Saturday, March 26, 2011

Let it go and start afresh

Modern life, especially modern life in an office, means detachment from nature and its cycles. We wake up in a house, walk into a car, walk into an office, then back into the car and back into the house. Sunshine, rain, and wind fail to change how our days progress. Weather and changing seasons matter little from the 20th floor of an office building. Working in Phoenix in the summer, I had to carry a winter coat to work because it was so cold inside the building even though it was 110 degrees outside. But the Earth shifts and changes, and it has a lot to teach us if we tune in.

This week, however, we had an equinox, one of the four times a year when the seasons officially change, and for a brief moment, we think about the earth and its cycles. Generally, I think only of the seasons changing in the northern hemisphere. From my brief internet research, about 90% of the world’s population lives in the northern hemisphere. Here in New Zealand, however, we just celebrated the fall equinox. As the world’s bloggers were talking about rebirth, I am watching the sky turn gray and the weather turn cold. It does not feel like the rebirth the rest of the world is experiencing.

But yoga provides another perspective. The equinoxes are the points of transition for the Earth. They are our reminders that as one part of the world is in a state of rebirth, the other is in a state of shedding that which does not support it. As the leaves fall off the trees and the wind starts to blow stronger, we know that on the other side of winter, we will be experiencing the rebirth that we see in the northern hemisphere. In other words, we notice the cycle, the same cycle that affects us whether we pay attention or not.

But this recognition that the Earth goes through both stages at once is our reminder that so do we, as individuals. We can get stuck in our northern hemisphere view that it is spring, or we can open up and feel that at all moments, we are struggling to find the balance between letting go and rebirth. The image that keeps coming to mind is the phoenix, who must burn into ashes and from those ashes is reborn into a strong bird once again.

So, even though we see and experience only one or the other at a time, either spring or fall, both are impacting the Earth at the same time, and therefore both are affecting each and every one of us. Yoga is a reminder to tune back into the changing patterns of the Earth and ourselves. As we take the time to notice our own bodies, our own breath, and our own reactions to life, we can learn to tune into the way the Earth’s cycles affect us.

Yoga also teaches us about balance. There are particular balance postures, where you are standing on one foot, but there is also the balance between strength and flexibility, the balance between responding and reacting, and the balance between tuning in to our internal awareness and being affected by that which hits us externally.

Thus, it may be easy to ignore the cycles of the Earth, to go from the house to the car to the office where you need a winter coat even though it is sauna-like outside. But for a moment, tune in and notice that the Earth is able to hold letting go and rebirth together, as it transitions to fall down below and spring up above. What areas of your life do you want to allow to fall off, burn to ashes, so you can allow them to rebirth into something stronger and more useful to you?

Happy Fall and Happy Spring.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Being upside down

While this blog does not specifically focus on asana (yoga postures), I am trying to put more explanation of asana in as a way to ground the blog in some various ideas. Thus, I have talked about Vrksasana (tree pose) and Tadasana (mountain pose), and today I want to talk about inversions and being upside down.

Today is the Autumn Equinox in New Zealand, yet in the northern hemisphere, it is the Spring Equinox. This is the first change of seasons I have experienced on the underbelly of the Earth. What does this mean for yoga? For law? For life?  It means that once again my life feels turned upside down.

Being upside down forces us to see the world from a different point of view. It helps us understand that our way of seeing the world is not necessarily right, but sometimes we have to “look right” to realize that. The other night, I took a walk to see the glorious full moon, and as I looked up at the sky, it looked slightly different – I could see the Southern Cross constellation, which is only visible from the southern hemisphere. This is really the only visual reminder of being in the southern hemisphere, but it is stark, and that is why it graces the flags of both New Zealand and Australia.

In a typical yoga class (aka not too advanced), teachers will often teach two different inversions – salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and sirshasana (headstand). Technically, though, an inversion is any pose where your head is below your heart, so even uttanasana (standing forward bend) is an inversion. Thus, inversion postures are not necessarily physically demanding, and their health benefits are almost too numerous to recite. By forcing blood to flow upstream, so to speak, we aid our immune systems, improve digestion, calm the nervous system, relieve back pain, improve circulation, and perhaps most important for lawyers and modern westerners – reduce dis-stress. To put it bluntly, inversions are good for the body.

Inversions are also good for the mind, and much more so than just relieving the chronic stress that runs so many of our lives. Inversions are one of the best paths to learning empathy, to learning to understand others and their points of view. As previously noted, empathy is “Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.” Contagious yawning occurs as a result of our ability to empathize, and a recent study found that children do not begin to yawn when others around them do until about age 4. Empathy, therefore, is something we learn, something that we can cultivate within us.

Inversions help us cultivate empathy by literally forcing us to see the world from a different perspective. We step out of our comfort zones and look at the world through a new set of eyes, often with blood rushing to our brains making us feel for a moment like we might lose our senses, but then realizing that we are safe, and we can just be there. When we breathe into inversions, they are calming, and we can learn that even when life seems like it is going to rush to our brains and kill our sense of understanding, we can be calm within it. We can breathe, and we can even find empathy.

