Monday, December 31, 2012

When the Universe Speaks

"Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know." - Pema Chodron

I firmly believe that the universe likes to teach us lessons, sometimes in more intense ways than others. We may not always know what the lesson is, but it continues to come at us. For some people, they end up in the same relationship over and over again. For some lawyers, they end up always dealing with opposing counsel with whom they cannot get along. For some yogis, they get that same twinge of pain every time they push themselves too far.

How many times have you been working incredibly intensely only to finally take your vacation and that is when you get sick? To me, that is the lesson that you needed to stop sooner.

But we live in a culture that not only ignores those lessons, but idolizes those most capable of ignoring them. Who can go the longest without sick leave? Who can push through the pain the most? And when we can no longer push through the pain, there are all sorts of medications we can take to dull, or completely kill, the pain, both physically and emotionally. And these meds are easy to get, very easy.
But numbing the pain, or even going to a yoga class once per week to bring some "balance" into life does not rid us of whatever is trying to get our attention. It just makes it come back with more and more force until we finally pay it some heed or until it knocks us flat on our backs.

I used to ignore my body and health completely. It was about ten years, perhaps a bit more, when that began to change. But even more than a decade into this, the cues can be easy to miss, and even easier still is the cultural pressure to just push on through. But the truth is that the lesson always wins. We always have to face it, and it is much easier to face up front than when it has become too big to manage simply.

But sometimes we do not know what we are supposed to learn. Sometimes all we need to learn is that it is OK to slow down, that it is even beneficial to us long-term. Sometimes the lessons are deeper. Hiding from the repeated lesson may make the noticeable pain disappear, even forever. But it also deprives us of something we could gain. If there is a lesson, and I tend to believe there is, that lesson could do more than stop the pain from coming back. It could help us see how we can grow. Would it not be easier to stop hurting ourselves in our asana practice and eventually understand our body's cues? Would it not be easier to find ways to change ourselves so the people with whom we interact respond better to us? Would it not be better to live happier lives rather than dulled lives?

The universe talks to us in ways we may not always want to hear, and often "don't have time to hear." But it will keep talking. And while I have often pushed the lessons to the side to live my "real life," I have always regretted doing that. And this year especially, I have been forced to face the universe's lessons in new, and more powerful, ways. They literally laid me flat on my back.

I am not a big fan of New Year's resolutions. Instead, I like to think about intentions. The world is moving faster and faster than ever before, and it is easier to hide from that which we do not want to face in our lives until it literally knocks us over. If I have learned one thing from my year of being a lawyer (and I knew this going in, but it really hit me how true it is this year), it is that the work is never done. We could work 24/7, and still never be finished. That is probably true for a lot of other people as well in the modern world. 

Yoga has always been my separation from that world. I actually have yoga scheduled on my work calendar. I realized that was necessary halfway through this year. But as we sit here on the cusp of 2013, and I think about my intentions for the new year, I am struck by how important it is to actually learn to tune into the universe's messages on an entirely deeper level. 

Yes, we have to stop and breathe. But we also have to stop and listen. Anyone who has access to this blog lives in a world with more ways of connecting, healing, and living than ever before in human history. This is amazing! But how many of us actually take the time to listen? I have been lucky to have some amazing teachers along this path, but these past few weeks, I have learned the lesson that sparked this post in the first place. We can have all these tools at our disposal, we can have all the support (or lack of support) in the world, but we actually have to be the ones to do it ourselves. 

And that is my intention for the new year - follow the universe's teachings, to listen, and to learn. Interestingly it is not much different than last year's, which was to trust myself. But this is slightly different on a nuance level. It is to trust that when we stop and listen, when we trust ourselves at our deepest levels, the answers will be there. The universe speaks. And when we can clear out all the chatter of the world and the push to move faster and faster, we can hear what it has to say. After all, as Pema reminds us above, "nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know." So, my intention is to learn that lesson earlier and easier.

What is your intention for the new year?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Another Kind of Community

I have written frequently about community on this blog. Community is incredibly important wherever we go, and on this blog, the focus on community has, not surprisingly, focused on legal and yoga communities. Over the course of the last several years, I have learned to find community in yoga classes, at professional conferences, and even in the blogosphere. Community is what keeps us going, and finding so many different communities has been one of the greatest personal benefits of writing this blog.

These past few weeks I found more community, the one that should be staring us all in the face all the time, but sometimes we fail to see it. It is the community we always have with us, the one that steps out of the woodwork when we really need them. It includes our close friends and family, but it is larger than that.

Someone said to me yesterday, "Like most people, I want to help." I have a lot of respect for that person, both as an individual and as someone who understands other people as well. That simple statement opened my eyes to the communities we carry around with us in our lives. What better time than Christmas to recognize our connection to each other? It is that time of year when even when we do not celebrate the holiday, we notice that people smile more, people talk to each other more, and the atmosphere is full of joy.

But that sentiment need not be confined to December. As my friend reminded me, people like to help one another. Human beings are social creatures. Whether back when we were hunter gatherers or today when our food comes to us in plastic wrap, we need other people to survive. And our society does best when everyone in it is cared for, and we personally do best when we can participate in that caring.

On a yoga mat, it is easy to feel that connection to people, but it can be difficult when we are running around in the hustle and bustle of life. But that is just the point. Sometimes life forces us to remember. Sometimes life stops us in our tracks and says, people are here to help. You are not alone. Even though we live in a society that awards people who can do everything on their own and seem to be self-made, the truth is that none of us can do that forever. Eventually we need the help, and eventually we need to help others.

The conferences and yoga classes are great places to expand our communities and find new people with whom to engage and learn. But the real community is our everyday lives. It is the people we interact with on a daily basis, the ones who just want to help because that is what people do for each other.

May this holiday time be your reminder of how vast your community is and how connected we really are to each other, whether we have met in person or not. How do you get reminded about your community? How have you reached out to your community?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Paralysis of the Breath

This blog has focused a lot on the breath. It sounds so easy to say – Just Breathe! The breath is always there, it is always available to us, it is always a guide for how we are doing and feeling. And sometimes the breath gets stuck. Have you ever been in a situation where you are a bit tense and then realize you have not actually breathed in several seconds even when you think you are trying to relax? Have you ever tried to take a deep breath only to feel as though every muscle in your body is fighting against it?

