Saturday, September 22, 2012

Falling Inside Ourselves

Today is the Autumn Equinox in the northern hemisphere. New Zealanders always found it funny that I, as an American, call this season Fall and not Autumn. The few New Zealanders I know who have since come to the United States and experienced Fall finally understand. They, of course, have ventured to the Midwest and East. But alas, that is not the point of this post.

Fall stands for something else for me as well. It is the season when we shed that which no longer serves us, the parts of ourselves that need to die so we can reawaken in the spring. It is no secret that I love trees, and there is little in life I enjoy more than seeing leaves changing color. Until this week, however, I never fully understood why (other than the aesthetic beauty, of course).

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, and there is a part of campus called the Diag. It is the center of campus, and it is surrounded by a few trees. Growing up in California, I saw trees change color, but it was nothing compared to what happens in Michigan. My freshman year at Michigan, I remember walking across the Diag and stopping in my tracks. The tree on the other side had turned colors overnight. It literally took my breath away.

Such beauty right before the leaves fall off. It is a reminder that it is time to turn inward. It is a reminder that it is time to fall inside and examine our lives. It is no mistake that it falls at the same time that Jews are focusing on forgiveness. I just learned that this week there is a festival in India to celebrate Ganesh, the destroyer (also known as the one who places obstacles in our path to keep us on our toes). The celebration is to let go of that which no longer serves us and to turn inside to see how we want to emerge again in the spring.

Turning inward can be difficult. But it is a beautiful and natural part of this time of year. It is the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves what we need. As I mentioned in the last post, this time of year I am thinking a lot about forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? The internet is full of a variety of definitions, including “excuse for a fault” or “To renounce anger or resentment against.” There is an entire Wikipedia article on what it is and what it has meant to a variety of religious groups over time.

But to me, and for purposes of this post on the equinox, forgiveness is an internal affair. Yes, we can forgive others, and in that sense it is external, but it is something we do by ourselves for ourselves. As the Buddha reminds us, “Holding onto anger is like holding onto a lump of coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned.” Without forgiveness, we burn ourselves over and over again. Forgiveness is the way in which we stop burning ourselves and move forward.

Forgiveness does not mean we do not experience the anger, the resentment, the hurt, etc. It does not mean we put ourselves into situations again and again where we are likely to experience those pains. Instead, it is the internal process of letting those experiences no longer burn us. They need not control us forever, and too often they get held in the body and cause us pain and other dis-ease. 

Forgiveness, therefore, allows those pains to come and then leave, in the natural course of how life moves. It is the way in which we fall inside ourselves. It is the beautiful fall colors before we shed our leaves for winter. Forgiveness is what allows us to sit with ourselves in peace throughout the winter. When we have sufficiently forgiven, we can use this hibernation time to prepare for the coming spring and to rebuild and replenish ourselves.

It is difficult in the modern world to take this time over the fall and winter to turn inward. We live in an extrovert-rewarded culture. We are expected to be “on” all the time. But if we learn anything from the world around us and from our yoga practice, it is through going inside ourselves and letting go of whatever is holding us back, that we create the space to be at our best.

So, on this equinox, help yourself come back into balance by falling inside yourself. Enter a place of forgiveness, and create the foundation for letting go and freeing yourself for all the wonders to come.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Starting Fresh for Forgiveness

When I was a child, I was forced to miss school twice a year when my non-Jewish friends went to school (unless, of course, the holidays fell on weekends). And yes, even in elementary school, I hated missing school. Think what you want about me, I can take it. Those two days were Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah literally means the head of the year. It’s the new year for Jews. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, the day we ask for forgiveness for all we have done "wrong" during the year.

As a child, I dutifully went to synagogue every year. Ok, usually I was dragged by my parents, but still, I went. I cared almost nothing about the holidays. Ironically, over the years I have stopped taking these days off from work, but they have begun to mean a lot more to me. I will be working all day today, and I will not be going to services, but the new year has me thinking, especially as it is tied to the day of atonement.