Looking up at the night sky and seeing the Southern Cross is a great reminder that sometimes life throws you upside down without you expecting it, but cultivating the ability to hold that space, breathe, and then using the time to understand how others might react is a step toward increasing our mutual understanding and limiting the occurrences of the downward spiral of email.

What have inversions taught you? What is your favorite inversion?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Presence of a Mountain

In the last post, I discussed the difference between living in disaster mode, as lawyers are often required to do, and living in the present, lest we create disasters within ourselves. Talking about being present, however, is different than being present. In theory, it is easy to discuss, but how do we do it?

On my Facebook page, I have a daily weekday tip, and each week has a theme / intention. This week’s intention is “remaining present.” On Wednesdays, we focus on an asana that exemplifies the week’s intention. This week’s asana is Mountain Pose or Tadasana.

Like trees, mountains have a lot to teach us, and mountain pose embodies the attributes of a mountain. Mountains are often created by earthquakes and volcanoes, the very environmental situations dominating our lives these past few weeks. The Southern Alps, running across New Zealand’s south island, have been created by the coming together of the Pacific Plate and the Indo-Australian Plate, which lie along the Pacific Rim of Fire, which has been causing all the recent activity. At any moment, these plates can create another earthquake moving the mountains and changing their structure.

But when the plates are not moving, the mountains just exist. They majestically rise up, holding steady, looking strong against the sky. While I have no research to back up the statement, I would argue that most people are awed by mountains. From Mt. Olympus, where the Greek Gods lived, to Mt. Sinai upon which Moses was provided the Ten Commandments, mountains hold a strong place in our lives and our collective stories.

In many ways, tadasana could be described as a simple pose and not very physically demanding. It could be described simply as standing. It is, however, like so much of yoga, not about outward appearance; it is about what is going on inside. Tadasana is about finding the inner strength of a mountain and rooting down through the feet, feeling deep into the Earth and then lifting the crown of your head up, straight above the spine, like the peaks of our grandest mountains. It is about finding grace and strength, all while “simply standing” and being present.

Interestingly, our greatest lesson of Tadasana may come from English. In English, “tada” is what we say when we want to call attention to something, to create fanfare but also for accomplishment and pride. It is a word of presence, of becoming present to the extraordinary. Thus, in an interesting play on words having nothing to do with mountains, the English explanation “tada” is about presence, and Tadasana, Mountain Pose, is about bringing us to the present.

Tadasana has one more purpose. It is a posture of its own, but it is also the posture from which all standing postures begin and to which we return after each standing posture. It is the place where we regroup, find our breath, and find our center. No matter where we go, whether it be a sun salutation, a balance posture, or a warrior sequence, we come back to the steady concentration of the mountain. When we are on the mat, tadasana is our home, it is our sense of presence.

Tadasana, therefore, can bring us back to the present moment at any time. We can invoke the power and grace and majesty of a mountain. No matter how scattered and crazy life gets, the mountain just gets more stable. It reaches higher to the sky with each shake of the underlying tectonic plates, and it becomes even more beautiful to view. We can embrace this power when we feel scattered, when we feel like the world is falling out from beneath us. In that moment, we can tune in, be present, and rise up like the mountain and say, “tada” I am here, I am strong, I am present.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Expecting Disaster

Lawyers have a lot of unique skills, but perhaps one of the best is the ability to deal with disaster. When I teach Stress Management for Lawyers, I focus a lot on the stress of what it means to live a life where your entire focus is on disaster. What do I mean by this? There are two types of lawyers – litigators and transactional (ok, there are a lot of other types as well, but these are the two most common, and the themes covered relate to others as well).

Litigators spend their lives cleaning up disasters in other peoples’ lives, from divorce to businesses gone awry to asbestos to hot McDonald’s coffee. When something has already gone wrong, people call a lawyer, and the lawyer has to find a way to clean up the mess. Transactional lawyers, by contrast, have a slightly more interesting job – imagining all the ways that disaster can strike and hopefully eliminating it from happening, either by counseling their clients correctly or by writing contracts that cannot be misinterpreted. Anyone who is a lawyer, knows lawyers, or just understands how the world works, knows that no one can clean up every disaster, and even more importantly, we cannot predict every disaster.

But lawyers continue to try . . . to do both. And it is a tough place to live.

The mind is a powerful tool. What it imagines has an effect on the body, has an effect on our lives. Research into mirror neurons (really, if you have not heard of these, check them out – fascinating) tells us that when you and I talk, the neurons inside of your head that would allow you to move your arms fire when I move my arms. In other words, what we see is what we get, and when we see disaster, we get disaster. We get stress and illness and fear and . . . well, you get the idea.

Unless you have been living in a cave, you will have noticed that the Earth is acting up a bit more intensely recently. Since the earthquake in Christchurch on 22 February, there have been four other major earthquakes, including the most recent one in Japan, and two volcanic eruptions (counting the one in Hawaii that was a change in how an already-erupting volcano is erupting now). All of this has occurred on what is referred to as the Pacific Rim of Fire.