 Yoga leads us to deeper and calmer breathing in several ways. There is pranayama, which is specifically different breath control techniques. During asana practice, breathing helps us release more fully into any posture. In meditation, our breath keeps us focused. Breath is, therefore, the center of yoga, and it permeates all we do.

Being a lawyer provides ample opportunities for us to hold our breath with anxiety. Whether a deadline is fast approaching or a judge is telling you to get to the point, lawyering is a stressful profession. But it is more than stress that leads us away from the breath. Stress can be managed and understood, and generally we can find the breath with the right training even in very stressful situations.

Stress always has an underlying cause. Sometimes we just have too much on our plate, but why does that lead to stress? Recently, I have recognized that much of our stress comes from fear. Are we afraid we will not finish everything? Are we afraid we will not do a good enough job? Are we afraid we will not give enough time to our families if we focus on our work and vice versa? And it is when the fear becomes overbearing that we lose our breath. Fear can become debilitating.

I have heard fear and excitement as the same emotion with a different intention. We describe them somewhat similarly – butterflies in the stomach, shortness of breath, slight agitation, etc. And they arise in similar circumstances. What gives one person fear – public speaking – very much excites someone else. Similarly, excitement can be called eustress, which is defined as healthy or good stress. I do not particularly like the idea of good vs. bad stress, but it gets the point across. Sometimes, we need stress to get us excited enough to help us do great in a particular situation.

But sometimes that stress/fear overtakes us and completely paralyzes us. And it becomes obvious when even with conscious awareness the breath cannot slow and calm. It is a cycle that is difficult to break. As a yoga teacher, I want to believe that taking a deep breath relieves all situations and brings us back to our center. But as a modern human being, I know that is easier said than done. Deep down I still know and believe that coming back to the breath is the single greatest healing technique every one of us has. But using that technique is, at times, nearly impossible.

And what do we do in those moments? In those moments, it is important to recognize that we are not lesser beings because the breath is difficult. It is but another lesson. It is a window into helping us more fully understand that which causes us our greatest fears. Easy? Absolutely not! But those moments are also some of our most honest. Those are the moments when we recognize that it is okay to be afraid, it is okay to be human.

Of course we do not want the breath to stay paralyzed forever. But if we get caught up in being worried that it has momentarily stopped and that we should know better, we can get caught up in a worry that we are somehow less than. Less than what? Less than whatever your biggest fear is. Sometimes the breath being stopped by fear is a wake-up call to what is calling out to us. It is a wake-up call that something needs our attention. And when we provide that attention, the breath slowly (and sometimes quickly) returns to its prior glory.

 Our breath truly is our greatest teacher. It tells us where we are, and when we can concentrate and bring awareness to it, we are able to slowly begin to learn the lessons it has to teach. Have you had moments where your breath felt paralyzed? What do you do in those moments?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Finding our Light

I have been a bit quiet recently, but there is a reason. And I have to say, Chanukah could not have come at a better time for me. These past few weeks have been intensely painful for me, and I have not been sure how to write about them. My hip pain became debilitating sciatica essentially overnight. A trip to Urgent Care, a failed MRI, medication, yoga, breathing, stretching, relaxing, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and massage all ensued. The pain just got worse.

And all I keep thinking is, “I’m a yoga teacher!!! How am I in this much pain?!”

But then this beautiful and deeply personal post arrived from Roseanne at It’s All Yoga Baby. In it she describes her own recent depression and writes:

Underneath it all, however, is a vague sense that I’m failing at my practice, that I’m as broken and f[‘]d up as I was before I committed to yoga (chronic and clinical depression was what drove me to practice in the first place), that the practice isn’t working. There’s also the vague sense that I’m not allowed to be feeling this way – there are many stories of miraculous healing from depression (and everything else) through yoga, but nobody talks about the relapses. I feel like I’m doing something wrong.

While my issue has been more physical (though I fully believe physical pain can and does stem from emotional pain), I fully understand her sentiment here. I have been feeling embarrassed about the pain on several fronts, but mostly because I’m 30 years old, and I’m a yoga teacher. How can I be in such debilitating pain, especially from what appears to be really, really tight muscles.

It is extremely easy to get caught up in the pain and ignore the lessons. I would say I sort of have been living in that space. But there are brief reprises, brief moments where I can take the time and not only cognitively, but energetically and emotionally, see the gifts and lessons the pain has to offer. And the Festival of Lights has helped me see that.

First, as discussed before, our darkest places bring us closer to compassion and connection with others. I never fully understood how debilitating physical pain can be until the past two weeks. As a yoga teacher and a lawyer, I deal with people suffering from all varieties of pain. Having had an experience to relate to that pain changes not only how I interact with the person, but how they respond to what I say. It is very easy to stand on the outside, look at someone, and give them all sorts of ideas of how to make their lives “better.” It is quite different to look at them and say, “I feel what you are experiencing. I experienced something similar myself, and you are right. It is debilitating.”

This pain has taught me a different level of compassion as well. I often get upset with people who turn everything into a story about themselves and their own experiences. But these past two weeks, it has been comforting to hear from people who understand how painful sciatica is. I get a bit overwhelmed with everyone offering different advice, but the sympathy and understanding has been greatly beneficial. As a result, I have learned the importance of connecting with others through our own stories. We can offer our stories less as a way to say, “Look at me and my suffering” and more of a way to say, “I understand, and I know you can get better.”

And of course, this pain has been the universe’s way of telling me to slow down. That is a lesson I am not heeding so well. But I have learned where I feel comfortable letting go and where I still need to work. I have said it before, and I believe it even more today, meditation and yoga are “easy” at an ashram. I put easy in quotes because they are never actually easy, but they fit a structure and their lessons come more quickly. But try meditating in Times Square. Try meditating when the pain is searing through your leg. Try just breathing when you feel like all hope is lost.