On December 31, everyone talks about resolutions. These are thoughts and ideas about how we are going to better ourselves going forward. It is a very personal endeavor, rarely focused on our place in the world. But the Jewish holidays being together like this are really something different. And it is my yoga practice that has connected me to this difference. The act of asking forgiveness is difficult. Instead of asking us to take a look at what we may like to change about ourselves and then heading out to a party, asking forgiveness requires us to take a look at how our being affects others around us. Some years this is easier than others.

Yoga, similarly, asks us to look at how our actions affect others. The Yamas and Niyamas, the first two limbs of the 8-limb yoga path, are rules for living. The yamas, specifically, address our interactions with others. They are: ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brachmacharya (just read the link – no succinct explanation), and Aparigraha (non-grasping). As a kid, all I heard was the need to ask for forgiveness for anything I had done to hurt another. A noble endeavor, for sure, but a little tough to grasp at times. Yoga has given me the tools to self reflect enough to examine what that truly means and to reach out with specificity to those I have hurt.

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, in some ways, somber. They are days of reflection, days of meditation, days to think long and hard about how our past year has gone. But first, we recognize the new year! There is something beautiful in the order. Before stepping into that somber world, we remember that no matter what we have done in the past, we can start fresh and renew. This is a new year, and the period of reflection is truly a chance to determine where we need to ask for forgiveness and a chance to move forward from that. 

It is also a chance to forgive others. The new year is a reminder that whatever they may have done to us in the past can be changed going forward. That is a refreshing thought. We need not hold on, another yoga lesson that is sometimes easier said than done. The time on the mat is a chance to reflect. It is a chance to turn inward and notice all the subtle ways we have missed the mark on where we wanted to be. 

But it is also the opportunity to let go, to see all that is new in the world. It is a chance to open our hearts to the possibilities of the year ahead remembering that we may make mistakes along the way, but also remembering that we can both forgive and ask forgiveness. We can also learn to preempt the need. We can set an intention to refrain from sending the nasty email (asking for a tone check from a friend helps). We can refrain from making disingenuous remarks about others. We can refrain from reacting through anger rather than thoughtful reflection.

What I have come to love about the Jewish New Year is that, like a yoga practice, it is both deeply personal and community oriented. The reflection is deep, but the need to engage others through forgiveness brings us together. It is somber reflection but also a chance to come together and celebrate the newness, not only of the new year, but also of the clean slate produced through forgiveness.  

I may be at work today, but these are the lessons my yoga practice has taught me about all those days I had to miss school as a kid!

And don’t forget the apples and honey! May your year be sweet and full of peace, light, and love.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Intellectualizing the Body

Yoga, as practiced in the West, is a physical practice. I have expressed before my difficulties coming to terms with this vision of yoga. After all, yoga in its origins is so much more than a physical practice. The very beginning of the Yoga Sutras tells us that Yoga is a calming of the mind. Less than five of the yoga sutras are dedicated to the physical asana practice.

And yet over and over again I am reminded that one of the greatest benefits of yoga is the physical practice. As the first of the koshas, the physical body is the entry into our deeper selves. It is through our bodies that we enter our souls. As we learn to understand our bodies, our vehicles for this Earth, we understand our deeper being-ness. But in order for it to be that entryway, we must actually feel it. We must experience it.

That’s the tough part!

If it is not abundantly obvious from the fact that I decided to go for an additional year of law school to get my master’s degree and from the fact that I write a blog about yoga (which is arguably not necessarily doing yoga), I love learning and thinking. The very first time I ever went to see a non-western doctor (healer, energy worker, pick a term), he informed me that I live about 97% in my head and about 3% in my body. I have no idea where he got those numbers, and I have not seen him in over 8 years, but his statement stuck with me.

I over think everything. Rather than truly experience, I want to understand with my mind.

As humans, there are a few things that set us apart. Our prefrontal cortex is on that list. It is, after all, that which takes us out of our reptilian instincts and provides us with rational thought. We honor great thinkers, and the greatest number of likes on the Is Yoga Legal facebook page always come from interesting and insightful quotes. The shorter the better, of course. We like to think, but facebook is not the place for deep thoughts, apparently.  

