Friday, September 30, 2011

Calm and Clear

As I mentioned in the last post, as part of a swim study, I got some “Mental Skills Training.” Essentially I learned yoga from a sports psychologist. The first skill we learned was to center ourselves and relax. Sound familiar? As regular readers know, the point of this blog is to bring these yoga lessons into daily life, and this mental skills training gave me a new path for doing that.

One tool rises above all the others in my mind for reducing stress, increasing productivity, and providing overall better health and wellbeing. It is also our greatest teacher. It is, of course, our breath.

A focus on the breath has graced the posts on this blog numerous times. But I never could find the words to express how to use the breath for all its benefits. Thus, the last post in this series, At the Desk, focused simply on stopping and noticing the breath and focusing on breathing into the lower abdomen. That is definitely the first step, but inevitably the mind starts to wander, and we forget the breath as quickly as we can.

There are numerous ways to try to calm the mind, and yoga provides many paths. One of those paths is focusing on a mantra, which is nothing more than repeating the same word or phrase over and over again. I have my favorite mantras, but until this Mental Skills Training, I had not found one that spoke to my “professional” side as opposed to my “yogic” side (as if they can really be distinguished).

But then I did this Mental Skills Training, and my decade-long yoga practice met my desk-bound, stressed out, fear-of-water self. They met in two simple words.

Calm and Clear.

Calm on the inhale. Clear on the exhale. With each inhale, repeat the word “calm” to yourself, and with each exhale, repeat the word “clear.” They signify a calm body and a clear mind. Calm and Clear. Inhale and exhale.

What a perfect mantra for our modern society, when we run through life, rarely taking time for our bodies, and bombarding our minds with RSS feeds, facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and gchat, not to mention work (or is that just me?). Remembering, in the midst of all of this, to remind ourselves to have a calm body and a clear mind by focusing on our breath is vital. Moreover, there is nothing easier at your desk than breathing, and adding a silent mantra focuses the attention and begins to slow the thoughts and heal the body.

Can you take 1 minute per day for a “Calm and Clear” mantra? Can you take 5 minutes per day? 


Calm and Clear is part of the series At the Desk, which focuses on practical tips from the yoga world (and other interesting finds) to help those of us stuck at the desk all day long. If you are interested in other tips, click the label “At the Desk,” and if you have any specific questions you would like to see discussed, send them my way.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In the Face of Fear, or Finding Yoga

I hate swimming. There, I said it. Yes, I know hate is a strong word, and I am really trying to take it out of my vocabulary, but there are few things that prompt such a visceral reaction in me as swimming in a pool. Perhaps the only other one, especially since being in New Zealand, is constantly being cold. I don’t mind cold outside, but when cold is everywhere, when you can never warm up, cold gets to me. I am not the only American in New Zealand who has been brought to the verge of tears because it is just so cold inside!

So it might come as a surprise that I volunteered to participate in a swim study, especially one that tested the effects of cold-water immersion. That’s right. I willingly entered 10 degree (50 degrees Fahrenheit) water 4 times, and 15 degree (about 60 degree) water about 10 times. Two reasons: 1) I had just sent out a survey hoping for a great response and got a dismal response rate, so I am on a kick to help others who are doing research; and 2) I wanted to face my fears.

Yes, it is a cliché – the only way to overcome your fears is to face them. But most cliché’s get there because they are true. Want proof that I was nervous? My resting heart rate before getting in the cold water the first time was 87 beats per minute (as a comparison, it was later 65 bpm while just sitting in a room, at least according to my count). I do a lot of yoga. I meditate. I know the power of breath. I know the power of the mind. I ignored all of that and freaked out.

The study worked fairly simply. They hooked me into a harness, hung me over a pool treadmill and dropped me in the water. Luckily, my head never went under. I had to do various trials, including treading water, swimming, mental tasks, etc. They did these first tests over two days while measuring my brain oxygen levels and my heart rate. Then a group of us non-swimmers received some “mental skills training” and a video on good water treading techniques. Then we practiced. Once or twice a day, I got into a tank of 15-degree water and treaded water for 3 minutes. After all the training, they did the same tests again to see if there was a difference.

