Monday, July 30, 2012

Everything as a Gift

I first learned of Rumi when I was a sophomore in high school. My English teacher was . . . eccentric. But in many ways, she was my first introduction to what would become my current path. Not only Rumi but Lao Tzu graced our reading lists, and even then, I connected with their words. Rumi’s poem, The Guest House, the poem I first read 16 years ago, comes and goes in my life, and right now, I feel its draw again. Here is the poem in full:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

In short, he says, welcome whatever comes. It will not be staying long, and it may be making space for something amazing! It can be very easy to get caught up in the sorrows and meanness, especially when we are always expecting disaster, participating in the downward spiral of email, or caught up in vicarious trauma. But as Rumi points out, these experiences are just momentary guests. We may feel that some will overstay their welcome, but eventually they pack up and go. Eventually something new takes their place.

Yoga has shown me another level of The Guest House. Not only are these moments in life going to come and go, but we never have to let them define us. Our humanity, “this being human” is about being the building where these moments occur. They are not who we are. We are not defined by our sorrows anymore than we are defined by our joys. They are simply visitors who interact with us and perhaps change us, but they need not define us.

It is easy to think they define us. When we forget how temporary each of these guests are in our lives, it is easy to allow them to overtake our mentality. But when we do that, we forget that every one of these guests is something that can teach us something new.

I have been extremely blessed to have travelled a lot in my life. I have spent many nights in hostels interacting with people from around the world. And each and every one of them has taught me something new. I see them as the physical embodiment of Rumi's point. Sometimes I really enjoyed our conversations, and other times I was fairly annoyed by them, but I have always learned from them, and then they vanished from my life and I from their life. Rumi reminds us that all of our life experiences can be the same type of gift. We can always learn from them.

And we never know when they are going to clear us “for some new delight.” And thus, each and every one of them is a gift. We just have to recognize them as such. And that can be hard. That can be really hard. But Rumi helps give us a new perspective, a new way to smile and laugh when we think life is going to overwhelm us.

I have not, in any way, mastered Rumi’s suggestion. I have carried it with me since high school, but it is not something we are taught in modern society. Quite the contrary. We are taught to mask our pains, pretend they are not there, or cover them up with medications. Rumi’s suggestion is not a mask, but instead an experience. We are not to ignore the pains and sorrows. Instead, we are to recognize the gifts they are. The pain and fear still happen, but we can know they are nothing more than temporary house guests. Once they are gone, we can wash the sheets and be open for the next arrival.

In many ways, yoga has made this easier for me. When I struggle on the mat some days, I know that the next day, I may feel great. Some days my meditation practice is nothing but a movie reel of my thoughts, and on other days it is calm awareness (much, much more rarely than the former). But each day is new. Each experience is new.

And when we do not expect that everything is a disaster, but instead expect that everything is a gift, that awareness can open us up to the greatest possibilities of our lives.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Understanding Judgment

Prior to this post, the word judgment has appeared only eight times and in only four different posts on this blog. And only one of them, here, discusses how we judge other people. I know I write the blog, but even I am shocked by the fact that judgment has not graced it more often. After all, judgment is fundamental to both yoga and the law, albeit for different reasons.

Being a lawyer means thinking a lot about judgment and not only the day in law school when I realized it is not spelled judgement. That was a profound day but I digress. Of course judges are asked to make judgments. But so are lawyers. Our clients expect us to know how the judge is going to judge, but we also have to stand up in court and explain to the judge why the “other side” is wrong, or why our client’s “side” is right. There are few ways around it; the law is adversarial.

Yoga is the exact opposite. Yoga teaches us to notice without judgment, to simply listen. It is not good or bad whether we can touch our toes or stand on our head. It is not good or bad whether we can meditate for an hour or 30 seconds. It is not good or bad if we are angry or happy. It is not good or bad if you practice Bikram or Anusara. Yoga is about learning not to judge, about learning how to be with what is and notice what is. Yoga helps us see the entire situation, not just our mind's version of the situation.