More than just thinking, in the modern world, we actually try to not feel. We take pills when we feel pain. We take pills when we feel sad. We drink caffeine and alcohol “to get through the day.” When we suppress these experiences, they need to become more and more pronounced until we are finally forced to pay attention. A small headache becomes chronic tension headaches. A cold becomes pneumonia. As our bodies try to get us to slow down, and we ignore them, they finally force us to stop completely.

That issue is well documented. Even western doctors are finally discussing the problems associated with chronic stress and ignoring early warning signs. But there is another issue. And this one may be harder to grasp.

Our minds are not the only way we can understand. Our bodies create a different type of understanding when we are willing to truly experience. For example, in yoga teacher training, and in many of the classes I currently attend, I have learned about the inner spiral of the thighs. This helps protect the pelvis and stabilize the lower body. On an intellectual level, I get it. I can tell when participants in my class are doing it. But guess what? I have not been doing it appropriately. The same is true of a variety of minute details of postures. I can intellectually know I am not doing something, but until my body feels what it means to do it, I do not fully understand.

And therein lies the problem of trying to understand a yoga posture, of trying to make meaning out of pain. Sometimes, what we must do is simply experience. The experience has something to teach us. The body has something it wants to show us. We may never understand it on an intellectual level, but if we learn to fully experience it, the body will show us what we need.

Thus, the asana experience, although a small portion of the yoga sutras, has something unique to teach us. In its own way, it is about quieting the mind. While certainly there are moments where we cannot focus on the mind when we are so focused on the body, what the asana practice is finally beginning to teach me is that the mind is not the only understanding. Getting out of the mind and into the body is not just a way to de-stress; it is also a way to understand who we are. And perhaps that is the greatest wisdom.

What have you learned from your physical yoga practice? Are there even words to describe it?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What it Means to Never Forget

Today is September 11. Like most people over 15, especially in the United States, I distinctly remember September 11, 2001. I remember the phone call from my mother telling me to turn on the television. I remember watching the first tower fall and then going to class – creative writing. I remember walking out of class hearing that the second tower had fallen and that classes were canceled for the rest of the day.  I remember talking to my brother that night and thinking that my nephew, who would be born exactly three months later, would grow up in a world where 9/11 was but a memory.

I will probably never forget that day.

Prior to September 11, 2001, the most common way I would hear “never forget” was about the Holocaust in Europe. Being raised Jewish, stories about the Holocaust dominated my childhood. But like most people under 70 I have no actual mental memory of the Holocaust. Like my nephew and 9/11, I grew up in a world where Hitler was a memory. But I was told to never forget.

Memory is an interesting thing. I have written before about the fallacies and misconceptions we have in our memories. But as I have also mentioned before, we do not store our memories only in our minds. They exist within our bodies as well. Very often, when I am in a yoga class in an asana, I remember an event. It could be from any time in my life, any place I have lived, but it just pops into my mental awareness. Something about being in a posture sparks that mental memory. I have heard and read that smells are the most likely to spark a memory. The point, of course, is that on some level in our awareness, perhaps not the mental awareness, we truly never forget.

With major world tragedies, the bumper stickers remind us to “never forget.” I believe they mean mentally. But how can we never forget and still move on? Yoga teaches us to be aware of what arises, and then to let it go. We must, on all levels, be able to move forward. If not, we hold the memories, and those memories become tight hip muscles, which becomes low back pain, which becomes . . . That cannot be good for even the memory of those we have lost.

I am not sure I have the answers. As someone who holds onto memories more in my body than in my mind, it is quite an amazing feat that I have as many mental memories of 9/11 as I do. But I am not sure that remembering is the best way to move the energy that such tragedy brings to the world. Pure memory, without more, is stuck energy. It keeps us in a place of grief and sadness, or anger and resentment. We must be aware, but then what?

What if instead, we honored the memory wherever it is stored? What if we honored those who were lost and those who lost a loved one? What if we remembered, but instead of holding on, we let the memory flow with an open heart to all the suffering caused that day?

