Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Body as Storage, or Confronting Trauma

My travels have finally stopped for a bit, and I have found a few yoga classes I like. It feels good to be getting back into the groove of a more “normal” life. By normal, I mostly mean that I stay at home on the weekends and can actually do some errands. It also means I can start attending yoga classes more regularly. My daily practice has, once again, become daily, and it feels wonderful. But there is something differently wonderful about attending a class. Sometimes they are not everything I hope they will be, but sometimes they hit me just where I need. This Sunday’s class was one such class.

The teacher started class by reminding us that we hold emotions in our bodies. She said, and I am paraphrasing to the best of my memory, “Each traumatic experience we have is stored in our body, and it can come back to us at any moment.” Think muscle memory and brain patterns. The body literally holds onto experiences until we let them go. Of course, this is just as true for joyful memories as it is for traumatic ones. People have been known to laugh or cry hysterically in yoga “for no reason.” The reason, however, is the body remembering the occasion and bringing it back to the surface.

This is something I think about all the time on my own (some would, perhaps, say too often). In the class, however, we went together into the pain we hold in our bodies. The teacher asked us to face the fear we hold in our bodies. Generally, the only classes I attend where we consciously go deep into long-held postures and really confront the body’s depths are restorative and yin classes. I love both those types of classes. In Sunday’s class, however, we held Warrior 1 and Triangle for long periods. We did not hold them for five minutes, but we definitely held them for longer than is generally typical.

While I certainly have my own hip / low-back issues to address, I found myself thinking throughout class about my clients. With the reminder that every traumatic experience we have is stored in our body’s muscle memory, my mind turned to my clients who, by definition, have experienced some sense of trauma, and many of them have experienced a significant amount of it. My clients range in age from 17 days to 17 years. All of them have trauma.

And then my mind turned to the lawyers with whom I work, and the rest of the people who work within the legal system generally, whether lawyers, staff, social workers, psychologists. More and more people recently have become aware of the concept known as Secondary Shock or Vicarious Trauma, in which people in helping professions experience the trauma of their clients vicariously through them. The only difference is that when trauma is experienced secondhand, we do not always recognize it for what it is. The body can tell no difference, but our minds, for whatever reason, think there is one.  

I asked myself what I can do to help these people who hold so much in their bodies and have no idea. My mind wandered to my infant clients born into this world in even more trauma than typical of birth (birth, of course, being a traumatic experience for everyone). It then wandered to my clients who have chosen life on the streets because, as they say in their own words, they don’t know any different.

Of course, this blog is the step I took to try to bring awareness to these issues. I do not see this being my only confrontation of this topic on this blog. It is not only important; it is vital that we learn about it and talk about it. But what about today? What about the people who have no internet access or the people who know nothing about yoga. I take my yoga-ness with me everywhere, on some level. I have talked to clients and others about breathing and walking away at times.

But then I remember the trauma. I remember all they have experienced. All I can do in those moments is hope, pray, and believe that the human spirit and consciousness is greater than the sum of its parts, and that everyone and anyone is capable of overcoming anything they have experienced in life.

I have said before that I believe yoga is for everyone. It does not take a particular level of fitness, calm, flexibility, or even time. It does, however, take a desire to start. Sometimes living life through a yoga lens means seeing all the people who have not yet seen its beauty. I do not think yoga is the answer for everyone, but I wish more people were able to find their answer.

Where do you notice the tension being stored? Have you ever experienced unannounced emotion in a yoga class?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

One Year Later: A Lesson on Stability

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that one year ago today, I was in Christchurch New Zealand and at 12:51pm an earthquake struck that devastated the city, killed over 180 people, and from which I was evacuated to the US Ambassador’s home in Wellington aboard a New Zealand Air Force jet.

For much of my time in New Zealand, I felt a day ahead, yet somehow behind because I woke up around the time the news day ended on the east coast of the United States. Today, I feel a day behind. February 21 means nothing in New Zealand other than the day before tragedy struck. And yet it is today, the 21st, that I must realize that one year ago I was in that earthquake.

Many people I admire and respect are writing about their memories and sharing the memories of others on that tragic day. Other than restating my immense and continuing gratitude to the people in Christchurch who helped us get out safely and quickly (with only immense guilt to follow) and the US Embassy for ensuring all of us were accounted for, and our Kiwi companions were not forgotten, I have little to add to the memories. I honestly feel like I had a different experience than most people. I was never in any physical danger, I saw no people in physical pain, or worse, and I was out of the city less than 6 hours after the earthquake struck.

