Monday, August 27, 2012

Willing to "Fail"

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Ironically, I learned an important lesson similar to Mark Twain’s quote about twenty years ago. It was shortly after Ricky Henderson broke the record for most stolen bases in baseball. I lived near Oakland, and at the time, he was something of a hero to me.

I loved baseball so much as a kid that I attended a baseball camp. I was one of about three girls there. Every morning was trivia time where if you answered a question correctly, you got a pack of baseball cards. The question was, “who has been thrown out more times than anyone stealing bases?” I raised my hand, sure I knew the answer, and (I think because I was one of so few girls) was called on first. My answer was simple – Ricky Henderson.

All the boys laughed at me. How could I be so stupid?!?! The guy asking the question gave me a look and asked something similar to, “is that your final answer?” I remember shaking, but sticking to my convictions and saying yes.

I got a new pack of baseball cards!

Today, all my baseball cards are in my mom’s attic, only because they are so worthless I cannot sell them, and I know nothing about the current state of baseball, though I learned a lot on my recent vacation with my cousins. But obviously that lesson about trying has always stuck with me. Those who succeed in what they do will only get there by “failing” many, many times. We have to be willing to risk something in order to make it somewhere. And as Mark Twain reminds us, looking back on our lives we are going to be a lot more frustrated by what we chose not to do than any of the mistakes we made.

But the bigger question is, “what does it mean to fail?” In sales, it means you are willing to hear no many, many times. In stealing bases, it means you will be thrown out many, many times. In lawyering, it means losing an argument in front of a judge. But those are the nouns, what people think of as failures. They are not. They are truly teachers and opportunities to learn to listen more, tune in to how to do it better, and make another attempt.

In other words, what we think of as “failing” is really a moment to reflect and learn. And that is the yoga.

Asanas (yoga postures) are great reminders of this. What better example than Vrksasana (tree pose)? Asanas mimick life, and vrksasana mimics trees. One leg is rooted firmly into the ground, and the arms lift up to the sky. At times it feels solid, at times it feels as though you are swaying in the wind, and at other times it feels as though you are in Windy Welly, and you will be uprooted at any moment. It just depends on the day. But none of those are failures and none of them are right. They are all moments to reflect and moments to be conscious.

On the days when I feel solid in balance poses such as tree, I try to make them more difficult by closing my eyes (try it, it is fun!). On the days when I just cannot keep one leg lifted I try to laugh. But some days it is frustrating! Why is it on some days the pose is not steady? Why can I not be steady every day? That moment of frustration, of feeling like a failure, comes in. And that is the moment of reflection.

At least I tried!

It is those moments when we learn the most about ourselves. If we were always steady on the mat, we would not learn that it is ok to falter. If we could do every posture the first time we tried, we would learn nothing about our bodies and through our bodies about our deepest selves. If the first time we sat to meditate, our minds emptied fully we would never learn to watch our thoughts and recognize them as simply thoughts and not as what define us.

It is these moments of what we sometimes see as failures that truly teach us who we are and give us our strength to move forward. And it is these moments of what we see as failure that make us break records.  And it is these moments of what we see as failures upon which we look twenty years later and think, “I am glad I gave it a shot and learned something.”

Perhaps our "failures" are really our moments of perfection and yoga.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Finding Compassion in Silence

The last post discussed what it means to use our words to bring peace, how our words can be our yoga. What about using our silence?

My senior year in high school, I decided to ask many of my friends and family what they considered a good friend. I got a lot of answers, most of which I have forgotten. But one stuck with me. And to be honest, I cannot remember, for sure, whose response it was, but I am pretty sure I remember. The response was simple.

A good friend is someone with whom you can sit in silence. So profound. So true.

Our interactions with one another can be through words. And often they are. But how do we interact with one another in silence? Is our silent interaction different depending on whether we are in the same room as someone? Does it matter if we know the person with whom we are “interacting”?

The modern world, I think, would try to say yes. Many people believe we cannot interact with someone we do not know. Many people think we cannot interact with someone who is not physically present. But yoga teaches another type of interaction – silent and to anyone in the world. It can best be described as compassion.

I have been reading a lot recently about compassion. This topic consumed me for years, and I read everything I could about it, and then I just stopped. I did not stop trying to be compassionate, but it fell off my reading-list radar. But I see it more and more as a necessity in the world. As the Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

There are tomes written about compassion. At its essence, compassion is sympathy for others’ suffering as well as a desire to help alleviate that suffering. Buddhism teaches that suffering is inevitable, so compassion is a connection to all beings because all beings suffer.

Sometimes this sense of compassion is lost when there is too much noise. Noise can be our gossip or our own judgments. Noise can be our words, whether kind or malicious. It is when we are silent that we can truly begin to feel compassion. For me, the yoga mat has been a place to cultivate compassion. It is necessary to have compassion for ourselves on the mat, but it was when I began to offer my practice to others that my practice truly transformed.

At the end of my practice, I always try to remember to offer the practice to others. Sometimes there is someone, or several people, in particular who I believe are in need of the benefits of a yoga practice. Sometimes, when no one immediately comes to mind, I offer the practice to the world. While this practice may seem to be impossible, the truth is that our language is full of our beliefs that it is possible. We talk about sending good thoughts and love. We offer prayers for people. These are all moments of compassion.

