Monday, November 28, 2011

It’s the little things

I have been traveling a lot recently. Not only have I been taking advantage of my last few weeks in New Zealand, but I attended the NZ Family Law Conference, and I had a final meeting for Fulbright, along with Thanksgiving dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence. I will continue to travel for the next few weeks until I head back to the United States, and then when I get back to the US, I will be homeless until January 8 even though I start work on December 27.

View of Queen Charlotte Sound with a koru (fern opening). This represents so much of my time in NZ.

I’m sharing this itinerary as a long way of saying there is not a lot of time and space for yoga, especially because I stay at hostels and not hotels when traveling. I am really hoping this is the last trip of my life where I do that, but I digress. All the traveling, lack of personal space, and lack of a quality night sleep can add up. But that is when one of the best lessons I have learned from my yoga teacher here in Dunedin kicks in.

It is the little things that make a huge difference. This is just another of the yoga paradoxes: sometimes the less you do, the more results you see.

My teacher’s favorite example is relieving low back pain by lying on the floor and moving the pelvis forward and back, which is sometimes used as a preparation for bridge pose, but here, it is useful in its own right. It helps relieve the lower back muscles. It is simple, easy, and fairly quick. Plus, it results in massive change in the low back. I have used it a lot since I have been doing 6-hour hikes carrying a heavy pack.

This lesson is, of course, one that translates into life off the mat as well. I hear from people so often that the reason they do not do yoga is because they do not have the time. They often think it takes a huge commitment. In truth, the only commitment necessary is the commitment to take a few moments for yourself . . . even for five minutes per day.

So often we think that only the big things are worth doing. We are only going to go to the gym if we can stay for an hour, we are only going to do yoga if we can go to a class, and we are only going to write to a long-lost friend if we can find the perfect words to say. We feel we must do it all or it is not worth doing. Thus, we end up only doing the things that matter to us when we can “find the time.”

The truth of the matter, however, is that rather than the big moments, our lives are defined by the small ones. Each moment is a choice to do something, and our choices in each moment matter. Especially at this time of year when we are bombarded with mass consumerism, big holidays, and serious gluttony, taking a moment to recognize the little parts of life that matter is especially important. Ironically, it is the holiday season when we are “supposed” to pay attention to the little things that we lose sight of them.

Instead of recognizing gratitude once per year, remember to say thank you every single day. Instead of just sending a card once per year, take a 10 minute walk and call an old friend. Instead of popping the painkiller for the low back pain, lie on the floor and give yourself a 5-minute massage. These little moments add up, and they remind us how deeply connected we are. They also begin to make massive changes in our lives.

What are your favorite little things to keep you going each day?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Finding Community Across the Pacific

This has been an intense week. A week ago, I was in themiddle of nowhere, without internet, without a phone, even without showers (though strangely the huts had electricity during certain hours of the day). This week, I have been in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city at around 1.3 million people. The contrast was stark and not altogether easy for me to handle. To be totally honest, the thought of going back to the huge United States is a little overwhelming right now, but I am excited to be heading “home” soon. Just 2.5 more weeks in New Zealand. I cannot believe it.

I could not have asked for the New Zealand Family Law Society to have its conference. I was lucky to be able to attend, and it was incredible. I hold a special place in my heart for conferences, and it was at afamily law conference in Denver where I first taught yoga outside of teacher training. Conferences are about learning, but more importantly, they are about networking. Actually, I do not particularly like that word. Conferences are about coming together. They are about community.

And conferences on the other side of the world are about realizing (or perhaps realising) how similar we all are. In some ways, especially in a major stretch of metaphors, conferences embody everything I think yoga has to teach us as professionals. On the surface, conferences seem almost the antithesis of good yoga. They are intense, people rarely sleep, and at least at the conferences I have attended, people eat and drink far more than they should. I am, of course, the exception . . . or not.

But deeper down, conferences allow people to step outside their daily lives and take some time to reflect rather than live in a world of constant reaction. For a few days, the “other” lawyers become your friends again. Debates that sometimes devolve into zero-sum arguments in practice become opportunities to ask questions of each other, engage together, and discuss all the possible issues. No final decision has to be made. Everyone gets to be confused together. Hopefully, we can also be inspired and reinvigorated together as well. And this happens because we get away from the downward spiral of email and see each other’s faces, and talk, laugh, and debate together. We get to step away from daily life, and in doing so, we can put daily life into perspective.