And amazingly, in those moments, sometimes the breath does come. And for a brief glimpse of relief, the breath softens whatever is currently hardening us. It may be one breath in a hundred, but that one breath can be what keeps us going. And that has been the greatest lesson so far. Even when I feel as divorced from my practice as ever, something (or someone) always manages to bring me back.

It may feel like it needs a miracle similar to the miracle of Chanukah, but the holiday can help remind us that we all have that light within, and even when it feels impossible to reach, we can turn to it, and it can offer us a little hope that things can get better.

What lessons have you learned from stress, pain, depression, etc.? Are you able to find those brief glimpses of coming back to yourself? What helps?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What is Yoga?

I have been asking myself this question a lot recently. What exactly is yoga, and why is it beneficial to lawyers or anyone? Linda has a great post on the topic here. People talk about the eight limbs of yoga from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These include the yamas, the niyamas, asana, and pranayama, which are all issues that have directly been discussed on this blog. But the other four limbs are Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation or contemplation), and Samadhi (state of ecstasy).

In America, it is fairly obvious that when the general population thinks about yoga, they think only about asana, or the physical postures. A few more might think of pranayama, or breathing techniques. But the western world is full of all sorts of yoga. There are different “styles” from Iyengar to Bikram and vinyasa to yin, but all of these are actually forms of hatha yoga. There are also classes that mix yoga and wine as well as yoga and “fill in the blank.” There are kinds of yoga such as bhakti yoga, which is devotional yoga, and In other words, yoga has become an industry in the western world.

But I keep thinking about the question – what is yoga? What is it to me? What is it that I can share? And more importantly, so what?! Does it matter if we can define yoga? Lawyers like definitions, especially if they are Supreme Court Justices. But do we really need this particular definition? Might it actually infringe upon the underlying meaning or purpose of a yoga practice?

I have been teaching a weekly yoga class in the Juvenile Detention center. The attendees are all court staff and lawyers who work in the court. (As an aside, there are also yoga classes for the juveniles in detention, but I do not have the privilege to teach those.) It is an “odd” location for a yoga class, and it is really too short for a full class, and the students range from beginners to people with consistent practices. And yet, the class has come together to be something incredibly special. It is a place where, for me, this blog becomes palpable. It is a place where we can see how yoga enters our daily lives.

But all sorts of questions arise as well. Do people only come for asana? Can I add a bit of pranayama? Do people want exercise? Do they want to relax from stress?  Do they want to hear about the yamas and niyamas? Do people want to spend their lunch hour in a seated meditation? So what is yoga in that situation?

And I am coming to the conclusion that, no matter the situation, the answer remains the same. Yoga is a personal experience. It is the 8 limbs and how they ebb and flow within our being. There was a long time when I saw a need to have more of a physical practice to go deeper into meditation. These days, my physical practice is limited to psoas stretches, but I am meditating 20-60 minutes per day. Even amidst the craziness of life, there are moments of yoga awareness, though they remain few and far between.

Thus, yoga is about how we show up for ourselves and others. Of course there are differences between Bikram and yin yoga, but we can bring the same sense of awareness to each. I have a lot of concerns about Bikram yoga, and I know someone who loves it (many people, actually, but this one in particular) who also has amazing body awareness. I said to this person once, “but with that heat, can’t you overstretch a muscle and hurt yourself?” The answer, “not me.” While there are, of course, people who show up and have no idea how to protect themselves, others can do the practice safely and with awareness.

And that is yoga.

Yoga, therefore, is the full package. It is a way of life, but it is also an intention to live our moments as though we are on the mat or the cushion. While there are days I try to meditate in a courtroom, most of the time it is really difficult to do. I also would love to sit in sukhasana (cross legged) in the chairs at court, but I have not figured out how to do that yet. But the inner awareness can be there. All we gain from being on the mat can carry into our lives.

And that is why yoga is useful for lawyers and others in this crazy, modern world. The world is moving ever faster. We are connected to a degree never before experienced by humans. We are advancing faster and faster. It is so easy to get caught up in all of it, to lose sight of any way forward, and to forget who we are at our core. But yoga brings us back to that. It helps remind us why we do what we do. It helps us slow down long enough to remember to offer a little gratitude.

The yoga industry can manifest these visions however it wants. In the past it has annoyed me, and to some extent it still does. But that has also forced me to ask myself over and over again – why yoga? What is it? And so what?

And while I do not have a Justice Scalia worthy definition, I think I have finally found an answer (for this week) that helps me understand why I keep with it and why this has been such a wonderful path for me. Yoga is a personal journey to go into the depths of ourselves and our interactions with each other to emerge with a path and intention for life. This journey is in all the planes of life, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. At times it asks us to move, and at other times it asks us to sit in silent awareness. And at the end of the day, it helps us find our Being ready to emerge and share with the world even if there are a few (or many) bumps along the way.

What is yoga to you? Why do you practice? How does it help you in your daily life?


 © Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Year to Year

One year ago, I was at the US Ambassador’s house in New Zealand celebrating Thanksgiving in summer. And without realizing it, I actually put the same clothes on today that I was wearing then (I looked at photos). And yes, this should tell you how a summer in NZ is very similar to a winter in Arizona, but I digress. One year ago, I was grateful for the 10 months I had spent in New Zealand, from an earthquake, to new friends, to beautiful adventures, to finishing a thesis.

And that thesis looked forward to this year. The thesis was all about representing children, and that is what I currently do, though I do it in a slightly different context than addressed in the thesis. But this year has been about integrating my years digging deep into yoga and the law and emerging with some semblance of a future. And this year has been hard. It has been a struggle to finally integrate theory and practice, in law, but also on and off the yogamat.

Law school is an interesting theoretical adventure. Traditionally, law school is learning the theory of the law, and some would argue we spend too much time on that in school. We spend our time reading cases of situations gone awry, and sometimes tragically so, but cases become stories, and the people are safely behind the pages. We are protected from their stories similarly to how we are protected from the stories of the protagonists in a movie. 