But it was not until about a month after the earthquake that I realized I had been in shock for that month. When I felt normal again, I realized something had been abnormal. But looking back on that moment, day, and shared experience over time, I am reminded of the hardest realization I had about earthquakes – they are an unannounced event that literally shakes the very foundation upon which we stand and rely for support throughout our day. For that reason, they shock us to the core, and they force us to reevaluate the steadiness we thought we had.

It may seem trite to compare this to lawyering, but I have done it before in an “Expecting Disaster” context. But as a practicing lawyer, I see it happening around me all the time. I start most days having a decent idea of what I am to expect . . . or so I think. Rarely have my days ended as I expected they would at 6am in the morning. We can be prepared, but something unexpected and new sometimes pops up.

The question is how should we respond? In Christchurch, I saw the best of people. Everyone I saw, and all the stories I heard, were of people forgetting their own needs and helping each other. People in suits rescued folks from burning rubble, and a waitress told an ex-Congressman fromTucson to be sure to take his lunch with him as it might be the last meal hewould have for a wee while. People responded as they had to because their common goodness kicked in.

What if we responded that way to the “crises” we face each and every day? I lamented for weeks after the earthquake, and again after the terrible tragedy in Japan, that it should not take a crisis of unspeakable tragedy to bring people together in such profound and deep ways. I still wonder what would happen if our response to each unsettling moment that we view as the crisis du jour (or worse, du moment), were seen instead as an opportunity to see the good in each other and to make the best of each and every circumstance.

There is no question that some of the unexpected moments of my first two months at a new job have thrown me for a loop . . . or several. But something interesting happened to me the other day. I was in a yoga class, and for the first time since stepping back onto American soil on December 11, I truly felt like I was back in the United States. It was as though the confusion of living in two time zones, two worlds, and two mindsets had finally lifted. I felt connected to the Earth and felt it solidly beneath me.

That was just over one week ago. The earthquake anniversary is a reminder that such a connection may not always be there. Craziness will continue to ensue in my life and at work. Unexpected moments will continue to arise, and each one will present the opportunity to respond. No matter what your life entails, I can almost guarantee you will face such moments as well. I ask us all, myself absolutely included, to respond with the same humanity, dignity, and oneness I witnessed in Christchurch.

I would like to revise my laments from last year. Perhaps it does take a crisis to bring out these moments within us, but perhaps the crisis is something we initially believe is one until we realize that we are all in this together. As we held each other through each aftershock, we knew the shaking would continue, but we also knew we were all there for each other. Some of those people I have not seen since that day, and some of them will be friends for life.

How would the world be different if we all reached out to each other in our moments of shakiness and unexpected crises?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Living in Our Own Shadows

There has been some controversy in the yoga world recently. I follow a lot of yoga blogs, and there is always a topic du jour that takes the yoga blogosphere by storm.  I have never previously commented on them because even if I sometimes find these issues interesting, I do not see them being interesting to the readers of this blog. But this current one is something that I think is important for everyone to consider.

In a nutshell, the current controversy revolves around John Friend and his “brand” of yoga – Anusara. To make a long story short, many of his high-level teachers have stepped down, and as of a few days ago, even John has decided to take a break. For purposes of full disclosure, I did my teacher training with someone who is Anusara certified, and I really respect its teachings, but I am not, nor have ever tried to be, Anusara certified.

So why do I care? More importantly, why should you?

John Friend is/was the leader of a type of yoga that has gone international. He owned the company as a sole proprietorship (the legal implications of which are huge, but sadly, that is not the type of law I practice, so I am not going to even pretend to be competent to comment on those legal issues, but I would be curious about it, so leave some thoughts in the comments if you know about this). This was his brand. Anusara teaches about opening to grace. It teaches energetic anatomy and community. These are powerful and beautiful teachings, but the man at the top admittedly had serious interpersonal issues and is being accused of some fairly serious infractions. While I have no personal knowledge of the veracity of the accusations, the appearance of impropriety is something lawyers take very seriously.

John Friend is not the first spiritual-type leader to face controversy for his personal actions. In fact, the list is fairly long, and some refer to these people as “fallen gurus.” As leaders of a spiritual community, their public lives revolve around particular teachings that their personal lives rebel against on a daily basis. Some argue this is what makes them such wonderful teachers – they can be compassionate and understanding of the difficulties of the human condition.

