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.