But the first step is quieting the mind, getting out of the world where our judgments rule and into the world where we can tune into the heart and find compassion for all beings. My high school friend was onto something. While friendships might be created on playgrounds, late at night in dorm rooms, and at the water cooler, the best friends are those with whom we can be in silence. Because it is with those friends where we truly feel our deepest compassion and connection.

And through our continued silence, we can spread that compassion to the world. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you try to grow and share your compassion.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Speaking Yoga

"Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” – Buddha

The word yoga is often translated as "union." Literally, it means "to yoke," and metaphorically, this has come to mean union. Words are one way to bring union among people. Words are how we communicate, how we interact with other people. But what good do they do if they are not used to bring us peace amongst each other? How do they create this union? Words can be scathing, hollow, or positive, but they always affect the listener. We must be conscious not only of how we think our words will be heard but of how the listener will actually hear them.

Lawyers like to talk. A lot. In fact, most people like to talk. For some reason, people feel the need to make noise and fill the emptiness that is silence. But how many of the words we speak are hollow words? How often do we speak only to hear the sound of our own voice? How many of the words we speak do not bring peace to others or ourselves? How often do our words create dis-union rather than union?

What if we made a commitment to using our words for the benefit of others? What if we consciously used our words to bring peace to others and ourselves? What if we used our words to create the union of yoga? A conscious effort to have our words bring peace is a conscious effort to consider how others may hear our words. Making the commitment is a step toward empathy and compassion. We want to bring peace, and we are conscious of how best to do it.

The first, and I believe most important, step is to meet people where they are. This is definitely a lesson I have learned from yoga. In discussions about trauma-informed yoga classes, teachers must be conscious that while for some people, “lie down and relax” is a stress-relieving statement, for someone who has been held down by someone, it can trigger a trauma response. Understanding where people are, and how they view the world, helps us choose our words carefully so as not to cause them harm we do not mean.

Second, we can ask ourselves what people may want or need to hear to bring them peace in this moment. I often think to myself in difficult situations that there are simply no words that can express what it is I want to say. But sometimes a simple acknowledgement that we care is enough to bring a moment of peace. We need not come up with a tome of how we feel about a particular situation. Instead, a simple word or two, along with our presence, might be sufficient.

Third, and this is one we so often forget, we can ask people what they need. So often, we think we know what other people want and need, especially when we are stressed or worried about saying the right thing. We speak and stumble over our words until we are blue in the face without ever stopping to ask, “what do you need?”

People in helping professions such as lawyers, psychologists, etc., have a tendency to use a lot of words to explain and counsel their clients. Those words may be necessary, but they also often fall on deaf ears. Sometimes people are not ready to hear them. Sometimes they are simply unable to understand. Those words become hollow words, even when we mean them to bring peace. The Buddha is not saying that these hollow words are bad or wrong or improper. But they do not serve the same purpose as one word that might bring peace.

Taking the time to stop and ask ourselves, and the listener as well, what it is that will bring peace in the moment, is a better use of the universe’s energy, and our own. It also forces us into the moment and forces us to create a deeper union with each other. That is how we create yoga. 

How can you bring a sense of union and peace to your words? Can we present a world of empathy and compassion where our words are designed to always bring peace to the listener? How would that world look to you?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Learning to Breathe . . . Again

On my 30th birthday, I posted that after being lucky enough to focus on myself for the past decade, or so, it was time to focus on others. My new job (new back then), put me into that world full force. For the past 7.5 months, I have been representing children removed from their parents by child protective services. Intense is only the beginning. But it also means I get to serve children and families.

But focusing only on giving means the yoga bucket gets drained . . . and fast. I was lucky enough to be able to take a wee vacation. For a glorious week I was back among the mountains, and they looked substantially similar to the Remarkables in Queenstown, New Zealand. My four days in Queenstown were some of the most profound and moving of my time in New Zealand. If it is not abundantly obvious from previous posts, I love mountains. I also love trees. My trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park was full of both.

The Grand Tetons

But it also brought me back to another aspect of yoga – the breath. Long before I started writing Is Yoga Legal, I had written another blog through Xanga (remember that company?). It was nothing special, and I believe I only shared it with my friends and only had about 6 posts total (whereas this is post 180 on this blog!). I cannot even find the posts I wrote for Xanga. But I remember one of them, and only one of them. Not surprisingly, it focused on the breath. I remember laying down one day and feeling as though I had finally learned to breathe. Those were my early days of yoga practice, about a decade ago. And it was a profound moment. It was the moment I realized how powerful such a simple movement can be. It was the moment I realized the healing potential of the breath.

The label, “breathe” is the most cited label on this blog. Breath is the foundation of all yoga. It brings us to awareness and helps us gauge how we feel and how we are currently functioning. It is a bit ironic, therefore, that my breath has shortened and become more shallow these past few months. I have noticed it even when actively practicing yoga, either at home or in a class.