I learned, or remembered, a few things. First, 10 degrees is really, really cold. Second, the mind is a powerful tool. Third, yoga off the mat really works . . . when we remember to use it.

So what was this mental skills training? It started with a video. The video was a man who swims in 1-2 degree water for fun and sits in industrial fridges to prove that he can. Most of us would die in either setting, but he is not only alive, but perfectly fine. His body temperature is no different than others when he is in the cold (a friend sat with him in the fridge for an hour), but his mind is different. His story reminded me of a story of monks who meditate in little clothing while sitting atop snowy mountains, the snow melting below them. The mind is a powerful tool.

Just like any tool, we can learn to use it. That’s the yoga off the mat. The mental skills training also included discussion about how to “handle” the cold. We learned breathing techniques (the subject of the next post), imagery techniques, and positive thinking techniques. Thus, we learned to relax, imagine the situation to reduce fear, reframe the concept of cold to “invigorating” rather than “bloody hell!,” and practiced to train the body to get used to the cold.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, I do not know my resting heart rate before being dropped in that water after all the training. But I do know how I felt. Was I nervous? Yeah, I was still nervous. But I was less nervous. Do I want to join the Polar Swim Club? Nope. Do I want to join any swim club? Nope, not really.

But guess what? The visceral reaction is gone. The thought of water no longer sends shivers down my spine. 

The mind is powerful. It can convince us of anything if we let it have the power. But we can also learn to control it. And with control of the mind, we can begin to control our fears. It will not happen overnight, but for nearly 30 years, I have hated water, and in a few short weeks, I can look at a pool with no emotion.

It just requires taking a bit of my own medicine.

What fears do you have? What would it take to face them? The next post will be a discussion of the specific breathing technique we learned. Teaser: yoga from a sports psychologist – have I entered the Twilight Zone?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Even a Stopped Clock . . . Comes Into Balance

This week is full of special days. September 21 was GlobalPeace Day, and September 23 is the equinox. And no, I specifically did not call it the Autumnal or the Spring Equinox because this year of living in the southern hemisphere utterly confused means that in my head it is both.

I talked about my first experience with the equinox 6 months ago (here). And now the tables are turned. As the northern hemisphere begins to experience red and orange leaves and cooler evenings, we are finally seeing flowers bloom and light past 7pm. The equinox is the moment of balance in the world. It is a brief moment in time when the center of the sun is in the same place as the Earth’s equator. Emotionally, we all connect to that sense of balance.

The Otago University Clock Tower with spring flowers in front. 

It is a cliché, but it is also true: “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” Similarly, twice per year, the Earth comes into perfect balance with the sun. The rest of the year one side is tilting away while the other side tilts toward it, but the equinox brings us all into that balance, even for just a moment.

I thought for the briefest of moments I would call this post Flowers in September, but that theme is old. But more than old, it also does not fit. This equinox is not a time for me to feel disconnected from what I know. Yes, it is still weird to me that days are getting longer during the college football season, and there are blossoms blooming as the Jewish High Holidays approach. These events defined fall to me growing up, and now it is Spring. So I remain confused, but the balance is stronger than the confusion.

I still believe the equinox is a time to celebrate both rebirth and letting go, spring and fall. But it is also a time to recognize that even an imbalanced world comes into balance twice a year. Life has a tendency to get in the way of us noticing that. Deadlines loom. Clients call. Kids scream. Holidays approach. But for two days a year, together we can all notice and recognize a sense of balance. Moreover, we can all find that sense of balance at any time just by knowing it is possible.

I taught my third class at the Yoga Studio here as well as my Monday class at the university this week. Balance was, of course, the theme for both. Often when people think of balance in yoga, they think of standing with only one leg on the ground in postures such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose), or of arm balances. This week, though, my favorite balance pose is Tadasana (Mountain Pose). From the outside it looks like someone simply standing.