On the mat, this non-judgment is about our inner selves. We turn our inner vision compassionately on where we are today. While our ego may tell us we should be able to go deeper into a posture or we should be able to stop the thoughts in our mind, I think many people understand how to be non-judgmental about what happens on the mat. Whether it happens in practice is another story, but this is why it is called a practice. We are practicing being less judgmental with ourselves on the mat, and over time, it gets easier.

As it gets easier on the mat, off the mat, we can turn this same non-judgmental, compassionate eye on our actions and interactions with other people. This is taking the practice to an entirely new level, but we start with friends and family, those with whom we can practice, and if we make a mistake, hopefully will forgive us. When someone treats us in ways that cause us harm, we can look at them non-judgmentally and compassionately and know that even if their actions cause us harm, the intent to cause harm may not have been there. A bad day can make even our best friends treat us in ways we would not like, and I know I have certainly treated people in ways I would rather not on my most difficult days.  

There is no question this is a difficult practice. It is very easy to get pulled into the downward spiral of the pain and to lash out in response. It is easy to judge the other person, and ourselves, for actions that cause pain. But as the on-the-mat lessons begin to permeate our daily lives, we can begin to notice that judgment in the moment. We can learn to recognize them and step out of them and see them for what they are - a bad day, or a miscommunication. This understanding provides the foundation for the compassion people need from us.

In short, yoga has helped me differentiate an action from a person’s core being. And as the practice has deepened, it expands beyond ourselves and our friends and family to strangers and even "adversaries."

There is nothing about lawyering that requires us to decide a person is bad. Nothing. But the adversarial nature of a courtroom makes it difficult to hold the entire story. While there are some amazing problem-solving courts in this country where the focus is not on punishment but on rehabilitation, the vast majority of our courts remain adversarial. In the criminal context, this means that people who commit crimes because of untreated mental health issues end up in prison.

Those mental health issues become important, and the defense attorney’s job is to bring them out, but the action is punished by jail or prison time. We ask twelve people who have never met the defendant to determine whether he or she is guilty based upon very simple elements of a crime. We ask them to judge.  We leave little room for the entire story.

I want to be clear that I do not think it is okay to kill people, rob people, etc. But as I said here, judging the person is difficult. Yoga has taught me that. And the law continues to require there to be judgment. On one level, I know this is necessary. Child abusers, while they may have been abused themselves as children, should not be around children until they can prove they will never again touch a child. But I have yet to figure out how to reconcile this with the non-judgment practice on the mat. Perhaps this is why this issue has graced the pages of this blog so infrequently. I have come to no conclusions.

I have learned so many lessons from law and yoga in my life. I have learned so much about how similar they are and how much they can enrich each other. But here I see a fundamental difference, and probably a necessary one. So I turn to you. I want to hear what you think. What do you do? What about you? Do you see a difference? How do you understand judgment in your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Waiting Out the Storm

As I have mentioned before, yoga has helped put me in touch with nature on a different level. New Zealand was full of nature lessons, especially its healing power. There were also reminders that nature is not always tame -- sea lions like to "play". Here in the desert, there are really three lessons I have learned. First, life exists in places you would never imagine possible. Second, hot has new meaning when you live in the desert. And third, there is such a thing as monsoons! Growing up in California, summer rain was nearly unknown, but here in the desert it is a lovely respite from the heat, but the storm itself is power like nothing else I have ever experienced, and they arrive and depart almost instantaneously. Seven years after moving to the desert, they still amaze me.

This year we have had a lot more rain than normal, so I have been thinking a lot about monsoons, especially after getting caught in one while driving over the weekend. I had to drive over two hours to see a client over the weekend, and the shortest path there includes driving over a road with a lot of dips. It is a beautiful road to drive, but as one of my friends and colleagues reminded me, it is less than safe in a monsoon.  

As I was preparing to head back to Tucson on my drive, I looked out and saw nothing but black clouds on my path ahead. Thinking it would be safer to take the long road back, which traverses highways (and no dips in the road), I turned my car around and headed north. Perhaps I should have consulted the wind; it was blowing north.

