Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What is Yoga?

I have been asking myself this question a lot recently. What exactly is yoga, and why is it beneficial to lawyers or anyone? Linda has a great post on the topic here. People talk about the eight limbs of yoga from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These include the yamas, the niyamas, asana, and pranayama, which are all issues that have directly been discussed on this blog. But the other four limbs are Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation or contemplation), and Samadhi (state of ecstasy).

In America, it is fairly obvious that when the general population thinks about yoga, they think only about asana, or the physical postures. A few more might think of pranayama, or breathing techniques. But the western world is full of all sorts of yoga. There are different “styles” from Iyengar to Bikram and vinyasa to yin, but all of these are actually forms of hatha yoga. There are also classes that mix yoga and wine as well as yoga and “fill in the blank.” There are kinds of yoga such as bhakti yoga, which is devotional yoga, and In other words, yoga has become an industry in the western world.

But I keep thinking about the question – what is yoga? What is it to me? What is it that I can share? And more importantly, so what?! Does it matter if we can define yoga? Lawyers like definitions, especially if they are Supreme Court Justices. But do we really need this particular definition? Might it actually infringe upon the underlying meaning or purpose of a yoga practice?

I have been teaching a weekly yoga class in the Juvenile Detention center. The attendees are all court staff and lawyers who work in the court. (As an aside, there are also yoga classes for the juveniles in detention, but I do not have the privilege to teach those.) It is an “odd” location for a yoga class, and it is really too short for a full class, and the students range from beginners to people with consistent practices. And yet, the class has come together to be something incredibly special. It is a place where, for me, this blog becomes palpable. It is a place where we can see how yoga enters our daily lives.

But all sorts of questions arise as well. Do people only come for asana? Can I add a bit of pranayama? Do people want exercise? Do they want to relax from stress?  Do they want to hear about the yamas and niyamas? Do people want to spend their lunch hour in a seated meditation? So what is yoga in that situation?

And I am coming to the conclusion that, no matter the situation, the answer remains the same. Yoga is a personal experience. It is the 8 limbs and how they ebb and flow within our being. There was a long time when I saw a need to have more of a physical practice to go deeper into meditation. These days, my physical practice is limited to psoas stretches, but I am meditating 20-60 minutes per day. Even amidst the craziness of life, there are moments of yoga awareness, though they remain few and far between.

Thus, yoga is about how we show up for ourselves and others. Of course there are differences between Bikram and yin yoga, but we can bring the same sense of awareness to each. I have a lot of concerns about Bikram yoga, and I know someone who loves it (many people, actually, but this one in particular) who also has amazing body awareness. I said to this person once, “but with that heat, can’t you overstretch a muscle and hurt yourself?” The answer, “not me.” While there are, of course, people who show up and have no idea how to protect themselves, others can do the practice safely and with awareness.

And that is yoga.

Yoga, therefore, is the full package. It is a way of life, but it is also an intention to live our moments as though we are on the mat or the cushion. While there are days I try to meditate in a courtroom, most of the time it is really difficult to do. I also would love to sit in sukhasana (cross legged) in the chairs at court, but I have not figured out how to do that yet. But the inner awareness can be there. All we gain from being on the mat can carry into our lives.

And that is why yoga is useful for lawyers and others in this crazy, modern world. The world is moving ever faster. We are connected to a degree never before experienced by humans. We are advancing faster and faster. It is so easy to get caught up in all of it, to lose sight of any way forward, and to forget who we are at our core. But yoga brings us back to that. It helps remind us why we do what we do. It helps us slow down long enough to remember to offer a little gratitude.

The yoga industry can manifest these visions however it wants. In the past it has annoyed me, and to some extent it still does. But that has also forced me to ask myself over and over again – why yoga? What is it? And so what?

And while I do not have a Justice Scalia worthy definition, I think I have finally found an answer (for this week) that helps me understand why I keep with it and why this has been such a wonderful path for me. Yoga is a personal journey to go into the depths of ourselves and our interactions with each other to emerge with a path and intention for life. This journey is in all the planes of life, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. At times it asks us to move, and at other times it asks us to sit in silent awareness. And at the end of the day, it helps us find our Being ready to emerge and share with the world even if there are a few (or many) bumps along the way.

What is yoga to you? Why do you practice? How does it help you in your daily life?


 © Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Year to Year

One year ago, I was at the US Ambassador’s house in New Zealand celebrating Thanksgiving in summer. And without realizing it, I actually put the same clothes on today that I was wearing then (I looked at photos). And yes, this should tell you how a summer in NZ is very similar to a winter in Arizona, but I digress. One year ago, I was grateful for the 10 months I had spent in New Zealand, from an earthquake, to new friends, to beautiful adventures, to finishing a thesis.

And that thesis looked forward to this year. The thesis was all about representing children, and that is what I currently do, though I do it in a slightly different context than addressed in the thesis. But this year has been about integrating my years digging deep into yoga and the law and emerging with some semblance of a future. And this year has been hard. It has been a struggle to finally integrate theory and practice, in law, but also on and off the yogamat.

Law school is an interesting theoretical adventure. Traditionally, law school is learning the theory of the law, and some would argue we spend too much time on that in school. We spend our time reading cases of situations gone awry, and sometimes tragically so, but cases become stories, and the people are safely behind the pages. We are protected from their stories similarly to how we are protected from the stories of the protagonists in a movie. 

But the practice of law is anything but peoples’ lives on a page. Instead, the practice of law is about peoples’ lives in your face. Crisis after crisis arises, and lawyers are expected to stay rational and calm. Human nature wants to send us into screaming fits of rage and fear, but that is not our role. Instead, we are asked to answer with calm rationality and turn the theory into practice – look at the situation from a purely legal standpoint. There are, of course, advantages to this. But it throws our systems off if we do not pay attention.

Yoga is quite the opposite. Most people in the modern world come to yoga through the practice first. In fact few of them have any idea about the theory behind it. Some want some exercise, while others want to stretch after their own exercise. But the theory creeps in. Yogis begin to act with more compassion towards others after learning to act with more compassion for themselves. Yogis learn to respond rather than react to the crises that inevitably arise in their lives.

But that flow from theory to practice and back is anything but smooth. The day after Thanksgiving last year I was not at a Black Friday Sale. Instead, I was on a boat between the north and south islands of New Zealand and who should I see but the Ambassador? I said hello to him and then sat back down. Then I started crying. I was so grateful for all that had transpired that year in New Zealand. And I knew I was coming back to the United States to a job I had, in many ways, worked my entire life to have. How amazingly lucky could one person be?

And here we are at another Thanksgiving. I have spent this month finding things for which I am grateful, from my breath to the wonderful people with whom I get to work. Being a first year lawyer is one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. But it is also one of the most enlightening and inspiring.

And while I was doing tree pose from the tops of mountains in New Zealand last year, this year, my yoga practice has struggled through a sprained ankle, hip pain, and simply too little time. But I have started attending classes again, meditating in the mornings, doing some asana, and even teaching once per week at the courthouse.

But just yesterday, the week of Thanksgiving, I saw it shine through like never before. Someone decided to yell at me about something, and in the midst of the yelling, I sent him a little compassion and thought to myself, “may you be free of suffering and the root of suffering.” That particular phrase is more Buddhist than Yogic, but it was a moment of reflection rather than reaction. And then I walked away from the conversation and did something else. The yoga crept out from where it was hiding and offered me a little solace in the moment - and hopefully the person yelling at me, though the thought was silent.

Theory and practice. Back and forth.

It is tomorrow in New Zealand, which means it is already Thanksgiving. So I am going to celebrate two this year. Today is a deep sense of gratitude for all I have learned this year, the people who have inspired me whether a “difficult” teacher or a friend with a shoulder, and the amazing opportunities to understand the ebb and flow between theory and practice in law and yoga.

Whether celebrating Thanksgiving in a country far away from the United States at the US Ambassador’s residence or in central Tucson in the midst of being a first year lawyer, the sentiment is the same. I think Lionel Hampton said it best, “Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.”

Our hearts go with us wherever we are, and gratitude can arise in any moment. We can find all the quotes on the internet we want about gratitude, and learn all there is to know, but then it is about practicing that gratitude and feeling it deeply in the heart. That is the moment when theory meets practice. Can we take the sentiment of this day, this week, this month and carry it forward into our daily lives?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 19, 2012

There is Always the Breath

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor. ~Thích Nht Hnh

I am truly blessed to have some amazing teachers in my life. Recently I got a really great reminder from two of my recent yoga teachers.  The first came from a teacher who I had not seen in awhile. I have not been attending her class much because of the pain in my hip. But something told me last week I had to go to her class. Although there were moments the class hurt, she came up to me at the end of class and said, “You might need to curl up in a ball and just breathe. You always have the breath.”

What a wonderful reminder.

And the reminder came again the next day from another of my amazing teachers. It was obviously a week where my hip was bothering me more than others, and she came up to me in savasana and simply said, “Breathe into the areas that do not hurt.” This breath is a beautiful way to move through our pain, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or any other kind. The breath is always there for us.

The breath is the gateway to our prana, our life force. In Chinese medicine it is called qi (pronounced chee). Breathing techniques are called pranayama because they move the breath in different ways. When we control the breath, we can control ourselves. As the quote above states, we can anchor ourselves through our breath. No matter what comes our way, we always have the breath.

I know that when we go into fight-or-flight, our breath shortens and speeds up. What I do not know is why it does that. I understand the evolutionary need to tense our muscles and be ready to attack or run for our lives, but is that not exactly when we need our breath to be most full?

Although we know we can always return to the breath, actually doing it is sometimes more difficult than we would like to admit. Our natural response is to turn away from the breath, to move strictly into survival mode. And yes, that is exactly when we need to focus on the breath the most. That is most when we need it to anchor us, not just in ourselves but in our external world as well.

But how do we ensure we can do that when we get so overwhelmed? Just like anything in life, practice, practice, practice. This is one of the major advantages of an asana (posture) practice. When the going gets tough, we always can come back to the breath. In an asana-based yoga class, hopefully there is a teacher reminding us over and over again to come back to the breath. When it is obvious pain remains, hopefully someone reaches out and reminds us the breath is there to tap into what feels good.

And we can practice pranayama, or breath control. The more attention we give to the breath, the more likely we are to remember it is there when we need it most. This post is not the time to go into all the different types of pranayama, but the Pranayama label (on the right) will grow with posts about various forms of pranayama and what they can be used to create in our lives. Each form of pranayama, however, brings our awareness to the breath and helps us remember to bring our awareness there more quickly when we need it most.

And finally, being as it is November, we can remember to always be grateful for the breath. Each morning when we awake, and each night before we sleep, take a moment and be grateful for the ability to breathe. Without trying to control the breath, or understand it, or even really notice it, just be grateful for it. Take a moment and be grateful for this foundation of life.

It is not always easy to remember to breathe in our moments of deepest frustration, stress, and anxiety, but the more we consciously become aware of the breath, learn to control the breath, and are grateful simply because it is there, the greater our ability becomes to stop and breathe in those moments we need it most.

What are your tricks for remembering to come back to the breath?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gratitude, Veterans Day, and Moving Forward

This is the 200th post on Is Yoga Legal. I find that incredibly hard to believe. I am also glad it happened to fall in this month of gratitude. I had all sorts of great ideas for what to say about this 200th post, just like for the 100th post. I wanted a post that would look to the future and be just about this seemingly momentous (and hard to believe occasion). But mostly I wanted to say thank you to everyone who reads this blog, who comments, who supports me, who asks questions, who challenges me, and who has connected with me over time and space. It has been an amazing journey, and I am deeply grateful. I have learned so much. I wanted to share that gratitude in November. It seemed so fitting.

Then I realized I really wanted to write a post about Veterans Day, and how could that have to do with this 200th post business? I thought about putting all the deep gratitude in a 201st post, but then I realized my thoughts on Veterans Day explain perfectly my thoughts about living in this dual world. And one of the areas for which I am most grateful is that writing this blog and having the ensuing conversations with friends, families, and complete strangers (if there is such a thing), has actually helped me more fully comprehend these issues. That’s when I realized a Veterans Day post is a perfect 200th post. It is filled with the gratitude, the confusion, the thoughts, and the nuance of what has made this blog such an incredible journey for me and, I hope, for you as well.

Today, I posted this on the Is Yoga Legal facebook page, which has been a plethora of gratitude quotes throughout the month: “Today I am grateful for all the people who have risked their lives for all of us. I have no love of war, but anyone who is willing to volunteer to protect me deserves my deepest thanks.” In just a few words it sums up how I feel about Veterans Day. I want to honor the people, but I have a hard time honoring the reason for which we honor the people. But then, in law school, I became more understanding that we, as lay citizens, simply do not have the facts, and maybe there are reasons country leaders make that if I knew the facts I would agree.

In other words, yoga has opened my eyes to our deep connection to one another and the reality that war anywhere in the world affects all of us and harms all of us. Law school opened my eyes to the reality that I simply do not know all the “facts,” and perhaps there are needs beyond what I can understand. Perhaps there really are times it is necessary to kill one person to save thousands. This is an age-old philosophical question that cannot be answered in one post on this blog. But it bears repeating as an issue. Which view is “right?”

From day one, the focus of this blog has been in the heading, “Where two worlds collide, one lawyer-yogi considers whether those two worlds can co-exist.” One of my greatest mentors/teachers in the legal profession once told me after she read a post, “I think yoga and law are very similar. They are both looking for the truth.” I was floored. She refuses to step foot in a yoga class (bad experience), but she sees and understands deeply why I am drawn to it.

And while I agree with her wholeheartedly, both yoga and law at their core, are about understanding “truth,” in whatever form that means to the people involved, this Veterans Day issue is really where the lawyer-yogi dilemma rubber meets the road.

The cop out is simple. Honor the people, but not what they were doing that made them veterans. But they believed, and at some level I believe, they are fighting for something “worth fighting for.” And maybe that is true. Even the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga religious text takes place on a battlefield, and the human in the story is ultimately told to fight in the ensuing battle by the Supreme Being, Krishna. I rarely get into the religious aspects of yoga, but they do exist, and in this sense help understand why this dilemma in us runs so deep.

It is easy to take a black or white position. Either all war is bad, or war is necessary to protect our freedoms. But if it is not abundantly obvious from other posts, I do not do that very well. I live in the gray areas. So where does that leave us? My grandfather and great uncle were soldiers in WWII, and my cousin a soldier in the first Gulf War. I honor and respect what they did and who they are as people. But the pain we all get from war anywhere still haunts me.

So, on this Veterans Day, part of me wants to just say I am grateful for a day off and forget the why. But that’s just selfish and superficial and not actually true. It is difficult to have these discussions with myself and others. Another part of me wants to honor the people and not the war. And another part of me wants to hold all of it and attempt to not go crazy. And to be very honest, that third ability came from my time in law school. It helped me see so much of what I refused to see while growing up even before the yoga helped me articulate what I have felt and experienced so much of my life.

What better way to honor this blog and my gratitude to all of you for staying with me through these 200 posts than to ask the huge questions that created the headline up above? Prior to today, I was starting to think I had to change that sentiment. When I first wrote it more than three years ago (WOW!) it was really more about whether lawyers would accept a yogi and whether yogis would accept a lawyer. But I have come to realize it is much, much deeper than that. It comes down to these issues of interconnectedness and reality of this world in which we live.

I am, therefore, deeply grateful that Veterans Day is this opportunity to struggle with the deepest issues this blog is about and deeply grateful we can share this discussion. And so, as a way of looking forward, what comes next on this blog? Where do we go from here?

We can continue the discussion. Sure, it is important to learn how to use asana at the desk, but more and more I think it is necessary to learn how to take all of ourselves, the yogis and lawyers (as a metaphor for modern humans) within us, and bring that all to the table to look at all the nuances that creates. 200 posts is a long time to realize that, but your responses and your presence have all led to this point. Thank you.

I would love to hear your thoughts going forward.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Finding Gratitude in Difficult Places

This post has been percolating in my mind for months. But this is gratitude month, and it is time to finally write it out in full. I have tried to write it numerous times, but it just sits on my computer, awaiting the words that never come. But the universe has sent enough my way that the words are ready to flow.

We all have our “difficult” teachers. They come in many forms. They are the people and experiences that test our practice. They are the people that pull us out of a reflective mentality into clenched fists and anger spouting. They are the people at work who gossip about us behind our backs, our friends who betray us, and our family who is just so close they know how to push all our buttons.

Usually our difficult teachers are people who know us best. While there is a lot to be gained while practicing deep breathing while driving and not getting mad at the people who cut us off, the real practice is sitting with the people we see all the time when they have done something we do not like. The practice is learning to engage with them. And it is also learning to see our experiences and our pain in new ways.

The question is, how do we learn to be grateful for these people and experiences and learn what we need from them?

The first iteration of an attempt at this post was a post called, “When the Body Does Not Behave.” But what I left out of that post was the underlying truth. I am, and have been for several months, in physical pain. And this is different than my hamstring injury during teacher training. This is ongoing pain. It is pain that interferes with doing yoga. It interferes with teaching yoga. It interferes with a lot of things, actually. It has become my teacher.

Living in the world takes some give and take. America just had a major election, and since Tuesday, my facebook feed has been full of people lamenting the anger and vitriol that remains post-election. Social media is an interesting experiment. Perhaps we say things there we would not say directly to a person, but we are willing to just spew whatever comes to our minds. But the people with whom we share it are ostensibly our friends. Apparently a lot of my friends have unfriended others, or been unfriended, because of their political leanings. It sounds trite to mention facebook, and I feel a bit silly for doing it, but it is a perfect example of these difficult teachers.

It is far easier to unfriend a person than face our deepest selves. But that is where the beauty lies. It is in those deepest places, when we are forced to see them, that we are able to connect the most with other people. But first we have to face the difficult teachers.

And that is not easy. That is why they are difficult. Most of the time I just get frustrated. All the yoga goes out the window, and I get annoyed, my breathing gets shallow, and the physical pain gets worse. But this month, November, I invite you to try something new along with me. I invite you to find a sense of gratitude in these experiences. They are leading us to something greater.

It is no easier to deal with an email from opposing counsel than it is to deal with intense physical pain, but both of these experiences are opportunities in our lives to stop, reflect, and practice. They are opportunities to ask ourselves what we could do differently and what we could learn from one another. It is much easier to be calm and reflective when we are away from the world. But the truth is that we live in the world, and that means we face these issues.

One caveat: I have heard a lot of people say that our greatest teachers are those who are the most difficult in our lives. Until very recently, I sort of blindly agreed with that statement. Now I see it a bit more nuanced. We need all sorts of teachers, and difficulty teachers play a significant role in how we interact with ourselves and one another, but we need supportive and loving teachers as well. That can be a post for another day, but that is why I did not start this post with comments about our greatest teachers being our most difficult. They are necessary, but so are so many others.

We may not be able to make the difficult situation disappear, but we can change our reaction to it. And what if we just said thank you? Thank you for allowing me to see where I still need to work. Thank you for bringing me closer to my humanity and compassion. Thank you for opening my eyes and heart to the full extent of the practice.

How are you grateful for difficulty in your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Conferences and Gratitude

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." -- Albert Schweitzer

My love of conferences is no secret. After all, it was an Association of Family and Conciliation Courts conference where I first taught yoga outside of my teacher training. But more importantly, conferences are about coming together and learning from one another. They are an opportunity to be inspired over and over again to continue to do the work we do. It is at conferences, especially good ones, where that spark can be ignited by others.

And this being November, the Is Yoga Legal facebook page has gratitude quotes and reminders every day. I am using this month as an opportunity to focus on gratitude and being grateful for the amazing life I am blessed to lead. Some days are, of course, easier than others, but I do not think it is an accident for my life that this year’s AFCC mid-year conference started on November 1. It was an opportunity to bring together the yoga world where gratitude has been one of the greatest teachings and the professional world. 

In many ways, I had no business going to this conference. It was a child custody symposium. With my current job, I have nothing to do with child custody evaluations. But I knew I had to go. I knew I had to be there amongst these amazing and inspiring people. And I am forever grateful I was there. Sure, I actually learned a bit that is beneficial to my work. I learned a bit more about children’s memories and processing as well as more statistics about child sexual abuse, but as important as that is to my work, the real gratitude came from just being amongst some amazing people.

I finally was able to articulate what I love so much about this group of people, and I finally was able to realize how important having a solid support is in our work. First, why I love this group of people. They are some of the most brilliant people I have ever met. I learn more at these conferences than any others. This group of people are at the cutting edge of the research and the innovations. But that’s not what I love most.

What I love most is the type of people attracted to AFCC. It is an interdisciplinary and international organization. This means we learn from each other in ways that are simply not possible in other organizations. But more importantly it means we have to leave our preconceived notions at the door. Lawyers have to be a bit less adversarial, and psychologists sometimes have to give answers (just to throw a few unproven stereotypes into the mix). 

But it even goes beyond that. This organization is full of people always willing to help. It does not matter if you are a student or a psychologist or the chief judge of a country, your name badge has your first name on it, and that’s what people call you. And every one of them seems willing to talk and be a support. One of the staff members said that when members call the office looking for help, she knows she can find the right person to answer, and that person will always answer. That’s just the way people in this organization are.

And no, I’m not being paid to promote AFCC. I am just that grateful. When I was in law school, people always said the most important thing to have in a career is a mentor. In yoga, people always talk about finding the right teacher (or sometimes use the word guru). There is no doubt that we cannot do anything alone, whether it is a legal career or yoga. The most important step is finding a supportive and inspiring community.

So, another conference has come and gone. But with it a deep sense of gratitude. I am not only grateful to the amazing people at the conference, the wonderful conversations, and the never ending support from people no first year lawyer would usually have the opportunity to meet. I am grateful for the reminder to be grateful.

Yoga has helped me understand how to bring gratitude into my daily life. It has softened my heart to be able to simply say thank you when that is what is necessary. And this conference falling as it did at the very beginning of November was an opportunity to stop and think about that gratitude, to think how lucky I am to have found this family (ok, for those who know, to have grown up in this family). As I said above, some days are easier than others to find that gratitude in every moment, but a nice refresher every now and then is just what is necessary. Happy November!

How are you celebrating gratitude this month?!?!


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.