenness in the breath can help you bring the quality of balance to your day. Just do it with your eyes open if you happen to be in your car.

What is your favorite way to bring evenness to your day? Do you notice a difference between chasing balance and finding evenness?


Even Breaths 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.

© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Back to Basics

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” – John Wooden

It is sort of hard for the current me to believe, but there was a time when I wanted to go to Stanford for college to play basketball. Sadly, I stopped growing at about 5’6” (167 cm), and more importantly, I was never very good. But that did not mean I did not try, and I went to a basketball camp a couple of times, which was run by Steve Lavin, an assistant coach for UCLA, where John Wooden’s legacy has lived for years. So this is how a lawyer-yogi quotes John Wooden and knows what it means. The man was, and remains, inspiring. I went looking for him (specifically the quote above) when I wanted to write this post, and I found several gems. Expect him to grace the pages of this blog over the next several weeks.

But today’s topic is “back to basics.” I have talked about this before (here and here), but I have also been thinking about it a lot this week.  All of the yoga teachers whose classes I attend know that I am also a teacher. So do many of the other people in the classes. But many people in the class are “better” at asana than I am. I have very problematic hips and a serious fear of handstands, so my asana practice comes and goes. Some days (ok, most days), I think I have more to learn than the first time I stepped on a mat.

And that’s the best part! 

It is very easy to get complacent in life. It is very easy to think, “I have done this before, so I can let my mind wander as I do it again.” It is really easy to fall into our patterns and samskaras. To be honest, driving on the left side of the road is starting to feel natural now, and I find myself being less and less conscious as I make wide right turns.

But yoga is about noticing the subtleties and noticing how each day is different. Sure, you can “do” vrksasana (tree pose), but how is it different today than yesterday? What muscles need to work differently now to hold you in space? Is today a day where I feel balanced and comfortable in the pose, or is today a difficult day where I wobble back and forth?

I have taken a couple of meditation classes here over the past few months, and one of the yoga teachers asked me, “do you not have a practice already?” To be honest, I have never meditated every day in the past. I start and stop. But that was not the reason I took the classes. The woman who taught the first class said it best, “you can never take too many introduction classes.” That was her way of saying, “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Going back to basics keeps us honest in everything we do. We learn to be better lawyers, librarians, psychologists, athletes, and people when we constantly forego what we “know” and remember that we always have a long way to go. This is not a nihilistic view that we can never be good enough at anything. Instead, it is a recognition that we can always engage more deeply with ourselves and learn to do things better. The more we learn, the more we can tune into the subtleties. After all, we know “the devil is in the details,” so when we take the time to tune into those details, by continuously going back to the basics, that’s when we do our best.

John Wooden was right. We may think we know it all, but that’s when the going gets great! That’s when we can let go of trying to do it, and actually begin to understand. Where do you go back to basics?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Power of Positivity

Indulge me for a moment, and read the next three bullet points individually without looking ahead until you have absorbed what they say. I will meet you below them.

  • Don’t picture a pink elephant! 
  • Don’t think about an orange!
  • Don’t imagine your next vacation!

Were you able to do it? My guess is that most people reading this pictured all three – the pink elephant, the orange, and the vacation (where are you planning to go?). Essentially, the brain thinks about what is before it, and in this case, that is a pink elephant, an orange, and a vacation. It does not necessarily process the “don’t” until after it has thought about the subject.

In some circles, people say the brain cannot process negatives, but that is not exactly what is happening. What is really happening is that the brain is processing everything, and the subject gains a moment of time in the overworked brain before the brain realizes that it is not supposed to be thinking about it. What I am really trying to say is that we give power to any subject just by thinking about it, whether we think about it in “good” or “bad” terms.

So why do I bring this up? I read a lot of blogs. I read a lot of blogs about lawyers and several blogs about ex-lawyers. These are people who have left the profession because of its toxicity and offer their ideas for the rest of us to get out. I have mentioned this before, stating, “But I likemy job!” I think these blogs offer a great service to many people struggling in the day-to-day rat race that is the legal profession, but so often when I read them, I cannot get past the first sentence.