The storm I tried to outsmart caught up with me on Interstate 10. The wind put Wellington to shame, and there were moments I could not see the front of my car, let alone any other cars or the lines on the road. All I could do was pull off the side of the road and sit there. Other cars, and some trucks, tried to keep going, and each one that drove by scared me just a little more. It did not help that I actually thought my car was going to blow away in the wind. The fear was palpable, and my heart was racing, yet in the midst of all of it, I found a moment to breathe. After all, what could I do but be grateful I hit the storm in a place where I could find a relatively safe place to stop rather than at the bottom of a dip in the road with my car floating away?

And then it cleared! The skies revealed the post-monsoon desert serenity. There is no beauty quite like it. The air that has been holding its breath (and yours) for hours, perhaps days, is fresh and clear. And it is cool. The clouds that continue to dot the sky look light and refreshed, not bogged down with the weight of their water. But to get to that serenity, you have to wait out the storm, perhaps even with a bit of gratitude knowing you will survive and knowing what awaits you on the other side of it.

I was driving a work car, so I had to take it back to the office. When I got there, I sent a colleague a text message telling her the car survived, and I was just a little worse for wear after the scariest drive of my life. She told me she was in the office “in case I needed a shoulder.” Surprisingly, I did not need a shoulder, but I did need a friendly face. I went up to the office and laughed and chatted with her for awhile. When I left again, the air remained fresh, and the desert was full of peaceful life.

Saturday’s lesson was huge. No matter how much we try to outrun the storms in our lives, they are going to catch up to us, but we can keep them from killing us with a little bit of preparation and perhaps some friendly advice from friends and colleagues. We may freak out in the middle, then remember how to breathe and calm down a bit, and then be rewarded with a deep and true sense of peace. When we are really lucky, someone reaches out and offers us the support we need. But for all these lessons to be learned, we still have to wait out the storms, even when they are monsoons! This is why we do the yoga, this is why we do the breathing. When these storms hit, we can come back from them not too much worse for wear, even if we still need a friendly face.

How do you wait out storms? Have people reached out to you in the midst of them? After them?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, July 9, 2012

It Sounds So Easy . . . Just Relax!

One of the many benefits people ascribe to yoga is relaxation. Even people who consider yoga physical exercise (and it can be) recognize that hopefully all yoga classes end with savasana, corpse pose. Many classes also begin with breath or with slower, meditative asana. It is a reminder to begin by going inward. Some classes, particularly restorative and yin classes, are particularly devoted to relaxation.

One of the most common statements I hear from people who go to yoga is, "I just feel so relaxed." Unfortunately, other common statements I hear from many people is, "I just don't know how to relax" or "I can never seem to relax no matter how hard I try."

One of the toughest asana lessons to fully comprehend, on the deepest levels, is that it is possible to relax in a posture even when it feels like every muscle is going to give out. That is another yoga paradox. It is a nice lesson for off the mat as well. We learn to find the calm amidst the storm. Thus, from deep breathing and restorative poses to intense and energetic asana, yoga is about finding the relaxation deep within us. And it is there for all of us. The difficulty is finding it.

How many times have you tried to relax and simply could not? Right now, do a quick body scan. Where are you holding tension? Your jaw? Your eyes? Your neck? Your shoulders? Are you able to relax those areas holding the tension?

Our modern world does not provide us the tools to learn how to relax. It does, however, provide us the tools to know how to be stressed out. We are expected to go, go, go, and when we finally stop, we are too exhausted to relax. We simply collapse. The tension continues, and headaches, low back pain, and bad knees result. We cover these aches and pains with medication hoping they will go away until the day the pain becomes so unbearable we have to decide between going over the daily dosage for a pill and actually learning to relax.

It sounds kind of funny, does it not? Learning to relax? Should we not already know how to relax? Is it not part of who we are? I think many of us have forgotten. It took me years of yoga practice before I could finally find moments of relaxation, and there are days, sometimes weeks, when I feel that I can no longer find it – even while practicing yoga.

What does it mean to truly relax?

It means more than sitting in front of the tv and vegging out. It means more than stalking people on facebook. It even means more than sleeping. Relaxing, paradoxically, is something we have to take time to do. It has to be done with intention. It is a time when we let our tense muscles release, our thoughts slow down, or at least no longer control us, and our bodies rejuvenate.

