Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Beginning

Welcome to 2012! I am still a bit in shock that this year has arrived. It feels like only yesterday I was writing a post about my intention (rather than resolution) to stay open to all the possibilities New Zealand held in store. Now, back in the United States, it is time to reflect on that and set a new intention for 2012, a new chapter for sure.

I wrote in the 2011 New Year’s post about not knowing where I would be living 5 days after arriving in New Zealand. I ended up being invited to stay where I lived the first four nights, and that home turned into a friendship and eventually a house-sitting opportunity. I tell this story not because it matters to anyone where I lived while in New Zealand, but it perfectly illustrates what being open to new possibilities brings into life. It brings us opportunities we never imagined possible, but that open doors to places the universe wants us to go. My 10.5 months in New Zealand was opportunity after opportunity like that. 

For me, 2012 is full of new adventures, the most obvious, of course, being the new job. As I mentioned in the first post about the new job, I have no idea how this is going to go. The first week was rough, really rough, but it was only the first week. Going forward, however, seems scary and unknowable, and not in the exciting way that was the new possibilities of a new country, especially one as beautiful as New Zealand. But there is a different kind of excitement and opportunity that comes with doing the work I have been preparing to do for nearly half of my life.

So this year’s intention is to trust myself. It was difficult to even type that. It was difficult to trust myself enough to think it possible to trust myself going forward.

But this is where the practice, the yoga, becomes the most important. For years, I have been growing the yoga bucket, filling it with tools that can hopefully work when it really matters. The real test is not whether we can practice when the going is easy. The real test is not whether we can meditate at a retreat or on a mountain top away from life. The real question is whether we can remember to respond rather than react when we feel like life is beating us over the head with a baseball bat. It is in those moments that it is most necessary to have a full yoga bucket.

And as we learn to live in a state of composure in the most difficult circumstances, we learn to trust ourselves. In many ways, learning to trust ourselves is learning to be open to internal possibilities rather than external possibilities. Rather than trusting the external world to present opportunities, we trust ourselves to know what needs to be done. So, I guess this year's intention is not so different from last year's, but the focus, the nexus is slightly different. 

For me, yoga has made trusting myself (and the universe) easier, but certainly not easy. Prior to leaving New Zealand, I had started a daily meditation practice. It was just ten minutes per day, but I can feel a huge difference having let it slide these past three weeks. That is part of my necessary yoga bucket, the refill I need to go inside enough to trust myself. So, while I do not want to make a resolution to meditate every day, I put forward this intention: to trust myself and the path I am on. I'm going to stay open to trusting the universe to present the how. 

What is your intention for this new year? Happy 2012! May the year be full of love and peace.


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved. 

Friday, December 30, 2011

Being a Yoga Lawyer

"I am a lawyer." Those words used to be hard for me to say. They are especially hard around yogis and those who tend to shun mainstream definitions of success. For a long time, I would answer the question, "what do you do?" with "I work for a judge," but that is no longer true. I am now, officially, a lawyer.

The other day, in a yoga class, someone asked me that question, and I said it, "I am a lawyer." Her response was simple, "I don't like lawyers." She then went on to clarify that I am not THAT kind of lawyer, but I got her point. It has been made to me many times.

Lawyers are simply unloved to many people.

This is unfortunate on many levels. First, I do not believe that because I represent children I do good law and those who represent corporations do bad law. We all do law, and there is a place and need for all of it in the world. I worked at a commercial law firm one summer. I learned two very important lessons: the people working there were great people doing their best for their clients, and that was not my path in life. It just did not speak to me, but I enjoyed my summer there nonetheless. I enjoyed seeing how corporate law works, and it fundamentally changed my view on the world in which we live.

Second, it is difficult to be in a profession so despised by so many. There is a reason lawyers have the highest incidence of substance abuse of any profession. The work is stressful, but even more stressful is constantly defending what you do to other people. It gets tiring to keep repeating, “not all lawyers are like that,” or “I’m sorry you had a bad experience with a lawyer. That should never happen.” I find myself ignoring people who say that, or worse, becoming defensive. And that brings me to the third point.