But I took some time to get away. Interestingly, I went somewhere with a lot less oxygen than Tucson. The highest point you can drive in Yellowstone is 8,859 feet (2,700 metres). Our hotel was at over 8,000 feet (2,440 metres). I have never done well at high elevations, and the headache hit me pretty hard. In addition, I could feel my breath shortening as we went higher up.

But that was probably the best thing to happen. I had to pay attention to my breath. I had to pay attention because I needed all the oxygen I could get.

Paying attention was like relearning all over again. It seems almost silly to talk about learning to breathe. After all, our first action on this Earth is to inhale, and our last action is to exhale. The breath is usually completely unconscious. Our breath will happen whether we will it to or not. We can live days without water and weeks without food, but only a few minutes without the breath.

And yet, we can learn to harness the breath to our benefit. We can learn to make the breath work for us. We can learn to notice when we are holding the breath. We can learn to take deeper breaths. We can learn to use our diaphragm to breath and not our shoulders. In short, we can learn to breathe effectively.

Learning to breathe was the first indication I was on a yogic path. I remember the moment as though it were yesterday, which is surprising because, as I have mentioned before, I do not remember a lot. But learning and practicing are different things. Some days the breath comes easily, and other days it can be a struggle. Removing the oxygen from the air by going up mountains forces us to slow down and pay attention in order to ensure we get the oxygen we need. It forces us to relearn to breathe.

It was also a reminder that no matter how shallow the breath gets, we can always refocus and relearn to breathe whether the shallowness is from a lack of oxygen or a stressful day. We do not need to wait until it becomes painful to breathe to learn this lesson. Instead, we can take it with us every single day.

Have you taken the time to learn to breathe? What has been your greatest teacher?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Friday, August 3, 2012

When the Body Does Not Behave

Apparently this is my week to write about old high school English teachers, but I have another story to tell about a different high school teacher. During my senior year in high school, my English teacher had to have open heart surgery. He said something to us before he left for his surgery and recovery that has stuck with me all these years. He said, “I always expected my body to work. It has always been there for me, and I always expected it to be there for me in the future.” Ok, that’s not an exact quote, but the sentiment is there and with my memory, that is about as good as it gets. 

Interestingly, like the English teacher I mentioned in the last post, this one had a profound influence on my current yoga path. Toward the end of the school year, as we all had senioritis and had finished taking a national examination, the teacher shared with us a practice he did daily – Tai Chi. It was my first encounter with any real breath-body practice, and I loved it! Absolutely loved it! Over the years, I have practiced Qigong, and I never can without thinking of my old English teacher and my gratitude to him for sharing that practice with me long before it was “in vogue” as they say.

But back to his other lesson – the body not behaving. I have written before about pain and injuries on this blog. For someone who is almost never sick, I seem to always be hurting myself in one way or another. I have pulled hamstrings doing yoga and hurt my shoulder in a way I still do not understand attempting a handstand. I have sprained both of my ankles, and the other day I even managed to drop a water bottle on my middle toe (and yes, only my middle toe) just before a yoga class. I never considered myself accident prone, but apparently it has caught up to me.

But I have not mentioned the nagging pain, the pain that ostensibly has no origin. What does that pain tell us about ourselves?

Yoga has given me a much greater appreciation for my body and all its intricacies. I notice muscles I never knew existed and can move in ways I never imagined possible. I was the kid who could not reach my knees on a seated forward fold in elementary school, and today I have the freedom, at times, to bring my nose to my knees. I still do not try handstands though. And I certainly cannot get into some of the more “advanced” postures, but that is not the point. From yoga, I have learned to understand my body and its cues like never before.

This understanding is how yoga can bring us peace in our bodies. When done safely and appropriately, yoga can be the healing salve our bodies so desperately need. So many people who start doing yoga find their pain decreasing, their sleep improving, and their breath getting deeper. Those are usually the first steps in a yoga practice. The body comes down from its intense modern stress and pain and relaxes into a new way of being.

But the honeymoon does not always last. What do we do when the body does not behave or stops behaving? What do we do when the practice becomes painful? What do we do when our bodies hold pain, and we do not know why? What do we do when the tools that have worked before no longer work? We do “everything” we can to care for it, and yet it still has trouble?

That is the great and frustrating part about yoga. The tools and learning are endless. When the ways that used to work no longer do, there are infinite new ways to help ourselves. To paraphrase Einstein, you cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. This is the moment when new tools can come to the forefront.

If an intense asana practice is causing harm, try a restorative class. If you notice your breath is shallow, try new pranayama, or breathing, techniques. If you sit all day, try moving. As our practices deepen, our understanding of what our bodies need deepens as well. And the most profound lesson I learned in teacher training is also the simplest – “if it hurts, don’t do it!”

Even if you don’t know why the pain has begun, or why it persists, pain exists to tell us something. It is vitally important that we listen. When we ignore it for too long, it gets more intense, and eventually can become debilitating. But with the insight yoga provides, we can learn to tune in. We can learn to understand what our bodies need before they break down.

We can teach ourselves the skills to discipline our bodies before they stop behaving the way we would like.

How do you listen to your body?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.