But the practice of law is anything but peoples’ lives on a page. Instead, the practice of law is about peoples’ lives in your face. Crisis after crisis arises, and lawyers are expected to stay rational and calm. Human nature wants to send us into screaming fits of rage and fear, but that is not our role. Instead, we are asked to answer with calm rationality and turn the theory into practice – look at the situation from a purely legal standpoint. There are, of course, advantages to this. But it throws our systems off if we do not pay attention.

Yoga is quite the opposite. Most people in the modern world come to yoga through the practice first. In fact few of them have any idea about the theory behind it. Some want some exercise, while others want to stretch after their own exercise. But the theory creeps in. Yogis begin to act with more compassion towards others after learning to act with more compassion for themselves. Yogis learn to respond rather than react to the crises that inevitably arise in their lives.

But that flow from theory to practice and back is anything but smooth. The day after Thanksgiving last year I was not at a Black Friday Sale. Instead, I was on a boat between the north and south islands of New Zealand and who should I see but the Ambassador? I said hello to him and then sat back down. Then I started crying. I was so grateful for all that had transpired that year in New Zealand. And I knew I was coming back to the United States to a job I had, in many ways, worked my entire life to have. How amazingly lucky could one person be?

And here we are at another Thanksgiving. I have spent this month finding things for which I am grateful, from my breath to the wonderful people with whom I get to work. Being a first year lawyer is one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. But it is also one of the most enlightening and inspiring.

And while I was doing tree pose from the tops of mountains in New Zealand last year, this year, my yoga practice has struggled through a sprained ankle, hip pain, and simply too little time. But I have started attending classes again, meditating in the mornings, doing some asana, and even teaching once per week at the courthouse.

But just yesterday, the week of Thanksgiving, I saw it shine through like never before. Someone decided to yell at me about something, and in the midst of the yelling, I sent him a little compassion and thought to myself, “may you be free of suffering and the root of suffering.” That particular phrase is more Buddhist than Yogic, but it was a moment of reflection rather than reaction. And then I walked away from the conversation and did something else. The yoga crept out from where it was hiding and offered me a little solace in the moment - and hopefully the person yelling at me, though the thought was silent.

Theory and practice. Back and forth.

It is tomorrow in New Zealand, which means it is already Thanksgiving. So I am going to celebrate two this year. Today is a deep sense of gratitude for all I have learned this year, the people who have inspired me whether a “difficult” teacher or a friend with a shoulder, and the amazing opportunities to understand the ebb and flow between theory and practice in law and yoga.

Whether celebrating Thanksgiving in a country far away from the United States at the US Ambassador’s residence or in central Tucson in the midst of being a first year lawyer, the sentiment is the same. I think Lionel Hampton said it best, “Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.”

Our hearts go with us wherever we are, and gratitude can arise in any moment. We can find all the quotes on the internet we want about gratitude, and learn all there is to know, but then it is about practicing that gratitude and feeling it deeply in the heart. That is the moment when theory meets practice. Can we take the sentiment of this day, this week, this month and carry it forward into our daily lives?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 19, 2012

There is Always the Breath

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor. ~Thích Nht Hnh

I am truly blessed to have some amazing teachers in my life. Recently I got a really great reminder from two of my recent yoga teachers.  The first came from a teacher who I had not seen in awhile. I have not been attending her class much because of the pain in my hip. But something told me last week I had to go to her class. Although there were moments the class hurt, she came up to me at the end of class and said, “You might need to curl up in a ball and just breathe. You always have the breath.”

What a wonderful reminder.

And the reminder came again the next day from another of my amazing teachers. It was obviously a week where my hip was bothering me more than others, and she came up to me in savasana and simply said, “Breathe into the areas that do not hurt.” This breath is a beautiful way to move through our pain, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or any other kind. The breath is always there for us.

The breath is the gateway to our prana, our life force. In Chinese medicine it is called qi (pronounced chee). Breathing techniques are called pranayama because they move the breath in different ways. When we control the breath, we can control ourselves. As the quote above states, we can anchor ourselves through our breath. No matter what comes our way, we always have the breath.

I know that when we go into fight-or-flight, our breath shortens and speeds up. What I do not know is why it does that. I understand the evolutionary need to tense our muscles and be ready to attack or run for our lives, but is that not exactly when we need our breath to be most full?

Although we know we can always return to the breath, actually doing it is sometimes more difficult than we would like to admit. Our natural response is to turn away from the breath, to move strictly into survival mode. And yes, that is exactly when we need to focus on the breath the most. That is most when we need it to anchor us, not just in ourselves but in our external world as well.

But how do we ensure we can do that when we get so overwhelmed? Just like anything in life, practice, practice, practice. This is one of the major advantages of an asana (posture) practice. When the going gets tough, we always can come back to the breath. In an asana-based yoga class, hopefully there is a teacher reminding us over and over again to come back to the breath. When it is obvious pain remains, hopefully someone reaches out and reminds us the breath is there to tap into what feels good.

And we can practice pranayama, or breath control. The more attention we give to the breath, the more likely we are to remember it is there when we need it most. This post is not the time to go into all the different types of pranayama, but the Pranayama label (on the right) will grow with posts about various forms of pranayama and what they can be used to create in our lives. Each form of pranayama, however, brings our awareness to the breath and helps us remember to bring our awareness there more quickly when we need it most.

And finally, being as it is November, we can remember to always be grateful for the breath. Each morning when we awake, and each night before we sleep, take a moment and be grateful for the ability to breathe. Without trying to control the breath, or understand it, or even really notice it, just be grateful for it. Take a moment and be grateful for this foundation of life.

It is not always easy to remember to breathe in our moments of deepest frustration, stress, and anxiety, but the more we consciously become aware of the breath, learn to control the breath, and are grateful simply because it is there, the greater our ability becomes to stop and breathe in those moments we need it most.

