Monday, March 26, 2012

Props, Support, and Paradox

"Using props means I am not as good of a yogi, right?" "Only people who are not flexible need props." "I can touch the floor, so what good does a prop do me?" These common myths about props in yoga correlate fairly directly with our common myths about support in our lives generally.

We live in a world that is moving more and more toward the individual, away from support structures. We are told, whether consciously or unconsciously, that we need to be able to make it on our own. I am reminded of the scene in “American Beauty,” where the mother informs the daughter, “the only person you can trust in the world is yourself.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. The notion is out there – looking to others for support is, at best, a sign of weakness, and at worst, detrimental to our survival.

Yet, deep within ourselves, I would bet that most of us know this is simply not true. As has been mentioned before, the yoga paradox shows us that the more support we have, the deeper we can go, support also allows us to to further in our lives. In addition, humans are social creatures who not only crave societal interactions but rely upon them for survival. As hunter-gatherers, if we did not have each other, large felines probably would have destroyed us as a species. Creating societies of togetherness has its downfalls – we see those outside our set worlds as “others” – but it also ensures our survival, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

And yet so many of us are afraid to ask for help.

I was at a yoga class this weekend in which we spent most of the class using props, following an Iyengar approach. It was not, however, a restorative class, where I am used to doing that. During teacher training, we learned some techniques for using props in non-restorative (as well as restorative) postures, but I had never attended a class structured around the use of props. It was a small class, and it worked great! The support from the props did not necessarily make the asanas easier. In some ways, they were more difficult. But they were also more “correct.” And the props allowed me to go into postures in ways I never had before.

With the support of the props, the focus could be on ensuring the postures were opening and strengthening properly and safely, instead of struggling just to hold the pose incorrectly. With the use of props, we could fully open up instead of cutting off circulation by pushing ourselves into positions are bodies are not ready to accomplish. In turn, the body can eventually go deeper into the poses quicker and more safely than it ever could have done on its own. The support gets the mind out of the way and allows the body to open up to its fullest potential.

Once again, the body is a lesson for the rest of life. Asking other people for support does not mean we are weak. It does not mean we cannot do it on our own. It may not even make life easier overall. It will, however, help remove the internal struggle we have with ourselves, the struggle that tells us to go further than we are ready. That is how we injure ourselves. That is how we create harm. But with the appropriate support, we can hold ourselves up and move forward in ways that would otherwise take much longer or even cause us harm. With proper support, we can soar to new heights and new ideas without worry.

Props in yoga can be used for all sorts of reasons. They can protect our vulnerable knee joints from taking on too much strain. They can lift the floor to where we can reach, so we can create space in the body instead of constriction. They can be gentle reminders to bring attention to particular parts of ourselves that need attention in a particular pose. They can also be used to keep us from literally falling over in balance postures. When we know how to properly use props, our practice can soar to new heights.

Support off the mat is similar. By finding the proper support, we can protect our vulnerabilities, ensure that our goals are within reach, focus on areas we may have overlooked without the help of outside sources, and ensure we stay as balanced as possible along the way. But the first step is recognizing we need the support and that asking for it will take us further in all our endeavors.

Where do you find support most helpful? How has support changed your yoga practice? How has it changed your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Very Simple Lens

“This issue should be viewed through the very simple lens of a crime having been committed.”

This sentence was uttered by a lawyer at a conference I attended this past weekend. The context is not important, and this blog is not the place to discuss the particular issues associated with the context. But it is absolutely a place to talk about the phrase, “a very simple lens.”

If I have learned anything by studying the law and yoga together, it is that the only simple statement I can make is that there is no simple lens of anything. There is no simple way to see the issues we face every single day as lawyers, nor as people generally. And our interconnected world is making this evident on levels and in situations we have never before experienced.