Why? They start with negativity. They start with everything that is wrong about the profession. And yes, I realize I am participating in that negativity by commenting on it in this way. But the point is that their underlying message is awesome – “take care of yourself before the legal profession kills you!” Another common theme is “follow your heart.” But that message is buried under a mountain, sometimes a large mountain, of everything wrong with the legal profession.

Thus, the negativity has power. We imagine the negativity as we read. And imagining it brings it into our being. It permeates us whether we experience it ourselves or read about others. That’s empathy.

I’m bringing this up now because I see the same theme in the Occupy movement here in Dunedin, New Zealand. I really want to support them, even if I may not agree with everything they are saying, I see the global Occupy movement as an awakening, a bringing together of people from all walks of life who are standing up for what they believe. That’s awesome! But the biggest sign here in Dunedin is “Smash Corporate Greed.” Every time I see it, which is at least twice per day, I feel like I’m being punched in the gut, and that is only partly because I see the difference between Starbucks and Wal-Mart – both corporations, but with vastly different influences on the world.

The real punch in the gut comes from the negativity. There is a growing, but still small, movement online called “Occupy Your Heart.” Obviously this has been a theme for me this week. But I originally heard about it from the Dunedin Yoga Studio owner, and then I searched for it online.

The movement is not against anything, it is for opening the heart space, something we desperately need in this world. But it has no focus about what it is against – just about tuning into what really matters and “wrappingyour heart around it.” It gives power to the heart rather than power to negativity and all the things it is against and anti.

People are still going to have awful days at law offices. It is still important to point out the inequalities that exist in the world. But would you rather give power to the negative or power to the positive? I know which one I am going to try to choose, over and over again. If we give power to the positive, that power will spread. Are you in?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wrapping your heart around it

Metaphors are funny things. Sometimes they cross linguistic boundaries, but more often than not, they fail miserably. That’s because they tell us little about the words.  Instead, they tell us a lot about a culture.

Last week I was at a cafĂ© with an acquaintance, and we were talking about her job prospects. She is going through some professional changes and has several interesting possibilities in the pipeline, but she cannot do all of them. As she was explaining all the options, she said, “I just have to go home and wrap my head around it.”

The head. The mind. Modern society loves them. When making decisions, how often have you heard people say, “list the pros and cons, and follow the path where the pros outweigh the cons.” Under that regime, it is a numbers game. It is the number of pros vs. the number of cons. Their weight has little meaning. But it is simple and easy. All we have to do is count (ok, maybe not so easy for those of us who are lawyers, but we can ask for help with the counting if need be).

Lists of all types speak to our logical side. They can be judged objectively. We can ask others for help with making and interpreting them. Plus, we use our heads so often in today’s society, and lists are common in all areas of our lives. We make grocery lists, to-do lists, invite lists, etc. Putting it down on paper (or screen) externalizes our thought process and allows us to objectively evaluate what we are thinking. This objective analysis is well respected in modernity.

But does it really serve us?

Back at the coffee shop, without really thinking about it, or even realizing I was saying it, I responded, “or your heart around it.”

My acquaintance stopped talking and looked at me. I realized I had just said that out loud. Here I was talking to another logical adult suggesting wrapping her heart around ideas and opportunities. Apparently writing this blog has made me bolder in person than I realized. Apparently it has also helped me see beyond the logic game where so many of us get stuck.

Our minds and lists simply cannot give us the answers. All the objective pros in the world cannot outweigh our heart telling us that something is not right for us. All the objective cons in the world cannot stop us when our heart says to go!

I have been incredibly lucky to have had the support along the way to follow my heart. Objectively, a law firm may have been a better path for me, or had I read the tea leaves on the economy, maybe not even going to law school in the first place. But my heart said go. There was a time when coming to New Zealand and studying their family law system was a pipe dream, but a judge here said, “you find the funding, and I will find you the space to study,” and an Australian psychologist said, “you will find a way; you must find a way.” And here I sit in New Zealand nearly finished with a thesis about the role of lawyers for children (and instead of actually finishing it, I’m blogging, but whatever). I get to start representing children in December in a city I love working with people I love. I could tell you about the loans and the time commitment and the disturbing facts I will face, but that’s my head talking. My heart is leaping with joy.