What are your tricks for remembering to come back to the breath?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gratitude, Veterans Day, and Moving Forward

This is the 200th post on Is Yoga Legal. I find that incredibly hard to believe. I am also glad it happened to fall in this month of gratitude. I had all sorts of great ideas for what to say about this 200th post, just like for the 100th post. I wanted a post that would look to the future and be just about this seemingly momentous (and hard to believe occasion). But mostly I wanted to say thank you to everyone who reads this blog, who comments, who supports me, who asks questions, who challenges me, and who has connected with me over time and space. It has been an amazing journey, and I am deeply grateful. I have learned so much. I wanted to share that gratitude in November. It seemed so fitting.

Then I realized I really wanted to write a post about Veterans Day, and how could that have to do with this 200th post business? I thought about putting all the deep gratitude in a 201st post, but then I realized my thoughts on Veterans Day explain perfectly my thoughts about living in this dual world. And one of the areas for which I am most grateful is that writing this blog and having the ensuing conversations with friends, families, and complete strangers (if there is such a thing), has actually helped me more fully comprehend these issues. That’s when I realized a Veterans Day post is a perfect 200th post. It is filled with the gratitude, the confusion, the thoughts, and the nuance of what has made this blog such an incredible journey for me and, I hope, for you as well.

Today, I posted this on the Is Yoga Legal facebook page, which has been a plethora of gratitude quotes throughout the month: “Today I am grateful for all the people who have risked their lives for all of us. I have no love of war, but anyone who is willing to volunteer to protect me deserves my deepest thanks.” In just a few words it sums up how I feel about Veterans Day. I want to honor the people, but I have a hard time honoring the reason for which we honor the people. But then, in law school, I became more understanding that we, as lay citizens, simply do not have the facts, and maybe there are reasons country leaders make that if I knew the facts I would agree.

In other words, yoga has opened my eyes to our deep connection to one another and the reality that war anywhere in the world affects all of us and harms all of us. Law school opened my eyes to the reality that I simply do not know all the “facts,” and perhaps there are needs beyond what I can understand. Perhaps there really are times it is necessary to kill one person to save thousands. This is an age-old philosophical question that cannot be answered in one post on this blog. But it bears repeating as an issue. Which view is “right?”

From day one, the focus of this blog has been in the heading, “Where two worlds collide, one lawyer-yogi considers whether those two worlds can co-exist.” One of my greatest mentors/teachers in the legal profession once told me after she read a post, “I think yoga and law are very similar. They are both looking for the truth.” I was floored. She refuses to step foot in a yoga class (bad experience), but she sees and understands deeply why I am drawn to it.

And while I agree with her wholeheartedly, both yoga and law at their core, are about understanding “truth,” in whatever form that means to the people involved, this Veterans Day issue is really where the lawyer-yogi dilemma rubber meets the road.

The cop out is simple. Honor the people, but not what they were doing that made them veterans. But they believed, and at some level I believe, they are fighting for something “worth fighting for.” And maybe that is true. Even the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga religious text takes place on a battlefield, and the human in the story is ultimately told to fight in the ensuing battle by the Supreme Being, Krishna. I rarely get into the religious aspects of yoga, but they do exist, and in this sense help understand why this dilemma in us runs so deep.

It is easy to take a black or white position. Either all war is bad, or war is necessary to protect our freedoms. But if it is not abundantly obvious from other posts, I do not do that very well. I live in the gray areas. So where does that leave us? My grandfather and great uncle were soldiers in WWII, and my cousin a soldier in the first Gulf War. I honor and respect what they did and who they are as people. But the pain we all get from war anywhere still haunts me.

So, on this Veterans Day, part of me wants to just say I am grateful for a day off and forget the why. But that’s just selfish and superficial and not actually true. It is difficult to have these discussions with myself and others. Another part of me wants to honor the people and not the war. And another part of me wants to hold all of it and attempt to not go crazy. And to be very honest, that third ability came from my time in law school. It helped me see so much of what I refused to see while growing up even before the yoga helped me articulate what I have felt and experienced so much of my life.

What better way to honor this blog and my gratitude to all of you for staying with me through these 200 posts than to ask the huge questions that created the headline up above? Prior to today, I was starting to think I had to change that sentiment. When I first wrote it more than three years ago (WOW!) it was really more about whether lawyers would accept a yogi and whether yogis would accept a lawyer. But I have come to realize it is much, much deeper than that. It comes down to these issues of interconnectedness and reality of this world in which we live.

I am, therefore, deeply grateful that Veterans Day is this opportunity to struggle with the deepest issues this blog is about and deeply grateful we can share this discussion. And so, as a way of looking forward, what comes next on this blog? Where do we go from here?

We can continue the discussion. Sure, it is important to learn how to use asana at the desk, but more and more I think it is necessary to learn how to take all of ourselves, the yogis and lawyers (as a metaphor for modern humans) within us, and bring that all to the table to look at all the nuances that creates. 200 posts is a long time to realize that, but your responses and your presence have all led to this point. Thank you.

I would love to hear your thoughts going forward.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Finding Gratitude in Difficult Places

This post has been percolating in my mind for months. But this is gratitude month, and it is time to finally write it out in full. I have tried to write it numerous times, but it just sits on my computer, awaiting the words that never come. But the universe has sent enough my way that the words are ready to flow.

We all have our “difficult” teachers. They come in many forms. They are the people and experiences that test our practice. They are the people that pull us out of a reflective mentality into clenched fists and anger spouting. They are the people at work who gossip about us behind our backs, our friends who betray us, and our family who is just so close they know how to push all our buttons.

Usually our difficult teachers are people who know us best. While there is a lot to be gained while practicing deep breathing while driving and not getting mad at the people who cut us off, the real practice is sitting with the people we see all the time when they have done something we do not like. The practice is learning to engage with them. And it is also learning to see our experiences and our pain in new ways.

The question is, how do we learn to be grateful for these people and experiences and learn what we need from them?

The first iteration of an attempt at this post was a post called, “When the Body Does Not Behave.” But what I left out of that post was the underlying truth. I am, and have been for several months, in physical pain. And this is different than my hamstring injury during teacher training. This is ongoing pain. It is pain that interferes with doing yoga. It interferes with teaching yoga. It interferes with a lot of things, actually. It has become my teacher.