Third, the assumption by so many people that all lawyers are awful actually undermines the profession’s ability to deal with those who truly are problematic. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is actually basic human nature. When we feel attacked, our first response is not to say, “you’re right, there is a problem.” Instead, we turn on all defenses. We enter into the emotional fight-or-flight response, which similar to the physiological fight-or-flight response, shuts down all “non-essential” processes in us, and in this case, that means rationally recognizing there are problematic people in the legal profession. Instead, we go into defense mode and just want to find a way to survive.

This is not to say that is the response of all lawyers. By contrast, most lawyers would probably tell you there are some people in the profession who do not play by the rules, or who manipulate the rules to always work in their favor. The truth is that most lawyers are good people and good lawyers, and they exist in all types of the law. But with each rational conversation about how there are honest and less-than-honest members of all professions, it becomes more difficult to have the long conversation knowing it is probably just going to end with the person saying, “yeah, but I still don’t like lawyers.” It just becomes easier to say nothing or get defensive about the work. And as the criticism comes from all sides, it becomes more difficult to filter the true criticism from the hyperbole.

This week, for the first time, I signed a document under my own bar number. I have done a lot of law before this week, but I have always been able to get around the phrase, “I’m a lawyer.” Not anymore. I want to be able to be proud of what I do. I want to be able to tell people I am a lawyer without the look in their eye, or the response, “it’s good to know there are a few lawyers doing good work.” And yes, I want the lawyers manipulating the system to stop. But those are actually separate things.

I started this blog because in the yoga world I was embarrassed to be a lawyer, and in the lawyer world, I was embarrassed to be a yogi. Two and a half years ago (has it really been that long?), I thought it would be easier to be a lawyer in the yoga world. Funnily enough, this blog and other connections, have introduced me to the vast, and I do mean vast, world of lawyers who not only have an asana practice but who practice yoga on many levels. The yogis, however, have been harder to convince. And it does not stop with the yogis. It has been the discussion with so many people.

But with all that having been said, I am glad I chose this work. If nothing else, I finally understand how our political structure became so polarized - on both sides. It is unfortunate because we all have a lot we can learn from one another.


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The First Day

Tomorrow, I start a new job in which I will be representing children who have been removed from their parents because of abuse or neglect. 

During law school, I participated in a law school clinic focused on representing children in abuse and neglect cases. Since then, I have worked for the presiding family court judge who became the presiding juvenile court judge while I worked for her, another judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, and done contract work for several family law lawyers. In addition, I just spent a year studying the role of lawyers for children and written a thesis about the topic.

I have been doing yoga for almost 10 years and seriously for more than five. I graduated from Yoga Teacher Training in April 2010, and I have been teaching fairly consistently since then. If it is not abundantly obvious from this blog, yoga means far more to me than asana and breathing. It is a way of life, and my years of practice have fundamentally redefined how I view each and every day. In the most general and superficial sense, yoga has helped me see life through a sense of adventure rather than a sense of fear.

So why am I so afraid to start work as a children’s lawyer? After all, as everyone keeps reminding me, “it’s the perfect job for me.”

Energetically, fear and excitement are the same. We do, however, interpret them differently. In many ways, for me, my first day doing this work is the first day I have to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk. More importantly, I have been studying and learning about children, families, abuse, and neglect for so long that now I know just how much damage can be done to a family by the lawyer taking a wrong step. I don’t want to be that lawyer.

So yes, I’m nervous. But I’m also excited. I get to work with some of my favorite people in Tucson. I get to live back in Tucson, a city I took a few years to love, and then missed terribly for the past two years. I get to be back with some of my favorite yoga people, those who first introduced me to the holistic world it has created for me. And in this economy, I get to work at all. I seem to have hit the jackpot.