There is no question that practicing balancing on one foot is useful and can help us find balance in life off the mat as well. But too often we forget that we first need to find balance when standing on two feet. We must come back to the “simple” balance before attempting anything more difficult. The equinox is similar. It is a coming back to center, to balance, twice a year. The rest of the year the poles pull in opposite directions, and we all lead our crazy lives, sometimes forgetting to come back to a place of balance. But twice a year we get the reminder. Twice a year the Earth stands upright. Twice a year the Earth is in perfect balance.

Thus, no matter how far away from a sense of balance we find ourselves, we can remember that like a stopped clock, twice a year, there is balance in the world. When we place both feet on the ground, we can connect to that balance anytime. Easy? Perhaps not. But you can know it is possible. Even with all the destruction and mayhem of this year, the Earth is still coming back to its center, its balance. Luckily for us, we do not have to wait six months before we can find our own sense of balance. We just have to remember to stop and stand on our own two feet. 

I hope you can take a moment this week and feel that sense of balance. And I hope you can use the knowledge of its existence the rest of the year to remember that no matter how out of balance you might feel, it is always there within you.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Finding Peace

September 21 is global peace day. This year, the organizers’ goal is for this year’s day “to be the largest reduction in global violence in recorded history, both domestically and internationally.” What an incredible vision. How amazing would it be if for one day, violence stopped . . . globally?

Many yoga studios take part in global peace day by getting together for an event called Global Mala. Started by Shiva Rhea, Global Mala events invite people to do 108 Sun Salutations or 108 chants. 108 is a sacred number, but I think there are 108, or more, reasons why that is. I participated in the 108 Sun Salutations in Tucson, Arizona two years ago, and this Saturday (yes, a few days late), I will participate in 108 here in Dunedin, New Zealand. As the world erupts in protests and suicide bombings and bigotry and hate, bringing a community together to celebrate and honor peace gives me hope.

So, September 21 is a wonderful opportunity to think about peace, to think about acting without violence, to think about ahimsa. It is a wonderful opportunity to imagine a peaceful world. It is a wonderful opportunity to imagine a world in which we honor and respect all people for who they are. It is a wonderful opportunity to look externally and imagine living among others peacefully. It is a beautiful vision, eh?

But are you willing to look inside? Are you willing to see peace within yourself? Are you willing to put aside that voice in your head that tells you every time you do something “wrong”?

Because there is absolutely no way to have external peace without internal peace.

For many of us, finding internal peace is much more difficult than imagining a peaceful world. We can look at the other side of the world and say “if only X happened,” the situation would get better. From the outside looking in, everyone seems to have their own answer for how to make the situation better. But when we turn that lens on ourselves, if we turn that lens on ourselves, we create every excuse in the book for how difficult it would be to find peace.

I do not have time. I am too tired. I tried X and it did not work. We believe external sources define our internal peace. I would have peace if I made more money, or if I worked fewer hours, or if my family stopped driving me crazy. Deep down we know these external factors do not define our peace. We know we could make the time if we wanted. So what stops us?

I wish I had an answer to that question. This week I began taking an Introduction to Meditation class. I have been introduced to meditation many, many times over the past ten years. I have tried numerous types and styles along the way. So what drew me to the class? Discipline. I wanted to be accountable to other people. I wanted to know others were there as well. I wanted to know I did not have to make the time and do the hard work on my own. Plus, I really like the teacher, and as someone once said to me, “you can never take too many introduction classes.”

And that is really the answer, isn’t it? We can never introduce ourselves to ourselves too many times. We can never work for internal peace too many different ways. The more we learn to find peace each day, the more we can share it with others. Sure, there will be days when it seems impossible. But those are the days you reach out for the support network, for your community. But over time it gets easier. Over time, you stop making excuses. Over time, if we all make time for our internal peace, our vision for global peace may just come true.