Living in the world takes some give and take. America just had a major election, and since Tuesday, my facebook feed has been full of people lamenting the anger and vitriol that remains post-election. Social media is an interesting experiment. Perhaps we say things there we would not say directly to a person, but we are willing to just spew whatever comes to our minds. But the people with whom we share it are ostensibly our friends. Apparently a lot of my friends have unfriended others, or been unfriended, because of their political leanings. It sounds trite to mention facebook, and I feel a bit silly for doing it, but it is a perfect example of these difficult teachers.

It is far easier to unfriend a person than face our deepest selves. But that is where the beauty lies. It is in those deepest places, when we are forced to see them, that we are able to connect the most with other people. But first we have to face the difficult teachers.

And that is not easy. That is why they are difficult. Most of the time I just get frustrated. All the yoga goes out the window, and I get annoyed, my breathing gets shallow, and the physical pain gets worse. But this month, November, I invite you to try something new along with me. I invite you to find a sense of gratitude in these experiences. They are leading us to something greater.

It is no easier to deal with an email from opposing counsel than it is to deal with intense physical pain, but both of these experiences are opportunities in our lives to stop, reflect, and practice. They are opportunities to ask ourselves what we could do differently and what we could learn from one another. It is much easier to be calm and reflective when we are away from the world. But the truth is that we live in the world, and that means we face these issues.

One caveat: I have heard a lot of people say that our greatest teachers are those who are the most difficult in our lives. Until very recently, I sort of blindly agreed with that statement. Now I see it a bit more nuanced. We need all sorts of teachers, and difficulty teachers play a significant role in how we interact with ourselves and one another, but we need supportive and loving teachers as well. That can be a post for another day, but that is why I did not start this post with comments about our greatest teachers being our most difficult. They are necessary, but so are so many others.

We may not be able to make the difficult situation disappear, but we can change our reaction to it. And what if we just said thank you? Thank you for allowing me to see where I still need to work. Thank you for bringing me closer to my humanity and compassion. Thank you for opening my eyes and heart to the full extent of the practice.

How are you grateful for difficulty in your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Conferences and Gratitude

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." -- Albert Schweitzer

My love of conferences is no secret. After all, it was an Association of Family and Conciliation Courts conference where I first taught yoga outside of my teacher training. But more importantly, conferences are about coming together and learning from one another. They are an opportunity to be inspired over and over again to continue to do the work we do. It is at conferences, especially good ones, where that spark can be ignited by others.

And this being November, the Is Yoga Legal facebook page has gratitude quotes and reminders every day. I am using this month as an opportunity to focus on gratitude and being grateful for the amazing life I am blessed to lead. Some days are, of course, easier than others, but I do not think it is an accident for my life that this year’s AFCC mid-year conference started on November 1. It was an opportunity to bring together the yoga world where gratitude has been one of the greatest teachings and the professional world. 

In many ways, I had no business going to this conference. It was a child custody symposium. With my current job, I have nothing to do with child custody evaluations. But I knew I had to go. I knew I had to be there amongst these amazing and inspiring people. And I am forever grateful I was there. Sure, I actually learned a bit that is beneficial to my work. I learned a bit more about children’s memories and processing as well as more statistics about child sexual abuse, but as important as that is to my work, the real gratitude came from just being amongst some amazing people.

I finally was able to articulate what I love so much about this group of people, and I finally was able to realize how important having a solid support is in our work. First, why I love this group of people. They are some of the most brilliant people I have ever met. I learn more at these conferences than any others. This group of people are at the cutting edge of the research and the innovations. But that’s not what I love most.

What I love most is the type of people attracted to AFCC. It is an interdisciplinary and international organization. This means we learn from each other in ways that are simply not possible in other organizations. But more importantly it means we have to leave our preconceived notions at the door. Lawyers have to be a bit less adversarial, and psychologists sometimes have to give answers (just to throw a few unproven stereotypes into the mix). 

But it even goes beyond that. This organization is full of people always willing to help. It does not matter if you are a student or a psychologist or the chief judge of a country, your name badge has your first name on it, and that’s what people call you. And every one of them seems willing to talk and be a support. One of the staff members said that when members call the office looking for help, she knows she can find the right person to answer, and that person will always answer. That’s just the way people in this organization are.

And no, I’m not being paid to promote AFCC. I am just that grateful. When I was in law school, people always said the most important thing to have in a career is a mentor. In yoga, people always talk about finding the right teacher (or sometimes use the word guru). There is no doubt that we cannot do anything alone, whether it is a legal career or yoga. The most important step is finding a supportive and inspiring community.

So, another conference has come and gone. But with it a deep sense of gratitude. I am not only grateful to the amazing people at the conference, the wonderful conversations, and the never ending support from people no first year lawyer would usually have the opportunity to meet. I am grateful for the reminder to be grateful.

Yoga has helped me understand how to bring gratitude into my daily life. It has softened my heart to be able to simply say thank you when that is what is necessary. And this conference falling as it did at the very beginning of November was an opportunity to stop and think about that gratitude, to think how lucky I am to have found this family (ok, for those who know, to have grown up in this family). As I said above, some days are easier than others to find that gratitude in every moment, but a nice refresher every now and then is just what is necessary. Happy November!

How are you celebrating gratitude this month?!?!


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Compassion, Gratitude, and Vulnerability

I have to tell you about two amazing people. One is seven years old, and the other is her mom. They live in New York. And not too long ago the 7-year-old had to stay home for a while because she was sick. Her mom stayed with her, and together they started Lovey Repair. Their “business” was recently featured on a NYTimes blog post. The title of the post is, “A Repaired Lovey, and a Debt Unrepaid.” So what is the business? They sew up old Loveys, or stuffed animals, pillows, etc. that have been a little too well loved and send them back to their owners all better and refreshed.

The catch? Their service is free. Mom tells daughter, “It’s a priceless business, lovey repair.” Wow! How awesome is that? Just a kind gesture to anyone who needs some extra love returned to their lives.