Restorative yoga is not designed to put us to sleep. It is actually designed to wake us up. Restorative yoga, like all relaxation practices, is designed to allow our bodies to come down from the constant fight-or-flight response and heal from the over abundance of adrenaline and cortisol. When we fall asleep, it is less a sign of deep relaxation than a sign of overwhelm.

So how do we train ourselves to relax again? It takes some time, but it can be done. We learn to pay attention. When we find ourselves reaching for the painkillers, take a moment and ask if it is possible to relax the muscles causing the pain. Sometimes just bringing awareness to the tension and consciously breathing into it will release it enough to decrease the pain. Sometimes we need to take a walk in nature or sit by the pool or sit on a yoga mat.

But we need to take time to relax. To truly relax. And of course, the days when it seems most difficult are the days we need it the most. There have been many times I have wanted to just sit in front of my computer (I do not have a television) and read facebook posts, but my entire being drags me to my mat. Those are usually the most deeply gratifying practices of them all. And sometimes they only last ten minutes, but those ten minutes of conscious relaxation are worth hours of productivity and health down the road.

The more moments like those we add to our lives, the easier it is to remember how to relax. It may take some time, but it is within each of us. 

Do you remember how to relax? What are your tools? Where do you hold your tension?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Being Proud . . . or Free

A lot is written about freedom on the Fourth of July. Two years ago that was this blog’s topic. But all National holidays also bring up another issue for me – pride. When I was living in New Zealand, a friend asked me if I am proud to be an American. She comes from a country where America is not well loved, and so the question took me by surprise.

I never know how to answer that question because it has so many levels. First, it assumes I had anything to do with being American or America being as it is. I vote, but I am not particularly political. I have my beliefs, but I tend not to share them outside of my group of friends.  In short, my way of changing the world, so to speak, is through my daily life, not through any political process. Therefore, I have little say in how America is shaped. I had even less say in being born here.

Second, the question asks about arbitrary boundaries we, as humans, have created. I recognize that humans have been group focused since our species began. It is a protective mechanism. Intellectually, I understand that then led to city-states and eventually our modern countries. I “get” that is why people go to war. 

But on a deeper level it makes absolutely no sense to me and never has. I have been blessed to have traveled through many countries and met people from many more. I have been even more blessed to get to know many of these people. And while I see that people have different views and ideas and beliefs, I also see how similar we are. While I always believed this on a deep level, yoga has helped me truly see it and express it. Yoga, by helping me turn inward, has helped me clear away all the barriers we create between ourselves and “others,” and now, more than ever, I know in the deepest and least deep parts of myself that we are really so much more similar than some would have us believe.

Finally, the question asks about pride. This is a concept I have never fully understood. Its definition is not flattering, and synonyms include conceit, vanity, and and arrogance. It is defined as either a simple sense of pleasure from achievements or an “inordinate sense of self esteem.” Should we be proud of our academic achievements? Should we be proud of raising a family? Should we be proud we have a nice house and a nice car? Should we be proud we saved someone from a raging fire? Should we expect others to be proud of us? I have never fully come to terms with answering any of these questions.

I have noticed the issue of pride a lot recently, but the best example is on one particular listserv to which I subscribe. Suffice it to say that it is a listserv for lawyers who work in the child welfare arena. I subscribe because sometimes the information is invaluable for my work. I have come close to unsubscribing numerous times, however, because people on the listserv not only often disagree with one another but do it in an accusatory, and frankly mean, fashion. They actually accuse each other of not caring about children. These are people who subscribe to a listserv and take the time to write on it amidst incredibly busy schedules. While I sometimes, perhaps often, disagree with their beliefs, I never question their dedication and commitment to children and families.

But it is easy to question other peoples' commitment and motivations when pride gets in the way – pride in our own belief systems. Pride can be what blocks our ability to see how others see the world. Pride can stop us from taking those yoga moments, breathing, and asking if we can look at life from a new perspective.

So, on this Fourth of July, I want to look beyond this question of Pride. What if we could be free of pride?