Will you take today to be peaceful to yourself? Can you stop your inner critic for just one day? Can you use today to begin a pattern?

May peace be with you!


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Friday, September 16, 2011

The News Dilemma

I used to be woefully ignorant of current events. I wanted to care about the world, but I did not particularly want to care about scandal and politics. When I got to college, there were plenty of late nights discussing issues, but I rarely went out of my way to read a newspaper, and I stopped watching television, so unless it reached me some other way, the news of the day passed me by.

All of that slowly began to change the first time I lived abroad in France. That was, after all, when the United States invaded Iraq. When my friend told me about “Freedom Fries,” I thought it was an Onion article, until I saw the French newscaster explain it on television that evening. Upon heading back to the United States, I paid a little more attention than before, but life got in the way, and then I was back in France without good internet and without a television. Other parts of life were more important – such as learning to speak French.

Law school changed all of that for me. I remember my first year of law school listening to a conversation about the Enron scandal and having almost no conception of what people were discussing. I had heard the names before, and I knew something big had happened, but somehow, I had missed the specifics. I felt woefully inadequate. I decided lawyers should understand the issues of the day; we need to know what is happening. We need to be “informed.”

I am now at the other end of the extreme. My RSS feed and facebook feed are full of news organizations and legal blogs. Even though, because of the time difference to New Zealand, I wake up around the time the news day ends on the east coast, I read the feeds from earliest to latest. I like to know how the news develops. I read stories about Herman Cain knowing that he will never be the Republican nominee. I just want to be “informed.”

So, what have I learned? The news is depressing. The news is mightily depressing.

The yoga and meditation community have a different take on “being informed” by news. DO NOT DO IT!!! Generally, the advice is to purposefully ignore it. Knowing all of the heartache, pain, destruction, and ridiculousness of the world is only a drain on your system. All that negative information causes your own body, mind, and soul to react negatively. I went to a Laughter Yoga Seminar yesterday evening (more on laughter yoga in another post), and one of the facilitators said she has consciously stopped watching and reading the news. She does not want the negativity. One of the participants added, “if you cannot change it, why let yourself be depressed by it?”

I felt my insides tighten. I know it is true that the depressing news just makes us more depressed. But at the same time, I refuse to by into the notion that we should shut it out completely. There are people who take news vacations, a day per week or a week per month where they tune out. That makes some sense, but what if there is another huge earthquake during that break? I do not want to not be able to reach out to friends and family anywhere in the world because I did not know about the news. I cannot imagine missing it, even for a day. 

But I also know how horrible, difficult, and depressing the news can be to read and see. From stories about war and famine, to stories about racial profiling and tea partiers cheering death, the media is not good about sharing the uplifting stories. It is easy to wonder if there are uplifting stories left.

I have waffled with these issues for years, wondering why I get more and more drawn in when I know it would be healthier to let go. Then last night I got an answer, and it was (perhaps ironically) from the person suggesting we should all just turn it off. Her statement, “ if you cannot change it, why let yourself be depressed by it?” made me realize that is why I watch the news. I may not be able to end poverty in Somalia, solve the middle east conflict (though I have an incredibly inspirational cousin working to do just that), or prevent racial profiling on planes in the United States. Chances are even better I cannot stop earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes.

But I can have compassion. I can tell hear and see their stories, share them with the world, and send metta, lovingkindness their way. I can ask that others do as well. The Quebecois have “Je me souviens (I remember)” on their licence plates, Jews say “Never Forget” about the Holocaust, and Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost begged Hamlet to never forget his story. This need to be heard, seen, and understood is deep.

That is why I read the news. That is why I share the stories. That is how we can hopefully all begin to understand one another. What began as a need to feel "informed" in order to be able to keep up with conversations among lawyers has become a need to feel connected to the world, connected to the people within it, and connected to their stories. Might it be possible for all these tragedies and wars and disasters bring us together enough to understand? I simply do not know. But I am going to continue trying to share stories and bring these issues to light. The more we see, the more we awaken to our deepest connections of humanity.