But it seems this may be also difficult for some people to accept. Perhaps most of us even? The author of the post was worried the duo would be inundated with requests, but Mom replied, “It always seems to work itself out.. The not charging thing actually can freak people out — I think there’s a security in the quid pro quo of capitalism that some people need.” The author wrote:

I think I would have been that person: if I had realized I was asking a total stranger for a favor, would I have really asked? It’s difficult enough to ask a friend for a favor. When I realized I couldn’t “repay” little pillow’s rescuers, I didn’t know how to feel. Gratitude, completely without connection, is an unfamiliar emotion, a little uncomfortable, and a little freeing.

Why is it so hard for us to accept favors? Why are we so afraid to allow people into our lives? Why does it matter that the people are friends or strangers?

I firmly believe that every person in the world should be required to live in a country where they do not speak the language as their primary language for a minimum of 3 months. And no, I do not actually think there is any entity in the world that could, or should, enforce this, but it is a dream nonetheless. Why? Part of the reason is so that we better understand one another. But more and more I have come to realize that one of the greatest benefits I gained from living abroad was the ability to be vulnerable, ask for help, and accept a welcoming gesture.

My first week living in France, I had just turned 21 (literally, I turned 21 exactly one week after arriving in the country), and I was going to Marseille from Aix-en-Provence with some new friends who were also in France on an educational exchange. I was a bit late, and of course I could not find the bus stop. I had spent years learning French and two years practicing it fairly intensely in college. I was scared to death to ask someone for directions. But eventually I did. And I found my bus, went to Marseille, and I had a lovely day. Taking that first step to open my mouth, unsure of whether someone else would understand me and unsure whether I would understand the response was one of the hardest things I did while living there. 

We put up barriers to other people for a variety of reasons. I can think of a few, and maybe you can think of plenty more. I think we do it because we are scared they will let us down, we are scared we will look weak, because we think we live in a zero-sum world where if we admit weakness everything is over, or because we are taught to do everything on our own. But with those barriers comes a sense of being stuck. Those barriers prevent us from our full potential. It is part of of many yoga paradoxes that giving ourselves support actually helps us go deeper into asanas.

These barriers we erect, whether a fear of accepting a gift or something else, stop us from connecting with one another, asking for help, and ultimately reaching our fullest and deepest selves. We cannot move beyond these barriers until we let ourselves be vulnerable. Sometimes we do that on purpose by going to a foreign country and looking for a bus, and other times that vulnerability falls in our lap by a 7-year-old girl and her mother repairing a loved and cherished friend without asking for anything in return.

And when we finally let others in, we find a deep sense of gratitude, which, as the blogger wrote, is ultimately freeing. As Pema Chodron said in the quote at the top of the last post, “Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” But our shared humanity is lost when we keep up the barriers. Lovey Repair is an example of compassion in action. Without regard to the recipient’s state in any way, the two of them just offer a little needed love. It is the acceptance of that love that seems to be difficult for people. Why should I accept something that is free? Doesn’t everything come with a cost? If I get something for free, am I going to have to repay it later at a higher cost?

Perhaps the cost here is the vulnerability. In many ways, it is easier to hand over cash than to let go of a little piece of ourselves. That is a huge step for many of us. But it is also a vital step. We are so good at hiding behind emails that get inappropriate and out of control, our own beliefs about why we are right, and all the other ways we block ourselves from connecting to others. But as the blogger noted, allowing that vulnerability in is “refreshing.” It can wake us up to our humanity in ways we simply cannot access elsewhere.

And yes, yoga is another perfect opportunity to find this sense of vulnerability. There are so many practices for opening up our compassion and our shared humanity. Those are posts for another day. But the first step is letting go of our ingrained views about how things should be. Instead, accept a helping hand when it is offered. Sometimes, all we need to do is say thank you. And sometimes that is the most difficult step.

Thank you, Lovey Repair, not only for the repairs, but for bringing a little slice of true compassion and gratitude into the world.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 26, 2012

That Which is Hidden is Our Greatest Treasure

"Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity." -- Pema Chodron

People come to yoga for a lot of reasons. Exercise, flexibility, stress management, and relaxation tend to dominate the list. Finding our darkness is not usually at the top of the list. Ironically this may be one of the most important ways yoga and law are connected, or at least one of the best ways yoga can inform the law and so many other aspects of modern life. That which is hidden in yoga is perhaps its greatest treasure.

Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun living in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. She has written several books, including The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, the book from which the above quote is taken. I was reading it the other day, and this quote struck me as something I had to hear (or read, but you get the idea). I realized this is at the heart of what we do in helping professions, and probably a big piece of why they lead to so much vicarious trauma for so many.

I think about this issue a lot, but I have never really had the ability, or perhaps the courage, to fully express it on this blog. I tried here but stopped at a more superficial level (a bit ironic considering the title of the post). Yoga has the potential, perhaps the inevitability, to bring us to the deepest places within us. In words, this is the body holding onto our emotions, which is why some people burst into laughter in yoga classes and some people burst into tears. That happens spontaneously when we tap those places within us holding those emotions.

When we make the commitment to look inside, we will probably learn to be more flexible and relaxed, and we will probably notice we handle stress better. But we may also notice the darkness. We may come face-to-face with everything we have been hiding from ourselves for years.

At first glimpse, this seems like a reason to not go so deep. It seems like a reason to get off the mat and into busyness. After all, busy is safe in this world. But even when we think we are running away, we cannot. It always comes back to get us. We have all experienced the vacation sicknesses. You know, the times you get sick on your vacation because you are finally allowing all those stress hormones to let go. It is no fun when we hide from what is inside only to have it come back unexpectedly.

Yoga gives us the opportunity to get there first. It gives us the opportunity to be (somewhat) in charge of facing what is beneath the surface. At one level, it helps us face our fears. We learn to be stronger people everyday. That does not seem to be a secret among the yoga world. I feel this gets simplified, as though this process is easy. “Of course, just learning to do a balance posture will bring us into balance in life.” It certainly gives us the tools to see it is possible, but yoga takes us deeper when we allow it.