As I have mentioned before, there is rarely, if ever, one truth. We all see the world through our own concepts of our subjective truths. Most days I wish there were a single, simple truth that we could view through a single, simple lens. Life would be easier. This is why we hold our communities of like-minded individuals close. We preach to our own choir, and we forward emails with which we agree and delete those with which we disagree. I do it as well sometimes. Often it is with a pang of regret, but I tell myself it is because I do not have enough time for those emails. I will talk to people with whom I disagree, but I do not read their emails apparently. That is a line I have drawn many times.

But that is no longer an option. We can no longer live in the bubbles in which we would sometimes like to hide. We can see the entire world too easily. Lawyers meet yogis and realize they are not all chanting and meditating on a mountain (though the thought is nice at times). Yogis meet lawyers and realize they are not all money-hungry, corporation-protecting monsters. The CEO of Starbucks, a gigantic corporation, says we should take corporate money out of politics until the politicians get their acts together. The simplicity of putting people into a box becomes impossible the moment we open our eyes to all that people can be.

Unfortunately, the more difficult it becomes to actually see the world through a simple lens, the more some people attempt to do it. I actually think this is why we are witnessing such polarizing political worldviews today. We are becoming overwhelmed with the information overload, and we are not taking the time away from that overload and giving ourselves a break. No one, without serious practice, can be expected to jump into seeing issues from all sides. It simply, pardon the phrase, does not fit into the biological structure of fight-or-flight. It is evolutionarily safer to put people into a box of good or bad because then we know whether to allow them in or to kill them to save ourselves.

And it is also difficult and scary on an emotional and psychological level. What if the way I view the world is wrong? What if the way I see my truth is not real? The simple lens is so much easier, less time consuming, and immediately safer.

But in a more and more connected world, it is no longer a possibility. We no longer live in a world where everything must be viewed as a threat. Instead, we exist in a world where we must learn to see each other fully, or we will destroy ourselves. Albert Einstein once said, “I do not know with what weapons World War Three will be fought, but I know that World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones.”

We can no longer afford simple.

Lawyers are trained to cling to one truth or another, to find the simplest way to explain a situation, and this causes us, at times, to start to see the world in black and white terms. This does not mean all do; in fact, most lawyers I know see nuance and context more than simplicity. But the training is there, and the vestiges remain. Yogis, by contrast, are trained to open to new possibilities, whether in a physical asana or in a mental practice. Like lawyers, not all yogis do as they are trained, and many turn into fundamentalists convinced their way is the only way.

Do you notice yourself seeing the world through a simple lens? Are there particular areas you notice it more than others? What do you do about it when you notice it?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Wind, wind, and more wind

I loved New Zealand – LOVED IT!! I do not, however, think I could live there. It is one of the windiest places I have ever been, and I recently read (though sadly I do not remember where), that Wellington is actually the windiest place on the planet. They do not call it Windy Welly for nothing. This week, Tucson has felt like Wellington, with one key difference. Tucson being the desert, we have the added benefit of dust. Lots of dust. One day I could not even see the mountains, and the surround the city!

And yes, wind actually has something to do with yoga and the law. One aspect of yoga that has never graced the pages of this blog is the medicinal aspect, called Ayurveda medicine. It is an ancient Indian healing system still in use today, and becoming more and more popular in the United States. A gross, gross generalization of one of its most basic tenets is that all people can be divided into 3 categories or types or some combination of those types. They are: vata, pitta, or kapha. Each type is associated with certain elements and qualities.

Today, I am only going to talk about the first, vata, because it is associated with the energy of wind. When vata energy is out of balance in someone, they can become, similar to the wind, erratic and powerful with no visible cause. Our bodies can feel light and airy, which can cause us to feel unsettled. Someone once told me that one of the greatest cause of suicide of the early pioneers crossing the Great Plains of the United States was the wind. It literally drove people crazy.