This job means seeing some of the most down-and-out people in society, but it also means getting to work with them to better understand their situation and how to break free of it. This is when the yoga becomes most important. It is through yoga that I have learned to stop and notice the everyday beauty in the world, to not take anything for granted, and to be grateful each and every moment. Remembering to refill the yoga bucket is essential when so much of the non-yoga bucket will be full of discussions about abuse and neglect.

The yoga bucket will also be there to remind me that some days there is no right answer. There is, however, always a way to care. There is always a way to share your heart with a child. There is always a way to smile. Some days, that is the best we have to give, and often, that is exactly what is most necessary.

New Zealand was an amazing opportunity to learn about lawyers for children, to see a new system, and to talk to people who have done this work in one of the most progressive systems in the world for years. It was also an opportunity to see unmatched, and often untouched, beauty. Now it is time to put all these years of study and watching to the test. It is time to walk the walk.

So with fear and excitement bubbling together within me, I start a new job. I have a feeling there will be a lot of posts to come about the need for yoga in law.


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Darkest Night of the Year

December 21 was the winter solstice. In the northern hemisphere, it was the longest night of the year, while in the southern hemisphere, it was the longest day of the year. This means that two weeks ago I was going to sleep in daylight, and this week I’m eating early-bird specials in darkness. (For the record, yes I go to bed early, and no, I do not really eat early-bird specials.)

This is a roundabout way of saying that being back in the northern hemisphere has been difficult. I have had jet lag like never before, and I have had significant trouble sleeping. I also have not been doing a lot of yoga, of any variety.

Instead, I have been living out of suitcases, driving from northern California to Arizona, trying to find things I left behind a year ago, trying to catch up with friends, preparing for presentations, finishing the final bits of my thesis, and preparing to start a job on Tuesday. And even then I will be living with other people until I can move into my own place in early January.

And yes, I can feel that I have not been doing yoga. Prior to coming back to the United States, I had started and maintained a daily meditation practice for nearly three months. I took at least ten minutes per day just to sit and meditate. Somehow the northern hemisphere took it out of me. I still do a bit of mediation each day, and I attempt to meditate while standing in lines, sitting at red lights, etc. Those moments become precious. But somehow the daily practice at the same time each day faded with the daylight.

But what does the solstice have to do with any of this? It explains perfectly the body-mind connection and what happens when it gets disconnected, at least in me. My mind may be back to “normal.” It is, after all, normal to me that December is winter and the days are short. But my body is utterly confused. Although my mind never quite got used to the frost in June, the snow in August, or the spring leaves next to a Christmas tree, my body was very used to the sunlight, and ripping it out of that was not easy.

Christmas Tree in Wellington with new tree growth. 

The body being off completely threw the mind for a loop, and here I am over a week later, finally having gone to a yoga class, and finally having slept through the night. And now each day is going to get longer again. 

There is beauty in the solstice. It is a reminder that seasons change, and it reflects our own changes. But it is also a struggle. It is when the Earth is at its most extreme, and that takes a toll on each and every one of us. We are not disconnected from the Earth, and its changes affect us a great deal. Recognizing those changes is, sometimes, half the battle. For about a week, I could not figure out why I was so tired, but then I realized it was the abrupt change in seasons.

The good news is that the darkest night of the year reminds us of something else – the next day is the day when the light starts shining more each and every day. Happy Solstice, and happy holidays!


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Doing Something “Special”

I am back in the United States. It feels strange, but not as strange as I expected, but that is not where I want to focus today’s post. Instead, I want to look back at a conversation I had in Greymouth, the last city I visited on my final trip around the South Island.

By that point in my trip I had already reflected personally and reflected with my fellow Fulbrighters on our experience. For all of us, it was life changing. But something was nagging at me. Something deeper than the experiences, amazing as they were. Why do we need to go to the other side of the world as part of an incredible honor in order to feel our lives have changed?

I am in a unique situation because I am going to the same job I would have started 15 months ago if I had not spent 10 months in New Zealand. But of course our lives are not determined solely by how we earn a living. I could write a book on the ways this experience changed my life. I could write a book on why this entire experience was “special.”