Today, the world is more interconnected than ever before, and that interconnectedness continues to grow exponentially nearly daily. If we continue to draw these lines between ourselves, we will keep ourselves from that interconnectedness. When we see how similar we are, when we understand how much we all want what is best for the world, we need not resort to name calling and petty disagreements. Today, we are faced with problems never before seen, but our deep connection to one another, when we tap into it, can help us overcome those problems. And that is where the real freedom lies.

What if pride were measured by how connected we were today? Would that not make us freer than ever before? Would that not be the best way to celebrate that "all [people] are created equal?"


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Taking the Practice Deeper

I attended a yoga class over the weekend where the teacher asked us what it means to us to “take the practice deeper.” As she said, to a lot of people, the answer often revolves around getting into more “advanced” postures. But regular readers of this blog know that asana (postures) are just a part of yoga. They are necessary to the deeper practices, but they are not the only deeper practices.So what does it mean to take the practice deeper? It often means looking deeper inside ourselves. It can mean facing our fears.

So much of our lives are external. There was a very interesting article about busyness in the New York Times over the weekend. We live in a world of busy where we never have to look inside. In fact, taking the time to look inside is seen as an indulgence, not a necessity. The article says that all this busyness is a way for people to feel important. After all, if we never have time for people, they will know how much other people want our time.

But I think it might be more than that. And it has something to do with taking our practice deeper. Staying busy all the time protects us from having to look inside. Most of us have a lot of emotional buildup buried deep within us, and staying busy means we never have to acknowledge it. Even our body reflects how we hide from it. Our muscles tense, our jaw tightens, and sometimes we even get physically ill. These are the issues that often bring people to a yoga mat.

Therefore, a purely asana-focused practice can help us reach into some of these issues. We may notice that the emotional baggage we hold in our hips begins to release when doing hip openers. Some people spontaneously cry or laugh while doing asana. Some people love the endorphins. As we begin to move through the holding patterns in our musculature, we begin to face the rest of our lives as well. 

Going deeper means taking the asana practice and using it to really understand what we are holding, and how we can release it. Taking our practice there is where the real healing begins. Yoga becomes more than a strong core and some breathing exercises. It becomes truly therapeutic.

But it also means entering that space of fear. It means facing the world we hide from ourselves through our busyness. The universe will never throw anything at us we are unable to handle at that time, but it may not always feel that way. Yoga, for all its great healing attributes, makes us vulnerable. Muscles that were tight expand and make us open. With all the traumatic stories and news we hear, from a friend’s divorce, to our clients’ tragedy, to wars raging across the globe, sometimes it is easier to stay closed.

But yoga opens us up. It opens us by asking us to go deeper than those surface pains and tightness in our muscles and our minds. It allows us to turn inward and see what we have been hiding from ourselves and the world. And when we can learn to be with our own inner being, we can learn to be with each other more solidly.

Easy? Absolutely not! Some days it keeps people off the mat entirely. But the healing is at that deep level as well, which is why we also come back to the mat or the cushion. The physical pains that brought us to the mat at the beginning are our reminders that overall it is safe to return to the mat when our practice deepens. It is when we go deeper into our practices that not only can we heal our aches and pains but our sorrows as well. We learn to tune into the strength that is our body and the strength that is our soul.

Maybe going deeper also means “finally” bringing your hands to the floor in a forward fold, but really it is about being with ourselves completely. Rather than blocking out parts of ourselves, we look at them squarely and feel all they have to offer. And at that moment we breathe.

So, perhaps our obsession with busyness is about proving that we have the best business, as suggested by the New York Times article. Or perhaps it is a way to hide. I actually think it is both. Yoga automatically removes us from this busyness, even if only for five minutes. It takes us away from proving to each other we matter. It takes us away from needing to prove we are better. And it certainly takes us away from hiding from ourselves.

Going deeper. What does that mean? Ironically, as my practice has deepened, I cannot get as deep into certain postures on certain days. But I know that where my practice is each day is where it needs to be. At times it is frustrating, but I learn something new from it every single time.

What does going deeper mean for you? Do you use busyness as a distraction? What happens to your mind when you let it settle?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.