At some level, we all do it. We do everything in our power to hide the truth, sometimes having to even hide it from ourselves. It shocks people to learn that I do not practice yoga every single day (unless the deep breaths in the car count). I often talk to people who say one thing about how they act, and the next day I see them acting in contravention of that statement.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon. Is this how we can believe that it is always the other person who is being unreasonable? Is this how we can demonize people for whom we find it difficult to have compassion? In the story about John Friend, the accusations are that his inappropriate behavior was happening for years, but no one said anything about it. I can only guess why people would hide this information if it was true. But it is not the first time we have heard about this. Institutions keep secrets. Loyalty, friendship, and the need to keep the institution alive mean that it is easier to take care of the problems “on the inside,” rather than shed light on them.

And this brings me to the legal profession. We are a self-regulating profession. Lawyers have an ethical duty to report other lawyers who violate the Rules of Professional Responsibility, but the requirement that lawyers act at all times in ways that do not lead to an appearance of impropriety never manifested. Judges must, but lawyers need not.

Is this just a recognition that none of us are perfect? Is it a recognition that we are all going to make mistakes? The “fallen guru” phenomenon, and the ostensibly hypocritical actions so many of us take might actually be something different altogether. Real people recognize that which is so difficult for them in their own lives. Therefore, they ask, and sometimes demand, others to be “better” than them. But then they must hide their own personal failings, begging their closest allies and friends not to tell anyone about. And then, when it finally surfaces, entire institutions fall overnight.

No one can live with that guilt forever. No one can live with those secrets forever. Perhaps this is why lawyers are not prohibited from acting in ways that could lead to the appearance of impropriety. As a profession, we did not want to force ourselves into that double bind, into that shadowy existence. The lack of that requirement used to bother me, but with so many of these hidden worlds coming to light, perhaps it is better not to force people to pretend to be something they are not. Out in the open, we can nip problems in the bud much faster.

The teachings of Anusra are wonderful. I do not know John Friend, nor will I probably ever meet him, but sadly his story, whether true or not, might destroy all that he worked to build all because he possibly felt the need to be one person on the outside while living a private life in direct contravention of his teachings. I find that incredibly sad and disheartening.

How do you notice this in the world?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Body as Teacher

I have mentioned before that I went into yoga teacher training hoping to go deeper into yoga teachings. I used to scoff, somewhat, at the role asana plays in yoga. Sure, I thought, postures are important, but the real yoga is meditation and the changes it brings to our spirits, not our bodies.

But yoga teacher training changed all that. Not only did I learn about the koshas, and how yogis have always described how our bodies are one pathway to learning about the deeper aspects of ourselves, but I also experienced it myself. Sure, I always had known that our hips hold our emotions, and working with hips will often bring people to tears of laughter or tears of sorrow, but I had never, somehow, equated this to acknowledging the deepest potential of asana, or the postures.

(Ok, a quick aside – the real reason is because I got caught up in the feeling that the 100% asana-focused practice of modern, American yoga is not real yoga, so I had to rebel against that. I have since softened my belief structure around that, and I know, and have always known, that we can never remove the body from the rest of our being, but yeah, I got caught in that American yoga vs. “real” yoga debate.)

In some ways, it is silly that I never acknowledged this deep connection. After all, I have always understood how the body is one of the first indicators of our deeper sanity and being. I still believe the breath is our greatest teacher, but the body is like its right-hand man. And if you want proof, look at your colleagues. Look at yourself. I would wager a fairly large bet you already know this.

I’m going to use myself as an example these past few weeks. Prior to the past two weeks, the last time I was sick for more than a day, maybe two, was two years ago, and that lasted about three days. It turns out it was a cold or allergies. I cannot remember the last time I got the flu, if ever, and I had not experienced stress-related stomach anxiety since the bar exam. (To be honest, I do not remember that, but someone else does, so knowing what I know about memory, I will go with hers.) Prior to that, the last time I felt it was in college. Growing up, my stomach was a pretty solid indicator of my stress levels. And I had a lot of stomach issues. I was, apparently, a stressed-out kid. I will spare you the details of my last two weeks, but let's just say, my body has informed me that I am a wee bit stressed.

So once again, yoga and the law have taught me the same lessons as two sides of the same coin. Yoga helped me move beyond the stress-response in my body, and I was rarely, if ever, sick, and the law brought me right back to what was always underneath it all. I have learned three things from this, and I think they are worth sharing with anyone out there who notices these issues.