But the best part is about building new community and reminding ourselves of the community in which we already exist. In that vein, I saw some friendly faces, both people I first met here in New Zealand, and people I have met in the US from both New Zealand and Australia. I also met many new people. Yoga is not just about asana and meditating and learning stress management techniques. It helps us step outside our lives long enough to realize how much we all have in common, how connected we really are. Conferences give us the same opportunity. This week, I am grateful for having had that amazing opportunity on the other side of the world. What an incredible beginning of the end of my time here. Now I just might need some more “traditional” yoga to recover from the conference.

What do you do to step outside your daily routine and find community?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Power of Life

I grew up in Northern California. It has the perfect climate for an abundance of life, including trees, birds, mammals, flowers, etc. After growing up in California, I went to the University of Michigan where squirrels and birds frolic in the plethora of trees. But then I went to the University of Arizona for law school.

Prior to relocating to Tucson, I had only been there twice. I love the beauty of the rocks, but over time living there, one thing became abundantly clear – I missed trees. The lack of trees started to grate on me. It seemed almost too metaphorical for law school and the legal profession.

But then I opened my eyes. I started taking yoga seriously in law school and started taking it very seriously my third year and while studying for the bar exam. It was then that I noticed how amazing the desert really is. Life exists where all reason says it should not. My favorite example is the Ocotillo cactus, which people often cut down and use to make fence posts. Rationality suggests that cutting down the cactus would kill it, but each spring these fence posts come alive and grow leaves and even flowers. It is incredible.

Living in New Zealand since January has been healing for me. This country does not lack for trees. So it has been easy for me to forget the desert lessons, but last week, I got my reminder . . . this time on a volcano. If people did not know before February, they now know that New Zealand is earthquake prone. What is less well known, however, is that its largest city, Auckland, sits on a few (read 52) volcanoes. I’m starting to wonder why anyone lives in this country . . . but I digress.

Last week, I visited the most recent eruption. It is an island called Rangitoto, which was created 600 years ago when the volcano erupted. It is an island, therefore, made purely of lava. There is no dirt. There were no trees. There was no life.

Today, Rangitoto has the largest Pohutekawa (a NZ tree that flowers at Christmas time, so it is called the Christmas Tree) Forest in the country. I was expecting a day walking on lava. Instead, I got a day walking through lush forest. In fact, the only lava you could really see was in the lava caves and along the road where the trees had been cut down to make the road. There are even NZ fern trees.

A view of the lush landscape on the island looking back to Auckland City.

A view of the crater, full of trees.

A NZ fern tree.

In 600 short years, out of molten lava came a beautiful forest. If the ocotillo cactus is not a great testament to life, the lava forest should be. It may sound cheesy, but I like to think of these examples when life seems incredibly difficult. Sitting in an office all day, devoid of nature, it can be very easy to forget how powerful life and nature can be. It is necessary to step outside and remind ourselves. Yoga is about being present and taking stock of the world around you. Sometimes that is the best way to remember how powerful life can be. Where do you most notice the power of life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Getting Away for Real

Last week, I went on my first backpacking (called tramping in New Zealand) trip. It was on a track that the New Zealand Department of Conservation deems is the “most beautiful track in the world,” the Milford Track. I have no way to determine that, but I can say that it was absolutely amazing.

All sorts of things could have gone wrong. Along the track, you sleep in huts with anywhere from 8-20 other people in a room with you. The region, Fiordland, gets around 200 days of rain per year, snow can appear on Christmas Day (the middle of the summer in New Zealand), and when it rains, it can really, really rain. I heard stories of people trudging through water up to their chests, having to be taken off the track in a helicopter, and having to spend several hours in non-sleeping huts because it was too unsafe to leave. And to add to my fears, my ankle is still sore from a year-old injury, and based upon a 10-hour hike my friend and I did two days before we set out for the tramp, my knee was not loving me either.

But I refused to allow the fear and concern to control my thoughts. Instead, I have been “practicing” for this track all year long. I have gone out in the rain without being upset about it. I have done long hikes up beautiful mountain passes. I have been sleeping in dorm rooms in hostels. And I have been meditating and doing yoga, mentally preparing to look on the bright side and just go with whatever happens.

We had amazing weather. The other hikers were awesome. And I even did not get too badly attacked by the sandflies (think mosquitoes but even more annoying). For four glorious days, I let the vacation responder answer my emails. I told my family and friends where I would be. I went offline . . . for real.

And I was rewarded with this:

The final point on the track. We made it!

Tree Pose at the top of the pass!