Of course, we need our heads and our minds. Part of our social contract is that we will work together and create a society in which we do not run into each other or over each other, where we can ensure a solid food supply, etc. These things require logic. But our deepest goals and decisions are not birthed by the head; they begin and end in the heart. Too often we are asked, or forced, to ignore what it says. It is then that we find ourselves in dis-ease.

But hearts are waking up all across the globe. People are recognizing that logic and objective analysis is not the end-all, be-all of our world. This is a difficult concept for those of us who live in our heads all day, every day. We push emotion and “irrelevant facts” to the side and ask ourselves to “focus on what’s relevant.” In a divorce case, parents spend $20,000 (or more) to argue over something worth $10,000. That’s not logic, but it shows us the real story. It shows us what is relevant to the people, even if it is not relevant to the law.

Unfortunately for our logic-trained minds, the heart does not do lists. It does not do easy. It does  not do bright lines. But it does do truth. It sees beyond the lists and the numbers to show us what is truly important. And when we follow our hearts, life just has a funny way of working out. The first step may feel like jumping off a cliff, but that’s when you realize the heart can grow wings.

So, the next time you find yourself needing to wrap your head around something, ask yourself if you are willing to wrap your heart around it instead.


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Finding the Residue

“But once you begin to observe and pay attention and be brought into the present, it is profoundly powerful. It almost doesn’t matter what does that for you, yoga or something else. The techniques, the asanas, are not the yoga. The residue that the techniques leave is the yoga. When we begin to look deeply at our speech, our posture, our breath, our thoughts, our choices, or our values, and observe those with compassion and a certain distance, we are changed forever.” – Judith Hanson Lasater

This quote comes from an interview Judith Hanson Lasater did on YogaDork the other day, in two parts (here and here). I have always liked her style, and the interview is very interesting, though focused on what it means to be a yoga teacher today. Thus, it may not speak to many people who are not yoga teachers.

Her point in this quote, however, is vital to lawyers and other professionals. If you read this blog often, you know how important I think it is to tune into the breath, to stop for a moment, and breathe. Personally, I believe it is the #1 stress management technique we have at our disposal, if for no other reason than the fact that we can do it anywhere and at anytime. We always have our breath, and it does not take years of practice to learn to breathe. It is both the first and last individual action we take.

The breath is also the quickest way to bring us into the present. Researching and writing legal memoranda, phone calls to clients, and answering emails are all ways to think about the past and prepare for the future. Unlike focusing on the breath, these tasks of everyday life take us out of the present. Yoga, by contrast, through asanas and breath awareness, bring us back to the present. As Lasater points out, yoga is not the only tool for this; I know plenty of people who run and swim for similar reasons.

But so what? Why should we care if we are always somewhere other than the present? Why should we care if our minds are running in a million different directions?

There are many, many reasons, but I like where Lasater takes her answer. Yoga, by bringing us into the present, helps bring us a healthy distance from those thoughts. We can look at them and recognize they do not define our being; instead they are simply thoughts. Like a good lawyer who is asked to look upon a case dispassionately, focusing only on the relevant facts for the case, when we come into the present through the breath or asanas, we can look upon our thoughts going by in hyperspeed for what they are: thoughts going by in hyperspeed.

From that place of distance, ironically we find compassion. We can see these thoughts as what our mind does to stay busy. We can recognize when we get lost in the same story over and over again, and let that story go. We can recognize when other people get stuck in their stories over and over again, and we can find compassion for other peoples’ stories, even if we disagree with them.

In today’s political climate, with protests spreading around the world (yes, there was even an Occupy event here in the small town where I am living in New Zealand), more and more people are turning to their stories, whatever they are. I have watched some great yogis and Buddhists speak at these protests (here, here, and here), and their message is always the same – it is not about deciding what you are against; it is deciding what you are for!

Seane Corn, a yogi, asked people to be FOR unity and love. Robert Thurman, a Buddhist, asked the protestors to have compassion and sympathy for the bankers. Marianne Williamson, an author, asked people to keep it smart, nonviolent, and growing. But my point here is not about the protests and what they should be. The point is that it is through awareness of our breath and our asana practice that we can find the ability to have compassion for others, even the ones we are “supposed to hate.”