I am currently living in New Zealand, much of my family and many friends, live in CA, and I have friends in Japan and Hawaii, not to mention Oregon and Washington. In other words, I’m a bit concerned about all this disaster and destruction. And what has happened? I have gone into lawyer mode! Yes, each step becomes a question about whether it is safer to be under the overhang or out in the street while walking. Do I leave my computer at the house when I go out? What if I cannot get back to the house? I took a hike yesterday in the trees, and at moments it was very narrow (and I was carrying a bag with my computer), and I thought, “I would fall down this cliff if an earthquake hit right now.

But then today, I took a step back. I went into yoga mode. Yogis do not live in a state of disaster-preparedness. No, yogis live in the moment. Through yoga, we focus on the breath, we focus on each moment as it unfolds, knowing that we may not know what is coming next but being fully able to enjoy and live the moment at hand. So today, while “being forced” to wait around, I took a moment and sat under a tree, and was present. I have learned a lot from tree pose, but I have learned just as much from trees. They sway in the wind, they allow their leaves to fall off in the winter knowing that they will come back in spring, and they can grow sideways when conditions require. In other words, they adapt and adjust, with no preparation.

There are all sorts of predictions about disasters, from earthquakes to the Apocalypse (for the record if anyone clicks that link, it is to some 2012 information, and I have not actually read the site, but that is what I am referencing here as a prediction, not my own beliefs about such predictions). The truth is that we have no idea what tomorrow will bring, and even if we did, we could not fully prepare for it (though Japan’s amazing building codes probably saved thousands of lives, it could not save them all). But what we can do is live our lives right now. We can tune in and recognize that life is not about preparing for and cleaning up disasters. Life is about living and about connecting. The disasters remind us that we are “one” in a moment under a table, but it is every moment when we have to live that way, lest we create a disaster within ourselves.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

When we have to "make do"

For nearly three months now, life has been a bit unsettling, and my yoga practice has taken a backseat to moving, traveling, earthquaking, and finally unpacking a suitcase after living out of one for nearly those entire three months. With the ability to settle has come a return to seek some sense of normalcy, a sense of stability, a sense of living my own life again.

I have begun to dive back into a home yoga practice, both asana and meditation focused. It is all too easy after so much time away to focus on what makes it too hard to begin a practice again such as funny looks from my housemates, especially the 8-year-old, or the carpet on the floor when my yoga mat is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. These circumstances make it more difficult to practice, and sometimes it is much easier to skip it altogether and convince myself that yoga is really more about doing it off the mat, but as I mentioned before, that lets the bucket of yoga empty, and it gets harder to live a yoga life.

Practicing asana the other morning on the carpet, however, I realized that this is what yoga is. It is about adjusting to the circumstances and learning to use the body and mind in new ways. Doing Downward Facing Dog on carpet, especially slippery carpet, requires different muscles and different energies than when done on a mat. This does not make it impossible but instead forces me to tune into what is really happening, to pay more attention to the moment. Of course, this requires finding muscles I did not know I had. It is difficult and interesting all at the same time.

Life in a yoga studio, on a yoga mat, is superficial in many ways. We get as close to “perfect” as possible for the practice of yoga – cell phones off, slip-less mat, community energy, and someone to guide you through a practice. Life, however, does not function like that. Instead, we get thrown into situations, and sometimes we have to learn how to “make do” with what happens to be thrown our way. With a yoga practice, that could mean slippery carpet and a barking dog or lack of time, a sprained ankle, or simply no motivation.

As a lawyer, the “make do” quality often comes from the circumstances of a case – from who the client is to who the other parties are to who the other attorneys and judges are. There is no question that sometimes the “undesirable” client and opposing attorney arrive, and you have to find ways of working with them all. This can be a moment of frustration or a moment to find new "muscles," (not the competitive ones, of course) or new ways of being the best attorney you can be.

This is not a new concept. Being flexible is necessary in life, and it is especially important for lawyers and all of us in modern life. But it is quite a leap to fully recognize, and dare I say appreciate, that challenges can be our greatest teachers and lead us to discovering that which is strongest within us. There is a difference between just sitting back and accepting your “terrible” circumstances and using them to reach into yourself and discover your true strength and maybe even learning to love the situation.

Sometimes, of course, it still is not the best situation, but you have learned that you can handle it. Then, when you get a moment to break away from the situation, the world outside of it is that much brighter. For me, this week, that means a chance to go to a yoga class, meet some new people, and go food shopping to stock up and prepare for a week instead of living in restaurants. In lawyer-speak, this can mean a case finally settles or the client goes on vacation or you get to work on a different case and realize that it is one you truly enjoy. So, from our less-than-ideal situations, we can find our own inner strength, but we can also appreciate the better circumstances more. After all, spring is extra beautiful because it is preceded by winter, right?

What circumstances have led to you finding new muscles and ways of interacting? In what other ways have these circumstances opened your eyes?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.