Mountains and bush and fields. It was absolutely amazing!

I got off the track and wanted nothing to do with my email, and nothing to do with facebook. I had over 800 unread items in my Google Reader, but I did not care. The world did not fall apart while I was not paying attention. Certainly things happened, and there was news that interested me upon my return to civilization, but I finally found the perspective to completely turn off.

It felt amazing.

There is no question that people are asked and expected to be constantly connected. We liken our phones to addictive drugs (crackberries). It is no secret that I struggle with this. I have struggled with my addictionto the news (and let’s be honest, to facebook as well), and my fear of going offline. I was so worried about being disconnected that I gave my parents specific instructions on how to get in touch with me if something went drastically wrong.

But as I finished the last few miles of the track, I found myself not even concerned about what my inbox held. Of course, I opened it up and found all sorts of junk mail and a few great emails. I learned about the news I had “missed.” I even signed into facebook and saw that one of my friends had a baby.

Interestingly, I am still traveling. I am now in Auckland and attending the New Zealand Family Law Conference beginning on Sunday. I will be traveling quite a bit after that. I’m less concerned now with how I will stay connected. Instead, I’m searching for hikes and ways to get away. I leave New Zealand in just over three weeks, and I will be back to work before the end of 2011. But thinking about that takes away from my enjoyment of today.

On the track, I had to constantly remind myself to be there and not in my head about conferences, child abuse, and international travel. There is no doubt that my mind wandered away from the New Zealand bush and mountains, but being completely offline and totally away gave me some perspective on the addictive lives we lead. Surprisingly, my shoulders have never felt as relaxed as they felt carrying a 40-pound pack over 3,000 feet over a mountain pass in gale-force winds.

How often do you turn off? How often do you get away? Do you let yourself? What have you learned when you have?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chasing Paper and Ingrained Perceptions

There are a few films every law student should see. At the top of the list is “The Paper Chase.” It depicts Harvard Law School in 1973 and helped define the popular culture definition of law school generally. It is, of course, an Old Boys Club and a time when the Socractic Method, and the fear associated with it, dominated the law school curriculum, and therefore, the legal profession itself.

Today, people still discuss the legal profession and law school as though they are identical to the 1973 model. I see a similar pattern in business, medicine, and many other professions. I fall into the trap constantly, including the post, “You’d be proud of me.” There is an ingrained perception that all lawyers fit a particular mold. There is an ingrained perception that business models from the 1970s work in the 21st century. There is an ingrained model that allopathic doctors must remain detached from their patients.

But the world has changed. Our discussion needs to shift as well.

I can only speak personally about law, but I see it in so many other fields as an outsider. My law school class had people who expected to be lawyers all their lives, people who wanted to change the world, and people who just showed up because it seemed like the thing to do. Personally, I fell somewhere between categories two and three, though my teachers growing up may have placed me in category one. Law firms today continue to ask associates to work obscene hours, but they also fight to have the best family-friendly offices, offer hours for pro bono work, and spend time and money building a name in the community. The law, and the people who practice law, are changing and growing. But the conversation often remains stuck in the 1973 model.

One of the biggest shifts in the legal field has been the inclusion of yoga and meditation. Last October, I attended The Mindful Lawyer Conference, and there is legal education popping up all over the country focusing on meditation. I am even teaching yoga in the mornings during at least two law-related conferences next year. In other words, the legal profession has shifted drastically.

But the stereotypes remain, and they remain to our detriment. Those of us who practice law and believe we are outside the old stereotypes feel like outsiders when, in reality, the outsiders are those who remain beholden to the old paradigm. I used to be the person feeling like an outsider because I do yoga, meditate, and want to share it with the world. But if I have learned one thing from writing this blog, it is that I may still be in the minority, but we have reached critical mass.

And I do not mean just people who do yoga. I mean people who want to see a new paradigm emerge in the professions that once were dominated by 1950s visions of the world. Yoga and meditation help me formulate how I envision that new paradigm. Others see it as a family friendly, more human-to-human focus, and more “balanced,” whatever that means to the individual person. There is no question that the world is changing. There is no question that professions are changing. I know I will continue to get stuck in the old paradigm discussions, but I want to see the conversation shift.

The more of us who speak out and share our visions, the more we can structure it and create it. “The Paper Chase” defined an era, and it remains a good movie. But I prefer to think of it as an historical relic. I’m not quite ready to see “Legally Blond” be the new paradigm, but I know it is time for something new.