For lawyers, this means seeing the “other side” not as an enemy and a battle to be fought and won, but as a person with a story, a mind on hyperspeed, just like each of us. For all of us, this means seeing people with whom we disagree as human beings, worthy of our compassion. It does not mean we never get annoyed with others (just drive with me if you want to see someone get annoyed too fast). But it does mean that when we catch ourselves in that moment of annoyance, and perhaps hate and vitriol, that we stop and remember to look dispassionately and then with compassion.

The residual benefits of yoga, therefore, become the most important. What do you do to stop yourself from going down the path of vitriol? Can you find compassion for your own thoughts? For others?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Getting Away

We have all heard the phrase “stop and smell the roses.” But who actually does it? How often do we stop and notice as the world changes around us? How often do we notice the minutiae of the world?

I was raised Jewish, so this time of year has always been a time of reflection for me. While I do not follow most Jewish traditions (it was my rabbi, after all, who first recommended the book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, about a Jewish woman who became a Buddhist), I do take the lessons of the New Year and Yom Kippur seriously. If for no other reason, they are a time to reflect.

Last year, I made a mistake. I scheduled my first-ever “Stress Management for Lawyers” seminar on Yom Kippur. A little mishap on my Google Calendar, and my own ignorance, were to blame, but I felt awful about it, not to mention the irony of working and teaching about stress management on a day that is supposed to be devoid of all work. Ooops.

So this year I decided I was going to get away for Yom Kippur. I am usually unable to fast from food for physical reasons, but there is little doubt of my most intense addiction. It is, of course, attachment to the internet. While I struggle with how much of the news to read and know, I also incessantly check my email on my phone and pop up facebook whenever I can. I even tweet, though that comes and goes.

But sometimes the universe works out right. I finished the entire rough draft of my thesis last week, and I knew I could get away for a few days. It just happened to be over Yom Kippur as well. So, I decided to head to Queenstown, the “adventure capital of the world!” My only adventure tourism was paragliding, but I got away from work, and Saturday, Yom Kippur, I stayed off the internet for more than 24 hours. Getting away from everything proved to be exactly what I needed.

It felt great. Absolutely wonderful, in fact.

Spring here in New Zealand apparently means still wearing a winter coat, but the trees and plants know it is spring, and they show it in all their glory. And for the first time in years, I took the time to pay attention. I do not mean just the flowers appearing, though the tulips and daffodils have been amazing. I mean watching the buds on trees turning into leaves, and the emerging pine cones. I mean literally stopping to smell the air as the flowers bring forth all their glorious scents.

But there was more than stopping and staring at flowers and leaves. There were hours of hiking and just sitting and looking at beautiful scenery. Early in the morning, I sat on the beach and watched the sun rise shedding its light on the Remarkables, the mountains looming over lake Wakatipu. At some point my shoulders dropped away from my ears. My breath began to slow and deepen. And my mind began to focus. 

There is no other way to say it, getting away did some good.

I was worried about turning off the internet. I was worried about being out of communication for a full day. I was worried about the massive amount of information to which I would return. And then I sat by a tree, staring out over a lake toward the Remarkables. All those concerns slipped away. The beauty of the mountain released me from my grip on myself. The "forced" fast gave me the perspective once again. Of course, I knew before being in Queenstown how much I love trees and mountains, but I had been striving so hard to live in two days at a time because New Zealand is a day ahead of the United States that I had forgotten how to live in the present. Mountains do not let you forget. Spring does not let you forget. 

The greatest lesson I want to learn from yoga, and in turn share with others, is how to use the tools in everyday life. I want to learn to sit at a desk breathing as well as I did on that mountain. I know it is possible. But I also know that modern life, especially a lawyer’s life, means cities. It means being indoors, carrying sweaters in summer because the air conditioning is too cold, and going days, weeks, and perhaps months without noticing the world’s changing patterns. Thus, sometimes we need to refill our coffers and remind ourselves what it means to truly stop, breathe, and reflect.

Then we can get back to work, the choice many of us make, using the tools to hold onto that essence for just a little bit longer. On this vacation, I found my breath again, not just my breath, but a deep, solid breath. But more than that, I remembered to stop and look at how amazing this world is and reflect on the beauty from which we so often hide behind our computer screens. It was through this fast that I was truly filled with the wonder of the world. 

Do you remember to get away? What do you learn from it?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.