 When the wind is at its most intense, issues arise out of nowhere, people are less than their most kind when interacting with each other, and we all tend to feel a bit “off,” but there is no visible reason why . . . until we realize how ungrounded we are. In a world that is constantly go, go, go, yoga is an opportunity to stop and reflect for a moment. It is a chance to slow the movement and give us a chance to reflect. It is also grounding. When we are grounded, we are literally solid and connected to a deeper support structure. The Earth can hold us in its strength. The wind comes along and rips that away from us. While it is not as destructive as an earthquake (except when it hits tornado levels, as the United States continues to realize), it has the same ungrounding effect but without the sudden shock. It is just there. All the time.

This is my second spring experience this year. Interestingly, as the Earth comes into its equinox, the wind picks up, throwing all of us out of our own personal balance. So what do we do about it? A simple piece of the solution is to stand in Tadasana, Mountain Pose. It is in Tadasana that we solidly place our feet on the ground, and imagine we hold the strength and solidity of a mountain. No matter how powerful the wind becomes, it cannot knock over a mountain. By standing in Mountain Pose, we can begin to teach our body to hold that same strength always.

But I am also going to suggest one other pose, perhaps because it holds such a dear place in my heart – Vrksasana or Tree Pose. Trees can definitely fall over in the wind, but if I learned one thing hiking around the windiest country in the world, it is that most of the time, they simply adapt and grow with the wind. They dig in their roots, and while they make look precarious on the mountain’s edge, they hold their ground solidly.

Trees hanging onto the side of a mountain in New Zealand.

When we feel our most erratic and disjointed, a strong reminder that no matter how powerful the wind can be, our roots can hold us steady in the Earth, is a great reminder.

How do you notice the wind’s effects? What do you do to respond?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Remember the Eyes

Yoga comes in all shapes and sizes. To some, it is purely asana focused. To others, it is nothing but a prescription for meditation. And there are all sorts of combinations of yoga with something else (you know, yoga and wine or yoga and chocolate). Most days I wonder if the word yoga really even means anything to anyone anymore.

Why do I bring this up? Because today I want to talk about yoga of the eyes.

First let me explain why. The modern world requires many of us to spend hours per day at a computer, and there is little question that today's world is full of people living in chronic stress. There is one more common characteristic between stress and computers; they both have the ability to give us a really bad headache. Computers force us to squint, and the glare tires out our eyes causing the muscles around the eyes to tighten, which over time leads to a headache. I do not think I need to talk about how stress leads to headaches. Something tells me you understand.

One of my favorite things about yoga is that it has taught me to understand muscles in ways I never deemed possible. In some ways, the most exciting of those lessons have been about the muscles around the eyes. These are not muscles we go to the gym to work out. They are not going to make or break our health goals. But they may just hold the key to those afternoon (and sometimes morning) headaches.

The best part about this is that you can do it anywhere . . . and I mean anywhere. Now that I am spending a lot less time at a desk, but a lot more time waiting at court or in a car, I am looking for things to do anywhere. All it takes is 60-90 seconds (or longer, if you want) and a willingness to close your lids and move your eyes. Really. For the record, I am not advocating closing your eyes while driving, but just as you get into the car, or just before getting out, are perfect opportunities to take a few moments to relax, and releasing the eye muscles after using them for such concentration, is a perfect relaxation tool.

So what is eye yoga? Close your eyes (after reading the rest of the paragraph). Look straight ahead, and consciously allow the eyes to fall to the back of the eye socket. Even if they do not physically move, imagine they are, and notice the muscles around the eyes beginning to relax. Then move the eyes as far to the right as they will go, and hold for 5-10 seconds. Then repeat to the left, to the bottom, and to the top. Then look in all four diagonals for 5-10 seconds. Then roll the eyes in a circle first one direction and then the other 5-10 times. Then refocus the eyes to the center and relax the muscles around them once again. Then smile. Just because.

We hold tension in so many places in our bodies, but the eyes take one of the most thorough beatings of any part of our body during the day. Why is it, then, that we almost universally ignore the eyes as a source of potential relaxation? What have you done for your eyes today?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Remember the Eyes 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.