First, I really do love my job. It is difficult, scary, and stressful, but I get to do work I hope is useful, and I work with some of the most amazing people I know. Not only do I like them, but I truly and deeply respect them. I work in a system that needs serious healing, but it is also a system in which everyone there is working to make it better. It may not be perfect yet, and probably never will be, but everyone cares, and that is a huge step in the right direction. Why does loving the work matter? Because I am willing to find ways to work within it rather than run away at 100 miles per hour and never looking back. 

Second, the body is a teacher. Yes, I knew this. Yes, I was listening. And yes, I was also ignoring the signs. I had work to do. And the downward spiral began. It ended in the same stomach anxiety I had not experienced in years. It resulted in headaches and a sore back. These are all the complaints of modern America. But these are complaints I had not been making myself for years. And that brings me to the third lesson.

Yoga works. Yep, it has been all over the news that yoga can cause physical pain. And guess what? I agree 100%!!! There is a reason I never teach headstands in my classes or even shoulderstands unless I know the students and know they are safe doing them. There are many, many days I do not do either because I know my body is not up for it. So, yes, yoga can cause harm . . . when done without care and attention. But when we tune in and listen, yoga works. We can use the body to calm the mind and the mind to ease the body. The back pain, headaches, and anxiety can begin to be calmed. Are they going to disappear forever? Probably not. When I was a camp counselor, our boss once said, we could easily prevent all the children from ever getting hurt by having them sit inside in a circle all day. But would that be camp? Nope. So we had to find a happy medium – keep the kids as safe as possible, but also let them be kids.

Our own lives are the same. We could do nothing and be safe, calm, and pain free. Or we can live life and learn to live it in a way that is as safe and calm and pain-free as possible each moment. The body is a great indicator, and one that yoga can help. When the body is in a state of pain, it is in a state of dis-ease. By learning to recognize the signs early, hopefully we can keep ourselves free of deeper disease.

How have you noticed this in your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When We Dehumanize Ourselves

The last post discussed what happens to us when we dehumanize other people. This post is going to focus on how often we choose to dehumanize ourselves. There are a couple of reasons I chose to write them in this order even though so much of this blog has focused on the need to care for ourselves first and foremost. After all, as I was reminded at the MindfulLawyer Conference, “the heart pumps blood to itself first.”

I chose to write about dehumanizing others first because honestly, it has been more in my face, so to speak. Daily I have witnessed people who ostensibly care deeply about others speaking in awful ways about people because of those peoples’ actions. But then I realized that we can only begin to dehumanize others when we have learned to do it to ourselves just like we can only truly care about others once we have learned to care for ourselves.

So, why do we dehumanize ourselves? It is a coping mechanism. It allows us to not endure the full impact of the emotional world in which we find ourselves. On many levels this is necessary. At the most recent conference I attended this past weekend, a lawyer stood up in the room and said his job is to be a lawyer, not his client’s bff (and yes, he said b-f-f). And he is right; we need to step off the emotional roller coaster that clients (or friends and family) want us to ride.

But it can also cause us pain. When we dehumanize ourselves and turn off our emotional centers, we train ourselves to do just that. When we tune out the pain, we are also training ourselves to tune out the joy and happiness. We are creating new samskaras, or patterns, of how to interact with people. This time, however, they are about tuning people out, so we can protect ourselves.

It can be scary to meet your clients, or anyone, where they are emotionally. It means being vulnerable. It means sometimes feeling their pain. But it also means that we remember how to emotionally connect to ourselves as well. Bringing ourselves back to this state of humanization reminds us how to humanize others. It helps us empathize with them and not be dull to their pain.

At the end of the day, we are all in this world together. Thus, dehumanizing ourselves and dehumanizing others are, in many ways, the same. They are defenses to protect us for recognizing that people we think are awful are also human, and to protect ourselves from feeling the pain that others experience. But these mechanisms also keep us apart from people and ourselves. We are less able to experience joy and happiness, less able to laugh, and less able to fully experience all that life has to offer.

There are certainly days where tuning out is necessary. But when we make it a practice, we only bring long-term harm to ourselves. I cannot claim to be an expert in dealing with this. My new job forces me to confront this not on a daily basis, but on an hourly one. But what I have realized, in this job and before, is that when we choose to separate consciously, we can consciously return, as long as sometimes we are willing to go to the place of connection, even when painful. I notice my life start to become a crazy mess when I tune out and dehumanize myself without realizing it. When I finally do realize that I have done it, I realize how difficult it is to come back to a place of joy. But the realization helps, and each time it gets easier. It is about creating the patterns of humanization.

Do you notice when you do this? What do you do about it?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.