And that deeper level is to finding our truest sense. As in the quote above, it can be our darkness. It can be that place within us we have done everything to hide. One of my fellow students in teacher training said she would go home from yoga classes yelling at her family, and she did not understand why. She had touched that place, but did not yet have the tools to move through it.

And yoga takes us there as well. When we hit those moments, whether our deepest darkness or our greatest lights, we keep moving, we keep breathing, we keep being. We can bring compassion to those moments (or years) and just let them be as they are. We can use certain asanas and breathing techniques to move through them, but and eventually they shift. But once we see ourselves for who we are, we see the greatest gift of all. We can then begin to connect with others and find compassion for them wherever they are.

And that is a lesson for all of us, especially for lawyers dealing with people in crisis.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day in which she said to me, “you’re a lawyer, you live in your head.” I laughed and said, “I think it is the other way around. I live in my head, so I’m a lawyer.” And that is exactly why yoga is so important in the legal profession. The law pretends to be rational, but the problem is that people are not. We need to be able to experience both in order to be able to best serve our clients.

As friends and family, we can best help our loved ones by understanding our deepest selves. And the truth is that can sometimes be very, very scary. It can also be very, very exciting. We have no idea what we may learn when we step onto the mat or sit on the cushion. What we do know is that this seemingly solitary practice is our best learning tool for connecting with our “shared humanity.” And while Pema’s quote only talks about finding our darkness to connect with the darkness in others, her point can be expanded. When we fully understand ourselves and our humanity, we can better understand others.

And that is true compassion. That allows us to connect with people and recognize we are all in this together no matter how different we may appear superficially. There may be two sides to a story or to a lawsuit, but underlying all of that is our humanity.  Our work on the mat is a personal practice, but it can help us give ourselves to the world. Of course, I love the feeling of relaxation at the end of a yoga class, but more and more every day I am learning to be grateful for the depths of the practice, the ones I always knew were there, but also knew would take time to reach.  

How has yoga helped you connect with yourself? How has it helped you connect with others? 

© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Hard Drive Effect

I have never lived a day without a computer. I am probably one of the oldest people who can say that (and yes, I’m only 30), and I feel pretty spoiled saying it, but I’m saying it to make a deeper point. Our very first family computer was an Apple IIe Plus. That was back when Apple was cool before it was not cool before it became the coolest thing ever. That’s societally speaking. My personal views of Apple are not necessary to the larger point.

That original computer had no hard drive on which to add information. None. There was absolutely no way to store information on the computer. (As I have mentioned before, my memory is terrible. I could be totally wrong about this, and if I am, I apologize.) The only way to store information was on a floppy disk. They were called that because they were actually floppy. I do not remember how much information they held, but it was around 1-2 megabytes, I think. The little floppy disks, which were no longer floppy, held around 3 megabytes, if I remember correctly, and they appeared shortly after the original floppy disks. Today, you can buy a thumb drive that holds 128 gigabytes. I am terrible at math, but I can feel pretty confident that is a lot more than 3 megabytes. And hard drives? They are measured in terabytes. I did not even know tera was a measurable unit until those hard drives came out.

And hard drive storage is not the only exponential increase. Gmail changed the face of email when it started offering 1gigabyte of storage with a free account. That was around 2004. Today, I am using 3 gigabytes of my 10.1 gigabyte account. That is a lot of emails, even if they have attachments. I am not a computer scientist, and hard drives rarely have anything to do with yoga, so what is the point?

We hold onto stuff. We hold onto a lot of stuff, even when we do not realize we are doing it.

We keep making more and more space to hold onto more and more stuff. I like to tell people that one of the things I like about moving so much is that I get to clean out my stuff once in awhile. But the truth is that electronically, I hold onto everything. Now that we can hold onto these items, we never have to let go. We can look through old emails and remind ourselves of our “justified” anger at someone about something that happened years ago. We can also look through old documents and photos to remind us where we have been. But all this space leaves us little incentive to delete items that no longer serve us.

And that’s energy. That’s energy we could let go but instead hold, even if we do not see it. It is the same energy we store in our bodies when we do not let go of that which no longer serves us. As we get more and more used to never letting go, our bodies think it is normal and continue to hold old energies. And our bodies can hold a lot more information than a terabyte or two (however much that actually is). 

These held energies do to us just what junk does to a hard drive. They create clutter. And clutter creates heaviness and pain. Pain and disease are often a result of stuck energy. When prana, the life force, does not freely flow through us, it creates pain. That pain can be a sore neck from jutting the neck out while looking at a computer screen, or it can be years of pent up emotions getting stuck in the hips until we have sciatica.

Clutter also creates confusion. When there is clutter in our energies, it is more difficult to think clearly. It is more difficult to respond rather than react. It is more difficult to be creative and innovative. We have to clear out these old patterns in order to make space for something new.

And yes, this is where yoga can help. Yoga gives us the opportunity to tune into our bodies and minds and let go of the clutter. It also gives us a chance to see what and where we have held our energies. When we sit in meditation, we can watch our thoughts race by and just let them be. When we let them come and go without getting caught up in them, over time, it becomes easier just to let them arise and then disappear. When we tune into the pain and stuck energy in our bodies, over time, we can learn to breathe into it, soften into it, and let it start moving again. Eventually, the pain begins to dissipate.

But this does not happen overnight. We are hardwiring ourselves to hold onto energy, to hold onto clutter. We are creating samskaras of holding energy. As our hard drives get bigger, and we take less time in quiet solitude, we create holding patterns rather than releasing patterns. These patterns are difficult to break. But it can be done. And over time, releasing these patterns, and releasing these energies can only open us up to bigger opportunities going forward.

This does not mean I am deleting my hard drive. But I may start deleting more emails. I also may start deleting the photos I do not like. Just because I can save them does not mean I should. But most importantly, it is time to notice the holding patterns within ourselves. How does our excessive ability to never let go inhibit our ability to let go of that which no longer serves us? 

How do you notice yourself holding onto energy? What do you do to release it?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.