And just for my own sanity, one of these days, I may take up that idea of a news vacation.

What do you think? Have you given up the news? Do you seek it out? Why? Why not?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years On . . . Holding Community

I know the internet is full of commentary about September 11, and the 10-year anniversary. To be honest, I did not want to add to it. But then my heart told me I must. On my blog about my life in New Zealand, I wrote about the odd feeling of the world coming together for the Rugby World Cup, yet feeling like an outsider as an American in New Zealand on the anniversary of that day. Ironically, the United States Eagles Rugby team plays its first match on 9/11, though I guess it will only be 9/10 back in the United States. Still, something does not feel right about that. Here is an interesting link to two of the players discussing playing on the anniversary.

Ten years ago, I was a sophomore in college. I had never done yoga. I swore I would never be a lawyer. I embodied everything about stress and had not experienced the world outside US borders for more than three weeks. Since that day, yoga and the law have come to dominate my life, and I have lived abroad for nearly two years. I spent 6 months in Aix-en-Provence, France (during which time the United States invaded Iraq) and 7 months in Dreux, France (during which time the United States reelected President Bush), and now eight months and counting in New Zealand (during which time the United States killed Osama Bin Laden).  

So what, you ask? What does all of this have to do with yoga? What does it have to do with law? What does it have to do with living a more balanced life in the modern world? Everything!

The attacks on September 11, 2001 have defined the vast majority of my adult life. The death of Osama Bin Laden showed me just how tense and scared that time has been. Yoga has taught me much over the past 9+ years, but one of the most profound lessons has been that we must recognize the interconnectedness of humanity. On this blog, I have discussed this as community. Ironically, on this 9/11 anniversary I feel more alone than I have ever felt (this is the first time I have been away from the United States on 9/11).

A part of me yearns to be among many other Americans, rather than 2 or 3, who remember that day. A part of me yearns to tell my friends here, whether Kiwi, Malaysian, English, or Argentinean, how confused and vulnerable I felt, we all felt. A part of me yearns to explain how that fear became misguided arrogance, but that I also felt relief, sadness, and again confusion, when Osama Bin Laden was killed.

But I hear the responses before I open my mouth. I hear people remind me about Guantanamo. I hear people remind me about the drone attacks in Pakistan. I hear people remind me about the tens of thousands of civilians (and military) that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not know how to express that I see both visions to people in each camp. 

I do not know if people are willing to accept that there are layers and layers to these stories and that sharing them does not mean that any other layer is less important. Few people seem willing to hold the many layers. Few people are willing to struggle and see that no single vision is “right.”

I do not remember if I cried on September 11, 2001. I would like to think I did, but shock and confusion may have prevented it. But yoga has also taught me to open, and trust, my heart. It has taught me to truly feel what others feel, from the jubilation of the Rugby World Cup opening to the pain and horror that people describe in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. I have learned to see fear spiral into its own unimaginable consequences of war and destruction. But that does not mean the fear is not palpable and real. The vision of the planes flying into the Twin Towers now brings tears nearly every time. But so does the vision of Iraqis. So does the thought of the soldiers who have died. All of these events are tragic in their own right.

This theme of being “right” has made its way onto this blog before, as a play on words about being careful before crossing the street in New Zealand where they drive on the “wrong” side of the road. But this time the stakes are higher. This time it means understanding that September 11, 2001 was an awful day. It means understanding that other countries experience their own horrors and war on a daily basis. It means understanding that the United States has made many mistakes over the past 10 years.

Recognizing all of these does not undermine any of them. Disaster breeds community. We saw it on 9/11/2001. We saw it after the Christchurch and Japanese earthquakes. We see it anytime some event shocks us out of our sleep and reminds us that we are connected and together. I hope that this anniversary can remind us of the next step in that process. There is no single story to explain who we are and no single story to explain any event.