But the nagging feeling remained, and it came into clarity while talking to a fellow traveler in Greymouth. I was talking to a fellow traveler who was less than enthralled by New Zealand (that shocked me enough, but is also not the point of the post). She was traveling as part of a bus tour, and as she reflected on each of the places she had visited, she asked out loud, “what did I do special there?”

Each city in New Zealand is known for something. Waitomo is known for black water rafting and glow worm caves, Rotorua is known for sulphur pools and Maori cultural shows, and Dunedin is known for penguins and sea lions (among other things). And don’t ask about Queenstown, the “adventure capital of the world!” So my fellow traveler was trying to remember what she had done unique in each city, what had been special.

Then the yogi in me came out, and it explains the nagging feeling I have had about the issue whether the Fulbright experience changed my life. Should not every moment, every day be special? Why must we do something in order for it to be special?

Mt. Cook - one of the many places that reminded me how special each moment is.

Each day, each interaction, each moment represents an opportunity to be special and meaningful. We can hold out waiting for something special to occur and define our lives by those events, or we can attempt to make each moment special and unique. Usually we think about these issues after major disasters or when someone is dying or has died. But why wait for those moments? Do we really need death and destruction to remind us how valuable each moment in our lives really is?

There is no question that my 10.5 months in New Zealand changed who I am. I had an amazing time and saw unparalleled beauty in both nature and people. Being part of the Fulbright program was one of the greatest honors of my life, and I plan to go forward constantly asking myself if I can live up to the vision Senator William Fulbright had for people who travel the world because of his vision. It absolutely changed my life. But I also know that the people who spent the last year working where I would have worked also saw their lives change in dramatic ways. Our experiences were different, but neither was more or less change-worthy than the other.

I do not see this as downplaying how meaningful the Fulbright experience was for me, and I would like to share more about that (and encourage more lawyers to apply), but it is to say that I hope to continue to look at each day as significant, just like spending time reflecting in the New Zealand bush and along the western side of the Pacific Ocean.

How about a new question? How about instead of asking ourselves what we did that was special in a special place, we ask ourselves how we can ensure that we notice the unique specialness of each and every moment?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Final Lesson from the New Zealand Bush

I ended my epic adventure around New Zealand’s south island in what is perhaps the least exciting and interesting place on the island – Greymouth. It is the largest city on the West Coast, a part of the country known for rugged beaches and rugged people. It is wet. The weather can change in an instant. And it looks out over the awesome Tasman Sea. And I use the awesome in the sense of awe-inspiring. New Zealand is a place where "least interesting" is still amazing in its own right.

The Great Tasman Sea

I am glad I ended my trip in Greymouth. After the sheer beauty of the rest of the trip, it was a nice reminder that New Zealand is not all gorgeous snow-capped mountains and lakes that defy any definition of blue I had ever before imagined. But even in Greymouth, I was able to see the parts of New Zealand I am going to miss. I think chief among those is the New Zealand bush.

Here in New Zealand, what we Americans would call a forest, they call the bush. It is full of trees and plants found only in New Zealand, birds chirping, and my absolute favorite – the koru (Maori word for the birth of a fern), but that is a topic for another day. Today I want to talk about mud. That’s right – with all the mountains, oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, and forests, I want to talk about mud.

You have to understand, I am not a fan of mud. It’s wet, and I don’t particularly like water. It’s cold, and I don’t like being cold. It’s squishy, and that’s just, well, gross.

It may come as a surprise that I decided to walk into a NZ rainforest, up a big hill, in my non-hiking shoes, especially considering they have holes in them. Let’s just say I did not think this through very well. Back when it snowed in Dunedin, I talked about how we can face anything life throwsour way when we prepare. But what happens when you are stuck walking through mud in a pair of holey shoes? It’s simple, really. You put one foot in front of the other and keep on moving.

With each step into the squishy, wet, cold mud, I cared less and less that my shoes, socks, and even pants were getting dirty. The shoes had been destroyed for awhile, and I was already planning to get rid of them, and socks and pants can be washed. My aversion to the mud lessened, and I was able to enjoy the walk, enjoy being in the NZ bush, and enjoy looking out over an overcast view of the great Tasman Sea.

I told you they were gross

Like many lawyers, I tend to be a bit Type A. Yoga has definitely helped me slow down, relax, and enjoy the world around me a bit more. But as much as I have talked about these lessons off the mat, it took a month without much asana to actually find these lessons all around. It took hiking in rain, walking over swing bridges, and hiking through mud to realize our general aversions matter a lot less than the beauty that surrounds us each day.

I still think it is better to be prepared and ready for what life might throw our way. But I have also learned that when we are not prepared for particulars, the more our reserve bucket is full of internal preparations, the better we really can cope with anything. Sure, all I had to cope with was a bit of rain, a lot of wind, and some nasty mud, but a year ago, these things would have brought me to tears (or at least close). Now they bring a smile to my face and a sigh, “yup, I’m in New Zealand!”

I finished writing this while sitting at the Auckland airport waiting to board my flight back to the United States, and the departure screen listing the flights telling everyone what to do is right in front of me. The flight for San Francisco currently says, “Relax.” Fitting, really. A year of being upside down and trying to find yoga in everyday life on the other side of the world has taught me that we can learn to relax, smile, and remember that we can handle whatever life throws our way.

 Departure Information

Kia Ora, New Zealand! I will be back, but until then . . .


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

A year of gratitude

If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is "thank you," that would suffice. 
– Meister Eckhart

I wanted to write this post after Thanksgiving because as much as I love Thanksgiving, I would prefer to see the same type of gratitude fill our lives each day, rather than one particular day per year. Just before I came to New Zealand, I read a book called, 365 Thank Yous. It is a book written by a judge in CA about a year of writing thank you notes. While I had begun to focus on gratitude before reading the book, reading it sufficiently focused my attention for the entire time I have been in New Zealand. Gratitude became the foundation for my thoughts, rather than an afterthought. After nearly a year here, I can say it has made all the difference.

There are few things as important as saying thank you and recognizing all we have in life for which we can be grateful. My list from my time in New Zealand could fill a book, so I will spare you all the details, but I can tell you it runs the gamut from the random people who have offered me rides without my even knowing them when the walking conditions were long and difficult (and it happened again after writing this but before posting it), to a supervisor whose vision for my thesis exceeded anything I ever dreamed possible, to friends and family new and old who made the lonely times on the other side of the world far less lonely, to everyone who reads this blog, to Kiwi hospitality, to Fulbright New Zealand and the US Embassy for keeping me safe post-earthquake. I am grateful for all the people who helped me get here and all the people who have made my stay here not only informative but amazing beyond words. Oh, the list could go on and on . . .

But why does it matter if we feel gratitude? Why does it matter if we remember to say thank you to the people who help us out along the way? The second question may be easier to answer, and it is very, very simple. Saying thank you when someone offers you a kindness is simple respect and good manners. A bit silly to say, perhaps, but how often do we forget to do it? How often do we just expect that someone, or an organization, is there to provide for us, and we forget that there are still people involved in the process?

Do you thank bus drivers? Waiters? Janitorial staff? Do you thank people for gifts? Kind words? An ear when you need someone to listen? Do you thank other lawyers when they pick up the phone to let you know you made a mistake instead of filing a motion? Two simple words, maybe a quick email, or maybe even a short card are all it takes, but the act of saying thank you helps the person notice you took a moment to care and acknowledge that they did something for you. It helps them see that they matter to you.

But what about the first question? Why does it matter to us if we feel gratitude? That goes back to the power of positivity, the power ofthe mind. There is no question that if you want to see unhappiness and destruction in the world, you can find it. We can also choose to focus on it. But then we just start seeing only that bitterness. If, however, we focus on the gratitude, we start to see just how amazing life really is.

I cannot tell you the number of times people have offered to give me a hand (or a lift) when I needed it. People have taken time from their incredibly busy schedules to explain the NZ family law system to me, helped me send out surveys to the lawyers for children, helped me get ethics approval, asked me tough questions about my thesis, given me a bed or a meal, or just offered a smile and a bit of old-fashioned Kiwi friendliness.

I’m going to need these memories going forward. At the end of this month, I start my new job representing children who have been removed from their parents by the government because of abuse and/or neglect. Words cannot express how grateful I am for the job and the people with whom I will be working, but there is no denying that working in that field can make me question humanity at times (and not always because of the parents’ actions).

All lawyers live in a mindset of disaster cleanup and disaster prevention. We are trained to expect the worst. Perhaps, therefore, it is even more necessary for lawyers to take a moment to reflect on gratitude and remember the good that does exist in the world. But really, for everyone, as the news gets more dramatic and depressing, remembering all the reasons we have to be grateful is not only good, but vital, to our survival.

So, outside of the week of Thanksgiving, for what are you grateful? What little moments, events, and people remind you of the good in the world?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In Our Element

As I have mentioned many times here before, yoga has helped me tune in with the natural world a bit better. Perhaps it is because I simply pay more attention, but I actually think I understand and feel the natural world more. I also crave it more. If for no other reason, that is one of the best parts of being in New Zealand. The natural world abounds here like nowhere else I have ever been.

Of course, that can have consequences, as I mentioned in thepost describing where I was attacked by a sea lion. But more often, I find I learn something about the world, and about myself without having to fear for my life . . . too much. The other day, I was kayaking in yet another of the beautiful cities in New Zealand, Kaikoura. In Kaikoura, snow-capped mountains meet native bush meet Pacific Ocean.

This was my first time kayaking, and as I mentioned before, swimming is not something I do well, so I guess I was putting myself slightly into harm’s way, but once nice thing about traveling alone is that when you do crazy things like kayaking, you often end up being paired with the guide, as I was. (As a digression, he did almost capsize the boat a few times while looking for paua [abalone] for his dinner that night and when he stood up in the boat to look at a crayfish cage, but we did not capsize, and I got back to shore without getting wet.)

We were hoping to see the orcas that had graced the coastline earlier in the day, but they were nowhere to be seen, even when the seals got in the water. Oh well. But it was from the seals that I learned my lesson. Seals are incredibly playful and with romp and swim with humans while in the water. On land, however, they are aggressive and dangerous and according to several signs around town, they will inflict “infectious bites.”

So what’s the difference?

On land, the seals feel vulnerable. They do not move as quickly as they do in water, and in the very recent past, they were hunted to near extinction while lounging and sunning away on the rocks. In water, however, they are quick, secure, and in their element. It is almost as though they have multiple personality disorder when it comes to interacting with humans, but really, it is about feeling safe.

A seal playing in the water near our kayak (next to some massive kelp)

Humans, and indeed lawyers especially, are no different. When we feel threatened, we become aggressive, inconsiderate, and sometimes vicious. While we will not (hopefully) inflict gangrene on anyone through a nasty bite, our interactions are infectious, and combined with misunderstanding and confusion, lead to the downward spiral of our relationships (and our emailexchanges).

But when we are in our element, when we feel secure and understand ourselves well enough, we can handle the exact same situation with more ease and control. We know that humans are the same whether they are in the water or on land, but to seals, the two experiences are entirely different. Filing a motion, replying to an email, and having a conversation with your boss are all the same situations whether we feel secure or do not, but our responses to them very significantly depending on how secure we feel.

In many ways, yoga and all I have learned from it have helped me find that sense of security more often. I certainly do not feel it always (and I know of no one that does), but the ability to respond rather thanreact becomes easier over time. In that way, yoga has helped me find my element and become more playful rather than aggressive. Apparently, however, I still bring out the aggression in others when they are not in their element (though sea lions are different than seals).

Do you notice a difference in your responses when you are in your element vs. when you are not? What do you do to bring yourself into your element and safety?


© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.