How have you seen your profession, whatever it is, change over time? What vision do you have for it going forward? Please share in the comments. I would love to see what others are thinking, and I think sharing together will help shift the field.


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The fight-or-flight response done right

This post could also be called “A reminder that stress is good.” It is very common to hear people talk about the dangers of stress. But we rarely talk about why we have stress and the good place it has in our lives. The truth is that we would not be here as a species if it were not for stress. Another way to explain stress is the fight-or-flight response. When teaching Stress Management for Lawyers (or Professionals), I have often used the hunter-gatherer scenario. But this week I got my own reminder of the good stress can do in our lives.

When I was applying for the Fulbright scholarship to study family law, I was trying to decide between applying in New Zealand and applying in Australia. There are many reasons I chose New Zealand, but one of them was the lack of large animals that cause significant injury. While Australia is full of spiders and snakes and unimaginable creatures that can kill you in an instant, New Zealand has nothing of the sort. Their spiders are friendly, and they have no land snakes. None. Plus, they have penguins.

It was during a search for said penguins where I had my “stress is good for you” reminder. I live in Dunedin, New Zealand, which is the country’s fourth largest city, and it is known for rowdy students and cold flats (that’s housing to us non-Commonwealth folk). It also is connected to the Otago Peninsula, one of the greatest places to see penguins, fur seals, Royal Albatross, diverse marine bird life, and sea lions. The easiest place to see the penguins without a tour is by going to a beach inhabited by many sea lions. I have been there twice this week.

The first time I went, the Department of Conservation volunteer gave us the instructions, which included: stay 10 metres away from the sea lions and 200 metres away from the penguins. She also told us what to do if for some reason a sea lion starts charging. I heard the word run, but for the life of me cannot remember if she said RUN or DON’T RUN!!! This is why we need to talk in positives! Most of the time, sea lions look like logs on the beach. And even when they are moving about, they are so used to humans they don’t do anything but give us funny looks.

This is an example of what not to do around sea lions!

But sometimes they want to “play.” While walking down the beach, my friend and I saw a female sea lion playing with a male sea lion. We kept our distance and just kept walking toward the penguin viewing hide. About 30 minutes later, having not seen any penguins, we started walking back up the beach. That’s when the female sea lion took an interest in us. That’s when she started “playing.” I don’t know about you, but playing with a 300-pound creature with really large teeth is just not on my list of things to do . . . so we ran. Then we stopped and held our ground. According to my friend, I “held my ground” while walking backwards. The sea lion kept following.

Luckily for us, there was a sand bluff, and my friend is a runner. She ran up the bluff, and the sea lion attempted to follow her. By then, she was already exhausted, and she just sort of collapsed. That was good because I was not on high ground, though by then I was farther away from her. (For the record, I did not want to leave my friend, but the sea lion managed to get between us because I’m such a slow runner, so it was safer for us to split up, but my friend and I could see each other the entire time.)

We both, or I should say all, escaped unharmed, but my friend and I ran about halfway down the beach before we finally stopped (and before she almost tripped over one of the males lying lazily on the beach looking like a big log).

Then we got to the other side of the beach, and there was a penguin up on the rocks (yes, they climb, and it’s really quite impressive). There were, of course, several more sea lions near us, but they were asleep and ignoring us. I said to my friend, “my adrenaline is coming down.” Her response was, “mine came down awhile ago.”

And that, my friends, is stress done right. We have a stress response to save our lives. We are supposed to fight or flight, and I have to remember to look up which one it is for my next trip to the beach. We are supposed to get excited and stressed at times. But the stress is also supposed to dissipate when the problem goes away. We are supposed to come down from it.

Penguin! It's the blue/black blob to the right of the green bushes.

The problem in the modern world is that so many of us live in a state of constant, or chronic, stress. The stress hormones never come down. We never get a chance to come out of the stress response and back to a state of calm. And perhaps more importantly, if we are in a constant state of stress, what happens when the really big event occurs, and we need the benefits of stress, but we are already so burnt out we cannot muster any more of the good stress? That is when we end up “playing” with sea lions instead of blogging about what is, in retrospect, a really funny experience.

How would looking at stress as a good thing change your perspective?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Is your head on straight?

Do you sit at a desk a lot? Do you carry a bag on one shoulder? Do you use a cell phone without a blue tooth? Is your head on straight? I mean this literally, of course.

Generally speaking, the head should be directly above and between the shoulders when the neck is neutral or comfortable. Ideally for the spine, the ears are directly over the shoulders, and the chin is about parallel to the floor. But have you ever looked at a person sitting at a computer? General computer head placement has the jaw reaching forward toward the computer screen and the ears inches closer to the screen than the shoulders. And I’m not sure why, but many people tilt their heads to one side or the other.

Are you wondering where your neck strain originates?

In a recent yoga class (ok, two recent yoga classes), my teacher looked at me lying in savasana and informed me my head was tilted to the right. When she finally told me it was straight, it felt wrong. I felt like I was leaning to my left, and there was a ton of pressure on the left side of my head. But then a funny thing happened. My neck, jaw, eyes, and back all started to relax.

When we place the neck in a compromising position, we pull everything out of alignment. The rest of the body has to compensate, so our shoulders move up to our ears, one side of the rib cage takes more strain, or we pull up on our lower back causing it to hurt. Oh, and of course the jaw tightens to compensate for the overworked neck muscles.

So what can we do about it? This post is part of the series At the Desk, but this tip needs to be first done away from the desk – at a mirror, unless of course you have a mirror at your desk. But stand in front of a mirror for a few minutes and instead of noticing the bags under your eyes or your pasty skin from being inside all winter (sure signs you have been writing a thesis for too long), notice whether your head is on straight. Trust the mirror and your eyes, even though the neck might feel funny.

Then hold the neck in a truly neutral position for 1-2 minutes. How does your neck feel? How does the rest of your body feel?

Then head back to the desk, and remind yourself over and over again to keep your head on straight. It is one of the hardest things for me to do at the desk, but I constantly remind myself to put my ears over my shoulders and ensure the spine is straight.

Is your head on straight?


Is your head on straight? 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.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

“You’d be proud of me”

I hear this from people frequently. When they go an entire day of eating healthy, or when they go to a yoga class, people will often say to me, “you’d be proud of me.” It always makes me cringe.

We live in a world where people are always seeking the approval of other people. How many lawyers or doctors do you know who went to law school or medical school because that is what they were expected to do? How many of us actually questioned whether university should immediately follow a high school graduation? That is what was expected, so we did it. We played by the rules.

In many ways, it is easier to live life our lives when they have been designed by someone else. We do not have to think too hard about it. I remember graduating from law school thinking, “this is the first time I have had to make a conscious decision about what to do with my life. Before this, everything has just fallen into place.” And then my first job (thankfully) fell into place, and the cycle has continued.

Law is one of those professions where we want to make someone proud of us. We have mentors and colleagues and judges and clients we must constantly try to impress. When I took the California bar exam, my biggest fear was not that I would not pass it, but that I would let down the people who had made it possible for me to take it in the first place. (For the record, I did not have a job in California, so passing or not did not affect me or my livelihood.)

But is this situation healthy? Does it serve us? Personally, I do not think so.

Yoga is about going inside; it is about finding out what you need in the moment, not yesterday or tomorrow, but now. A few weeks ago, I listened to a guided meditation, and the teacher stated (rather emphatically, I might add), “when you close the eyes, you are going inside. Some people close the eyes to block out the outside, but in mediation, we close the eyes to see what is on the inside.” His tone turned me off, but his message has stayed with me.

On some level, I appreciate when people say, “you’d be proud of me” to me. It makes me feel like we have a connection worth continuing. We are close enough that we care about the other person’s opinion and want to share ways we connect. The assumption is, I think, that I would be proud because it is something I do as well and something I take seriously, which is why people say this to me most often when it involves food choices or yoga.

But I cringe because it also implies people feel I am being judgmental, or that we are all judgmental. It implies we need others to be proud of us to do things that are generally “good.” But what I would really love to see is people determining what works for them. It should come as no surprise that I think yoga can be good for everyone, but that does not mean I think everyone should do yoga. 

I am the last person who will say that what others think should never matter. I believe we live in a world together for a reason, and we need to understand and respect each other in that world, so what we think and do together is vitally important. But when it comes to the internal, when it comes to “being proud” of your life choices, I know I am going to be most “proud” when we all start asking ourselves what works best for us – not superficially, but deeply.

I get giddy when I meet people doing yoga for the first time. I realized recently, however, that it’s not because there is another person out there doing yoga. It’s because there is another person ready to try something new to see if it works for them. I hope those people are proud of themselves. Rather than seeking approval from the external world, or pushing it away when it becomes too overwhelming, what if we closed our eyes and asked ourselves, “what would make me proud of me?”


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.