Perhaps the bumper stickers are right. Perhaps we should always remember. After all, those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. But being stuck in that memory only brings harm to the present day. It stops the flow of energy, and therefore stops the ability to learn and grow from the tragedy.

Last year, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I sat at my computer in New Zealand, feeling very much like an outsider. I watched footage of September 11, 2001, trying to recreate that day in my mind, all the sadness and the confusion and the fear. I wanted to connect with family and friends back in America. It was one of only two days I truly felt that way while living in New Zealand.

But as I sit in my living room today, very much in the United States, I am drawn to a different type of memory – honoring. Honoring those who were lost, those who risked their lives, and those who lost loved ones. Instead of holding the memory of the pain, I want to see shared tragedy become a way to learn to flow together. Shared memory, perhaps more than any other type of memory, fascinates me. And when that shared memory is part of a shared tragedy, one felt over the entire world, it has the power to transform.

May the memory of our shared tragedies become our ability to break the stuck energy and come together to honor all involved. That is where the true healing occurs.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Where's my Moment of Bliss?

I read a lot of stories about yoga. I read a lot of teacher bios. I try to never take a class without reading about the teacher. These yoga stories and teacher bios all seem to contain similar elements. They almost all begin with the “how I came to yoga” description. They also sound surprisingly familiar at times, and the story was reiterated by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love.

The story is this: I went to my first yoga class for __________ reason. Sometimes, it is for exercise, sometimes it is for anxiety or depression, sometimes it is because someone forced you to go. I struggled through my first yoga class. I fell a lot. Downward facing dog felt like it was going to kill me. But I made it through the class! Then came savasana – corpse pose. And that is when I felt the shift. That is when I felt the yoga bliss!

Sound familiar?

I am not, in any way, deriding this. In many ways, my story is very similar. Except the last part – the bliss part. I feel as though I may have missed out. I think I remember my first yoga class, but that was not when I started doing yoga. I picked it up again in my sister-in-law’s living room, often with my 6-month-old nephew crawling under us while we were doing Downward facing dog (that will force you to stay in the pose). I practiced on my own, with books and sometimes friends, when I was in college and the following year. I started attending classes in a chiropractor’s office in Tucson before I finally worked up the courage to go to a real class in a real studio.

I do not remember my first moment of yoga bliss. I do not remember the first time everything became peace.

I eventually started attending those classes regularly. And that’s when I finally started to notice a difference. Over the years, there have been many moments of savasana relaxation, many moments of meditative contentment, and many moments that remind me why I return to the mat year after year. This blog was born in one of those moments, though arguably, it was not so peaceful if I was thinking during it, but alas, I seem to live in my head. That is a post for another day.

I guess what I am trying to say is not everyone has that one first moment. Not everyone goes to class once, struggles, and then ends in a state of nirvana. In fact, I doubt very many people actually do. And that is absolutely fine! Those moments still creep up on us, and they often happen when we least expect them. In many ways, that is what makes them so peaceful, so perfect. They surprise us and remind us the peace is the truth, and our racing minds are just in the way.

We all come to yoga for different reasons. We all continue practicing for different reasons. My nephew is now 10, and quickly moving toward 11. These ten years have changed me in ways I could not have even begun to imagine during those early days of learning. My life has taken paths I had no idea were even possible back then. And there have been many moments of peace throughout, but no, I cannot remember the first one.

But yoga has stuck with me. Sometimes it is more front-and-center in my life, and other times my practice takes a back seat. Sometimes I think about it more than I practice. Sometimes I can carry yoga with me in each moment, and other times I erupt in fury and stress-induced stomach pains. But yoga is always there. I always know it is the truth and the undercurrent of who we are and who I am.

And it is those moments of peace and contentment that keep us coming back. We have to know they exist. We have to know there is some benefit deeper than we ever thought possible. Those moments may not happen during our first savasana. They may not happen during our first year of practice. But they happen. And over time, they happen more often – when we take the time to practice. And then they begin to happen off the mat as well. 

And eventually they happen for more than a moment at a time. And that is the real practice of yoga.

Do you remember your first moment of peace and contentment? Do they happen often? Can you take them off the mat?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.