Some days it is nearly impossible to hold all these stories, to hold onto so many different visions of the world. But that is when yoga provides its most important, and simplest lesson; come back to the breath. Come back to the breath and let the thoughts and craziness swirl around the head for a moment. Then let it settle. At the end of the day, we do not need to make sense of it all. We simply need to remember that we are all in this together, ready to share our stories.

I hope this time of reflection provides you with a feeling of community and a little bit of peace. I hope we can hear each others’ stories and hold them all with a sense of togetherness and comfort. I hope we can remember that when we think we cannot hear another layer that we remember to come back to the breath and remember that we can, and will, grow together.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Web of Support

Moving to a new place means being alone. No matter how good you are at making friends and reaching out to people, there will be a few hours, days, perhaps weeks and months before you find a community. And this phenomenon does not only occur when you move to the other side of the world. It can happen when you move to a new community or even a new job. 

It can also happen when you start a new project. As much as I would love to think that my time here in New Zealand is all fun and games, I am officially here to write a thesis. I have written a long paper before, but never one this long; it is officially supposed to be about 45,000 words, which is approximately 150 pages. During my first meeting with my advisor, he suggested I include a survey. Lawyers, however, are not trained researchers. Finally, my advisor is awesome, but he is also incredibly busy, so asking loads of questions along the way is sort of out of the question.

This was not going to be easy.

But then I remembered all the yoga training, all the posts about community building, practicing together so we do not feel alone, and learning from teachers and each other along the way. While traditional yogis learned from one teacher, today people often go to yoga classes with many different teachers, sometimes choosing them simply based on the best time slot (or was that just me?). Eventually, you find the teachers that speak to you most profoundly, but it does not mean you stop going to other classes.

There are advantages to this approach. It results in a web of support rather than one person upon whom you always rely. I have learned so much from a variety of yoga teachers, from Tucson Yoga, where I first started attending classes, to Southwest Institute of Healing Arts, where I did my teacher training, to the Dunedin Yoga Studio, where I have found a lovely and amazing yoga community here in New Zealand. Each place has offered its teachers, its classes, and its support. Instead of a specific “brand” of yoga, I took bits and pieces along the way that worked for me.

But a thesis is not yoga, or is it? If there is one constant about doing research and writing long papers, it is that it is a lonely, lonely process. I spend most of my day with my back to a window staring at a computer screen. The survey had hiccups along the way, but several people, including lawyers, professors, and judges helped ensure it was possible. I began to understand the need for a vast network of support in this process, but it became even more clear last week.

Last Friday I presented a short seminar on my research during which it became abundantly clear that somewhere along the way, I had missed something. In many ways, I had missed the core of the thesis, the thread to hold it all together.

Did I mention that I need to submit in about 2 months?

But that is when the universe reminded me of the support structures I have built here, and many of those people offered their help and support. By Monday, not only had I found that thread, but I became confident that this thesis can get done, and it might just be worthwhile.

There is no way it could have been done without the support. I got to thinking about all the people who have helped me along the way this year, just writing the thesis, other than my advisor. The list was over 20 people long. I am grateful to each and every one of them.

Life in the modern world is often lonely. We think we have to “do it all” alone, whether at our jobs or in our lives. We think that if we just work harder, push a little bit more, or stay awake just a little bit later, everything can get done. But deep down we know that is not true. Here, the legal profession agrees with the modern approach to yoga; we call this vast array of teachers mentors. Finding a mentor is the surest way to know that you have support whenever you need it, for those moments when you think you have completely lost your way.

There will be times when we feel like we cannot keep going, and our primary support may not be available, but if we have a web, if we have that community, we can find the strength, and the inspiration, to keep on going. We need to reach out and build that support network early.

I have a long list of people to thank right now for helping me find my path again. I have only been in New Zealand for seven months, and I have made a lot of mistakes here, but one thing I know I did right was building the support network.

Have you built yours? Have you thanked the people in it? 


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved