Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Shortest Day

Today in the northern hemisphere, it is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. That also translates to the darkest night of the year. There is so much written about the solstice that it is almost fruitless to add to it. But this year in particular I want to reach into the depths of what the winter solstice means.

The changing seasons are always a time to reflect on the circle of life, the ebb and flow of change, and the reminder that nothing stays the same – nothing. The only real guarantee we have in life is change.

The winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is a particularly interesting solstice every year. At a time when our bodies and minds want to curl up in front of a fire, eat some warming foods, and relax into stillness, we choose instead to participate in the most capitalistic of traditions. Even if you spend this time donating and sharing, you are still out in the world pushing hard. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; it is simply a recognition that our focus this time of year is radically different than what the season would ask of us.

It is no surprise, then, that this is also flu season. If we ask our bodies to use more energy than normal at a time when they have fewer reserves than normal, the outcome is going to be dis-ease. And I have thought about this a lot over the years, and I have asked myself how to do things differently. But this year I think I have realized there might be an underlying reason for this dichotomy this time of year.

We are running away.

The winter solstice is a time to remember what it means to live in the dark night of the soul. It brings us inward and wants us to let go of our attachment to this world. It reminds us of the struggles we face on our path to richness (not riches). And that can be a scary place to go. So instead we go to the mall.

But the winter solstice, with its darkness and cold, is simply a reminder to leave behind that which no longer serves us. It is a time to be introspective and quiet and leave everything in the darkness. The pagan tradition of Yule (upon which so many Christmas traditions are based) is a holiday celebrating the rebirth of the sun. Traditionally, a log is burned for 12 days. I do not know much about Yule, but that tradition seems like a great reminder to burn away the deadness within ourselves and to wake up to the rebirth of the sun and honor it.

The world is moving faster and faster. So few of us take the time to truly slow down. And I do not mean in one yoga class per week amidst a crazy schedule. I mean honestly stop and listen long enough to really hear what is happening. Instead we run from any opportunity to see ourselves as something other than productive. Lawyers love to talk about face time at work. Even if you work 30 hours per week at home, it does not count unless you are in the office. It means something to be there before the boss and to still be there when the boss leaves.

But at this time of year, are we really doing anyone, including our clients, any favors when we do that? How does it help anyone to ignore the pull of the season so strongly? Electricity was an amazing invention, and one for which I am personally grateful. But sometimes I wonder what we have lost as a result. It can be daytime anytime. It can be warm or cold any day of the year. The earth still ebbs and flows, but we are trying to reach a point of homeostasis where the ebb and flow of the seasons is more of an inconvenience than a reflection of how we should live our lives.

But as I watch the sun slowly come up this beautiful solstice morning, I wonder what would happen if we used today to simply be. Honestly, I know how hard that is. My plan for today was to take some work to the coffee shop. But today is the shortest day. It is a chance to say thank you to this darkening season and move into the lighter days. And not only do we know that our days our going to get lighter, but we can remember that our friends in the southern hemisphere are experiencing their longest day. No matter how dark it is, there is always light somewhere.

What do you do to reflect on the solstice?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, The Shortest Day, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lawyers as Healers?

More than once on this blog I have talked about people in healing professions, particularly in the series on “Overcoming Crisis Mode.” But every time I write it, I sort of cringe. I wonder, do people believe lawyers can be in a healing profession? When I think of healing professions, I think of psychologists, massage therapists, social workers, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and sometimes, allopathic doctors. I might think of mediators, and some lawyers are mediators, but I do not usually think of lawyers.

And yet, I often consider myself in a healing profession. At least I wanted to be in one. But that begs the question, Can lawyers be in a healing profession? Can lawyers be healers?

First, what do lawyers do? In the broadest sense, lawyers help people solve problems. I could say the same thing about all the people mentioned above. But there is something else underlying the issue. Lawyers are often seen as the problem. You may have heard that lawyers have a bit of a reputation. Even though the reason lawyers exist is to solve problems, there are people who think we do it in a less-than-ideal fashion. We are in an adversarial system.

The adversarial system is just that, adversarial. It is not designed to be a healing process. There are certain paths of law, particularly restorative justice and Collaborative Law, that attempt to be more healing, but overall, the legal system is not one designed to bring people toward health. But by definition, anyone who is involved is dealing with some sort of crisis. And when people are in crisis, they need help overcoming those crises. The question is whether lawyers are properly trained to do that.

My intuition and yoga training tell me they are not. Lawyers are trained to “think like a lawyer.” What does that mean, you ask? It only sort of means learning to think like Perry Mason. What it means is that we are taught to look at everything with a rational and logical mindset. We are asked to see the world as though it can be reduced to elements and factors. What that means is that emotion should have no place in what we do.

And that, of course, means we cannot be healers, right? But go back and read that previous paragraph without the word lawyer in it. Put in the word doctor. Even put in the word psychiatrist. They have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (now in its fifth edition) that reduces behaviors to a formula to then diagnose and treat, often with medication. I just started reading a book called, “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog,” by Dr. Bruce Perry. In it, he tells a story of having to decide to drive a family home one night from therapy instead of allowing the family to wait in the frigid Chicago winter. He struggled not because he did not know the “right” thing to do, but because his training had taught him to be dispassionate and emotionally dissociated from his patients. His training taught him that driving them home was overstepping his boundaries.

And so it is with lawyers. And so it is with so many healing professionals. We are asked to do a little dance – take on just enough to understand and be empathic but not so much that we become so involved we lose sight of an objective view. And that leads me back to where I began – can lawyers, within an adversarial system, help people lead to healing? And perhaps the better question is, does it even matter? There are other professionals and people whose sole purpose is to bring healing to the world.  Why does it matter if lawyers are among them?

I expect there are few lawyers that are the source of why people heal. I expect there are many lawyers who are part of the reason. But I see one way lawyers can be a part of healing from the crisis, whatever that crisis is. And it goes directly to representing child clients. There are ongoing debates about lawyers who represent children. Should we represent their best interest? Should we represent their wishes? The arguments for and against each are long and involved, but one argument for client-directed representation has stuck with me over the years.

Allowing children to direct their lawyers gives them a voice in a process where they are often silenced. Some argue it puts them in the middle, and that can be true, but at the end of the day, the argument is that giving them the voice outweighs the negative effects it might create. And that, I believe, can be healing in and of itself. Research on adults involved in the justice system often shows that people just want to feel heard. They want to know they had “their day in court.” They just want to know the process was fair. Even if they end up “losing” their case, they always feel better if they feel their voice was heard.

And lawyers can offer that voice to our clients. In yoga, we often create a sacred space to help people find their voice. We create a place where people can go within and hear themselves, sometimes for the first time. And there is power in that space. There is healing that comes just from being able to speak and have someone listen. Lawyers are not, by any means, the only people who offer this space. But it is a powerful gift to offer and one that makes more sense knowing the strength of a yoga practice.

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Lawyers asHealers, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thick Skin

We hear it a lot. It is supposed to be a sign of strength. Someone has a thick skin. But what does that really mean? We think it means they can handle whatever is thrown at them. We think it means words do not harm them. We think it means people do not take things personally.

But what does it really mean? What does it mean not to have thick skin?

Lawyers are simply expected to have a thick skin. Although all professionals have to learn some level of objectivity in their work, somehow lawyers are expected to be more stoic about it. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of types of law, but lawyers are often lumped into one category in terms of personality. We're supposed to be Type A, ruthless fighters who, by the way, have a thick skin. Lawyer ads exemplify this when lawyers are  compared to eagles and sharks and tigers. We are tough and often ruthless and definitely fight for our clients.

But that sort of mentality also comes with a price.

I know a lot of lawyers, and very few of them actually meet that description. But somehow deep down, I see a lot of lawyers think they have to meet that description. They feel they have to pretend to be strong even when the work is incredibly hard. They feel they have to push through pain, stress, fear, etc., just to show they are good enough to practice. They have to ignore the pain their clients feel because the law is reason devoid of emotion. That charade causes some people to disconnect from their true nature and forget that it is okay to be vulnerable. A thick skin is supposed to protect our inside from the harsh realities of the outside. 

And how do we show thick skin? Does it mean that we never sleep? Never take care of ourselves? Never show that we are upset? Never show that we need help? If we believe as a society that thick skin equals strength, does that mean those who do not have a thick skin are weak? 

At times, it seems as though that is exactly what the legal profession suggests. More than once, I have overheard lawyers telling stories - and laughing - about the person who cried on the witness stand. But when they tell those stories, I realize they are talking about the people I find the strongest in what they do. They are the ones I admire. I do not necessarily admire them because of their tears, but I know who they are discussing, and inevitably, it is the people I trust. Of course I trust people who do not cry, but tears are rarely a reason not to trust someone, particularly in certain types of work.

There is another aspect to a thick skin that involves not taking care of ourselves as we should. I have seen several articles floating around facebook about the vacation time Americans leave unused while the rest of the world uses every last day of it. And I have heard Americans call those people lazy. Interestingly, more and more people around the world are starting to follow the American model, which I do not understand, but it is happening nonetheless. Why do we feel this need to push ourselves and show everyone else how pushed we are? Why do we feel the need to never look "weak" in public? What part of taking a break, showing emotions, or even being vulnerable makes us so afraid?

I actually do not believe the biggest reason has to do with showing others how strong we are. It is that in some ways we actually feel less when we put on the thick skin charade, and in this world, that can have its advantages . . . in the short term. The world can be difficult to see. As news comes at us from all sides, we see the atrocities of the world from which we were able to hide only a generation ago. Being vulnerable to it is scary because it is scary to see the pain that others experience. When the Buddha first left his palace, he could not believe the horrors he saw. But then he decided to do something about it. He decided to show his followers a way through.

Similarly, yoga teaches us another way than believing we always need to have a thick skin. Yoga teaches us to be softer and more open to the possibility of feeling. And sometimes that can be scary. But arguably, in the long run, it also makes us stronger. Instead of hiding from the world in which we live, we learn to live within it and connect to people on deep levels.

And yoga shows us what strength is from a different point of view. We can be strong when we are vulnerable and scared and unsure. In fact, that is where our true strength lies. Our thick skin is no match to a yoga mat. On the mat, we cannot hide from ourselves, but it is the fact that we see everything about ourselves that makes us stronger. It often does not feel that way, but as we go deeper into our practice, we find a sense of strength we didn't know we had.

All too often, however, we think the true sign of strength is a thick skin. But that can cut us off from feeling anything at all. It can cut us off from the world around us. It can be important not to take what happens in our lives too personally, but the concept of a thick skin has moved us out of ourselves and into a world where the only way to be strong is to hide from what we are truly feeling. And that only leads to more dis-ease and distress later.

How often do you find yourself saying you have a thick skin? Has it served you? Are you willing to break it down and see something different?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The Post, Thick Skin, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Yoga, Pain, and Something Bigger

Over the past year, a lot of people have asked me, “shouldn’t yoga help your pain?” I have learned to try to just smile and nod. But a few times I have responded, “there is a chance yoga caused my pain.” Let me be clear before I go further. I still think yoga is amazing. I am not giving up being a yogi – in fact, I am teaching a restorative class next month. But yoga, as it is taught in the United States, is not the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

This is a shock to some people. William Broad took on the yoga establishment in 2012 with his book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. The yoga blogosphere would not stop talking about it for months. And he is back with another article in the New York Times titled, Women’s Flexibility is a Liability (In Yoga). And we can fight and argue until we are blue in the face (very yogic of us, I’m sure), but there is no question we have to be careful.

Let us examine for a minute what yoga is. First, on this blog, I hope I have been clear that yoga is not about asana. It is about a way of life. Yoga is about yamas and niyamas and breathing and meditation. Asana is a piece, but it is nothing more than a piece. And in my life recently, it has become even less of a piece of the yoga bundle. Yoga to many in the West, however, is exercise. When I used to tell people I was not in the best shape (I have never been a runner, for example), people would respond, “But you do yoga.” Sometimes I would get into the discussion about yoga not being exercise, but more often than not, I would simply nod and smile and move along.

Yoga in America and the rest of the Western world has taken on a feeling of gymnastics. It has permeated the gym culture and become a source of sweaty movement. That is fine for what it is, but it is not yoga. Even, or perhaps particularly, in asana, we must be aware and mindful of how we are moving, feeling, and changing. Vinyasa practices, for anyone except the super aware, take us out of that place. And please do not misunderstand. I LOVE vinyasa practices. I just realize now they may not love me.

And why do we love the sweaty movement of yoga? I personally think it has a lot to do with our culture. We like to feel like we are doing something good for ourselves while still “doing” something. I used to fall into that mindset as well – is it really beneficial if I do not move? I knew the answer was yes, but I still gravitated toward classes with vinyasa flows. I also did a lot of yin and restorative, now my only source of asana, but those classes were my dessert, not my daily practice.

People who know me outside of a blogger persona know I need to take a deep breath and calm down. I would expect that many of you reading this are in the same boat. This blog is, after all, for people in high stress places in life. So many of us have spent our lives looking for external gain – the good grades in school, the good university, the good graduate school, the good job, that we forget to stop and breathe, and before we know it we wake up, and we are stressed and sick and in our late 20s. Sound like anyone you know?

And big-money yoga took on this mentality. There is nothing inherently wrong with the yoga dominance. But there is a problem when it is causing harm, and we as yoga teachers ignore it. The yoga teachers I know do not ignore it. The yoga teachers I know tell me to come to class if the only thing I can do is lie in savasana and imagine myself in the various asanas. But I know there is a different culture out there. I see it in the discussions I have with people. I see it in the yoga ads. It is why I stopped my subscription to Yoga Journal.

So before everyone gets all up in arms about William Broad again, I think it is important to see how he ends the article. He does not tell people not to do yoga. In fact, he makes a very yogic statement, “Better to do yoga in moderation and listen carefully to your body. That temple, after all, is your best teacher.” Each and every body is different. We can look at every single skeleton and chart about muscles, ligaments, fascia, etc. we can find. But at the end of the day, those are guides. Incredibly useful guides, without which I would not want to be a yoga teacher, but nothing more than guides.

Some people have livers on the left side of their body. Some people have naturally fused vertebrae. Some people have hip sockets that misalign. Some people walk pigeon-toed. Some people . . .

So can yoga cause pain? Of course it can! Anyone who tells you otherwise is, frankly, dangerous. Can some people have a vinyasa practice for 20 years and feel great? I guess so. I’m skeptical of that, but I know people who have sworn by it for years. But they are also incredibly strong, incredibly attuned to their bodies, and most likely, incredibly lucky.

My yoga practice has taken a strange about-face turn. This year has turned my life upside down. But I’m slowly finding myself again, and moving again. And these days I understand my body better than ever and still do not understand the first thing about it. But that is the point. We have to be slow, understand what we are feeling, and move from there.

Making your first yoga class ever a vinyasa power class is not the way to do that. They may have their place for some people, but at the end of the day, they are simply not the answer for most people. And yes, that can cause pain. And yes, that is something the billion-dollar yoga industry does not want you to know. But guess what? Yoga is so much more. Through yoga, we can calm our nervous systems and begin to respond to life calmly. Through yoga, we can begin to understand ourselves better. Through yoga, we can begin to understand our relationships better. And as a dear friend keeps reminding me, through yoga, we can heal the world.

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The Post, Yoga, Pain, and Something Bigger, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Nervous System Gone Awry

Almost ten years ago, I taught English in a small town in France about 40 minutes from Paris. It was an interesting and difficult experience on so many levels, and it would have been a great time to have had my yoga tools, but alas, that is a story for another day. But right now I’m remembering a scene in the teacher lunch room. I eat fast, but one day, I watched one of the teachers literally inhale his yogurt. Looking back, it sort of reminds me of how my dogs eat – they sort of forget to chew.

My grandfather was the polar opposite of that French teacher. When we were children (and I will admit, even a bit when I was in college and would visit my grandfather), my brother and I would make a joke of my grandfather’s eating habits and count the number of times he would chew his food. One time he got up to 27 chews . . . for a piece of lettuce!

Looking back on these situations, I see two very different nervous systems. The French teacher was jittery in general. His manner of eating was simply one manifestation of his underlying hyper quality. My grandfather, on the other hand, was an accountant. Now, I adore accountants, but they are definitely not known for their high-strung jittery qualities. Instead, they are methodical and calm and precise. And my grandfather’s ability to chew was just a manifestation of those qualities. (And in case anyone is keeping score, I’m writing this while scarfing down my breakfast faster than I should.)

But this post is not about eating, though I do think about that a lot. This post is about our nervous systems. I had some fillings done on two of my molars yesterday, and I was in pretty excruciating pain for several hours after it was done. And I just kept thinking that my nervous system is so strung out. Being in pain for over a year does that. But as someone said to me earlier this week, that pattern has been in me for years. One could even argue it was there as a child while I was getting annoyed with my grandfather for eating so darn slowly. Sometimes he would even have to microwave his food in the middle of the meal because it got cold.

 Yes, our nervous systems manifest in various ways. I have written before about people who bounce their feet constantly. But there are hundreds of manifestations of our internal energies. Have you ever met someone you knew was just totally wound up? Have you ever met someone who just seemed relax regardless of the external circumstances? That is the nervous system at work.

And most people I know are living with their nervous systems in high gear. It is why dis-ease is rampant, pain is everywhere, and somehow it is October when it feels as though the year started last week. Most of us are all running on nervous system fumes. This is, in many ways, a different way of looking at the fight or flight response. We are living on high alert. But the nervous system is what then starts to fire differently, and it changes how we see the world.

The nervous system is our connection to the rest of the world and to ourselves. It is how we feel. If we had no sciatic nerve, for example, we would be unable to walk. It is not just our muscles and bones that hold us up, but our ability to feel our feet that allow us to stand. Serious trauma to the nervous system can paralyze us. And our nervous system allows us to connect to others as well. Neurons are the transmitters that help our brain understand what is happening in the world around us. We need our nervous system to function at its peak, or else we stop being able to function at all.

When we are being chased by a wild animal, we need our nervous system to be on high alert. We need to have a single-track mind to protect ourselves from the imminent danger. But we do not need that singular focus the rest of our lives. In fact, it can get in the way of our relationships and our ability to live a full life.

When we are in a calmer state, we notice the world around us. We notice the people around us. We are able to give more of ourselves to our work and our lives. It is the biggest paradox of our culture that we think by working more we can get more done. But deep within our core, most of us know that it is really when we take regular breaks to recharge that our ability to work strengthens. Modern science is finally making these connections as well. I’m still trying to implement naptime at work, but I’m having difficulty.

Unfortunately, without regular breaks, without taking time to breathe, or sometimes as a result of dis-ease, the nervous system goes awry. It takes over and goes into overdrive, and getting it out of that state feels impossible. Doctors give us medication that is supposed to stop that overdrive, but instead of actually calming the nervous system, those medications simply block our response to it. Sometimes that is the boost we need to calm down ourselves, but sometimes it just makes it more difficult.

The good news is that the body/mind/soul do not want to rest in hyperactivity, so getting back to calmness is actually their natural state. We just have to get out of our own ways enough to make that happen. And that can take years of training. Or it can take a few minutes of breathing every day. There are so many tools to calm ourselves: Walking in nature, deep breathing (most accessible and easiest but somehow one of the more difficult to do), being with good friends, going to a calming yoga class (this means no Bikram when the goal is to calm the nervous system), meditating, massage, energy work, acupuncture, etc.

But those are all “just” tools. They are absolutely amazing tools, and all of them will help us get on the path to calming the nervous system. They are not, however, panaceas. In order to fully calm our nervous systems, we have to want them to be calm. We have to step out of the mindset of the modern world and recognize that we need not be nervous wrecks in order to function. We do not have to go 100% all the time. We are allowed to stop and take a walk in nature. Until we allow that one thought, nothing is going to change long term.

Have you noticed your nervous system has gone awry? Are you willing to allow yourself to calm? What are your tools?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, The Nervous System Gone Awry, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Finding Your Voice

I have had an interesting few weeks. I have delved into physical posture issues that had me questioning whether yoga led to my current physical pain. I have delved into  emotional processes I have had my entire life wondering if they could be the root of the pain. And I have ignored the pain as much as possible and attempted to change my story around it only to have it come back and bite me in the rear, literally. There is so much to say. I have wanted to write about all of these issues and experiences, to share them as part of the yoga / modern world story.

And yet, I cannot find the words.

Where have they gone? Everyone who writes has moments like these. They come in waves and make us believe we have lost our voice for good. Is it a fear of a response to our genuine voice? Is it a fear that we have nothing to say? Is it a fear of showing too much of ourselves?

When I was living in New Zealand, writing came so easy. If nothing else, I could always fall back on the beauty surrounding me. The earthquakes provided nice, though disturbing, fodder as well. But since being back these for nearly two years, life has taken on a strange sense of normalcy even though I am finally a practicing attorney, the sole purpose for this blog. There is so much going on, but why would that matter to anyone? How do I put it into words? I do not think it is the practice of law itself that has taken my voice, but instead the implications on my practice of putting too much on a public blog.

But it's not as though my life is not interesting. I see human tragedy several times per day and opportunities to use a practice all the time. But as each day ends there are moments of regret, realizations that moments of practice were missed, and a deep sense of recognition that more often than not reaction wins when response was so necessary. It's not just my voice that is missing, it's the practice itself. And how does a yoga teacher share being caught up in the mind so much as to miss the opportunity to tune in and meet people where they are with a sense of yogic connection?

These issues go beyond the practice of law as well. A friend asked me if I wanted to teach a yoga class for her. Of course I do. But how? What if that morning I wake up unable to walk? What if I have lost my yoga teaching voice? What if I have lost my practice? When I started teaching yoga, people told me they loved my classes. Certainly they are different than the average American yoga class, but they seemed to work. But I have not taught in over a year. I have only taken a handful of classes. The fear has taken over. I don't know if my voice will come back or if my practice will either. There is a piece of the fight or flight response people often forget - the freeze response. As I have learned more about it, I see it more and more in the people around me. But more of that for a different day. Today, suffice it to say, my practice and my voice feel as though that is where they are.

And that is when yoga is needed the most. It is always there to guide us back to presence and ourselves. Yoga is not about finding something external. It is about finding the strength within us that guides us through life. I realized something this past weekend. Sometimes we have to get out of our own way in order for the magic to happen. Yoga is just a tool for making that happen. It is the path (perhaps better to say, one path) for getting out of our own heads and into our true Being.

Deep within ourselves  we cannot lose our voice. We cannot lose the practice. Both are always there. We just find incredible ways to hide them from ourselves and then fear they have disappeared forever. The truth, however, is that we can never lose our essence. By definition, it is always within us. And our voice is nothing more than our essence manifested in this reality.

And so, yoga is the practice of letting our essence shine again. Sometimes it even takes writing about it before we can trust ourselves enough to access it.

Do you tune into your essential voice? Do you let your true voice manifest in this world? If not, what is holding you back? And what do you need to break out of that rut and shine? The modern world tries to quiet us and deprive us of our deepest voice, but yoga beings us back to it simply by silencing all the noise blocking it out. And sometimes remembering it is there is the first step on the journey toward finding it again. How are you finding your voice?

Namaste.

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Finding Your Voice, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Exhausted

“I’m exhausted.” It is a phrase that permeates the courthouse and society on a daily basis. And you can see it in peoples’ faces. Earlier this week, I was in court wondering whether the lawyer sitting next to me was going to fall out of his chair he looked so tired. The best place to see it is while driving (am I the only person who people watches while driving?). According to Wikipedia, the clinical definition is fatigue. But exhausted is the word most of us choose to use on a daily basis.

And I am sure you see it all around you. People putting on make-up to cover up the tired bags under their eyes, drinking coffee all day long “just to keep going,” people forgetting to do work, etc. Exhaustion is deeper than just a lack of sleep. We create exhaustion in our lives through non-stop stress, lack of sleep, poor eating (really poor digestion), and frantic overuse of technology. Not only do we spend all our time on our phones, computers, tablets, televisions, etc., but we are being bombarded with information, some of it useful and some of it not, but most importantly, it is simply too much.

The old adage is true – there definitely can be too much of a good thing!

And when we are exhausted, our bodies do not function properly. Our brains need time to rest and rejuvenate. Our bodies need time to heal during the night. It is not called beauty sleep for nothing. Our skin even looks better when we sleep enough. I have had healing practitioners tell me that they can cure ailments like pain simply by improving peoples’ sleep quality and quantity. Exhaustion is not, therefore, something just to push through. It underlies so many other dis-ease states.

And beyond just our individual selves, in our modern world, the Earth itself feels exhausted. There are physical wars happening, political wars happening (I’m writing this while the US government is shut down), and interpersonal wars. We deplete our soil, overuse our goods, and pollute our air. No wonder we all walk around looking like zombies. Our phone addictions help protect us from having to feel the exhaustion. As long as we have a distraction, we can pretend we do not feel the full effects of the exhaustion. But then sometimes we do. Have you ever had a day where you could not face getting out of bed, where your body just did not seem to move? Have you ever gone to a yoga class and slept through savasana? That is when exhaustion overtakes us. And in the long run, it will win. It is just a matter of time . . . unless we counteract it.

So what do we do about it? How do we take back some of our exhaustion and begin to feel we have some energy again? There are a myriad of ways, and at some level I am reticent to give too many. After all, I do not want to exhaust you with things to do. But here is the most important thing to remember – do what feels like a really good idea to you. If it does not feel right (not because you do not want it to feel right but really does not feel right) do not do it.

First, at least one meal per day actually pay attention to your food. Stop reading, texting, or watching television, and eat your food consciously. Yes, it takes longer. And yes, it can seem boring. But try it. I have been trying to do this again, and I cannot express how hard it has been. I find my mind wandering everywhere but my food, but that is just a sign I have gotten away from this good habit. I used to do this really well - interestingly that was back when I was just out of college. And once you can do it for one meal per day, start doing it for two or even all three.

Second, take some time every day to breathe. Just breathe. This should really be the tagline of this blog in general – just breathe. But it is true. And if you want to really help calm the nervous system and relax before bed, try doing some alternate nostril breathing. When you feel something bothering you, take a deep breath. It is amazing how simple this is, and it is amazing how many of us forget to do it.

Third, get more sleep. Even just going to bed 30 minutes earlier will help. And while you are at it, turn off the television, cell phone, and tablet while in bed. And this is where I need to practice. My phone sits next to my bed, and although I have turned it silent overnight, it is still there when I cannot sleep, and I turn to facebook at 3am. That is not the best way to get back to sleep. In fact, it is one of the worst.

Fourth, stop watching and reading the news. It is designed to be dramatic and rile you up. It is not designed to be informative and uplifting. Sadness and violence sell, and that just increases our exhaustion. We hear about these stories, and we then internalize them. And we are bombarded with them all day, every day. So turn it off in moments when you feel totally exhausted. This is not to say never watch the news again – just choose wisely when you do and ensure you are ready for the onslaught and are prepared to breathe through it.

Exhaustion is simply rampant in our culture. We are expected to be exhausted. And that is unfortunate. We are creating, or have created, a culture where destruction of ourselves somehow shows we are stronger than others. It is a difficult belief system to overcome, but exhaustion is not the way we have to live, and deep down we all know it is not going to make us do our jobs better. In fact, it means we are going to end up not only exhausted but with chronic dis-ease patterns that make it impossible for us to function.

So, ask yourself if you are exhausted. And if you are, what one step are you going to take today to help overcome that exhaustion? For me, I am going to keep my phone off no matter how awake I am at 3am. Facebook can wait.

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Exhausted, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cleansing Samskaras

I am currently doing an ayurvedic cleanse. It consists of two weeks of eating simply, participating in ayurvedic rituals to cleanse and heal, and steering clear of some of the most difficult foods for us to handle – coffee, alcohol, and dairy. Ayurveda is often called Yoga’s sister science because it is the ancient healing modality from India. There is so much to Ayurveda, and perhaps my next post will cover those issues, but today I want to focus on what it means to cleanse and let go.

This is the beginning of autumn in the northern hemisphere. Here in the United States, we often call this season fall. It gets that name because it is when all the leaves fall off the trees. Of course, that barely happens here in the Tucson desert, but it is my favorite time of year and one thing I miss from living in places that actually have four seasons. (Of course, come January, when I’m not wearing a parka, I stop my whining.)

But the point is that autumn is a time to let go of that which no longer serves us. It is a time to slow down as the heat of the summer begins to dissipate. We begin to crave warming and grounding foods. And this is the reason to cleanse in autumn. It is a time to reset after the summer and move forward into simpler times. It is also one of the two times of year where we are closest to equal parts light and dark in our days because it is right after the equinox. This major shift in the Earth allows us to make major shift within ourselves.

Certainly the cleanse is about releasing internal, physical toxins and calming the digestive tract to help it better digest our food. And as Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be they food.” Food has the power to harm and to heal and be a beacon for our overall health. But there is something more to this cleanse than simply cleansing physically.

Cleansing is an opportunity to release old patterns that no longer serve us. I have written before about samskaras. A samskara, while it sometimes has a negative connotation as a “bad” pattern we hold, is nothing more than a pattern. The word itself is neutral. If we act in a certain way often enough, it simply becomes a pattern, and we no longer have to think about what we are doing. It simply comes naturally.

To be clear, this is required in life. We have to be able to turn off our brains at times and run on autopilot. If we had to think about everything every time we tried to do something, we would get very little done. And we know physiologically, this is how the brain is set up. Babies are born with many more neurons than adults have. As time goes on, they go through a process called “pruning,” whereby they create synapses, or pathways in the brain, that lead to modes of being. This is why it is so much easier for babies to learn than adults. Their brains are more malleable because they have very few synapses but a lot of neurons to create them (though new research suggests adult brains are more malleable than previously thought). 

Therefore, patterns we develop in childhood lead to the patterns many of us carry into adulthood. These can include anything from good study habits to driving on the left side of the road to craving unhealthy foods to negative self-talk. While the neurosciences call these synapses, yoga philosophy calls them samskaras, and Buddhism calls them samsaras. So, some samskaras are uplifting and help us get through our days, while others of them bog us down and can eventually create dis-ease.

And as fall begins and we think about letting go and slowing down for winter, it is important to notice the patterns we hold that no longer serve us or might be causing us some disease. Louise Hay, who wrote, “You Can Heal Your Life,” talks about the power of affirmations to overcome all disease. And as I mentioned a few months ago, the medical literature is beginning to agree. What we think matters to our health, and what we think can shape our health perhaps more than some of us would like to admit.

So, what are some negative samskaras some of us hold? Simply read these statements and ask yourself if any of them resonate with you.

I’m not good enough.
I’m not loveable.
I deserve to suffer.
I will not succeed, so I will not even try.
I do not deserve happiness.
There is no joy in my life.
I am scared.

Can you think of others you bring into your life? There are so many ways we inhibit our greatest good from coming forward. But we can begin to overcome these negative patterns. There are several emerging psychological techniques specifically designed to reframe these negative patterns, including Somatic Experiencing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Tapping/Emotional Freedom Technique.

But the first step is simply noticing what we do to create this self harm. I see it so often in the work I do. It comes up everywhere to people in healing professions. It is so much easier to see when other people do it than when we do it ourselves. But I know very few people who do not do this, and therefore noticing is the first step.

The next step is to reframe the pattern. As Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” When we leave our old patterns behind, we can begin to create new patterns. We have to make the choice to do that. And we begin to create new patterns by reframing our self-talk. When we notice a negative statement coming, state a positive one. There are literally thousands of affirmations we could say, but I want to leave you with one in particular.

No single blog post is going to help you overcome all your negative samskaras.  But a friend of mine gave me one of my favorites, “I love myself. I forgive myself.” And I add to that, “I am safe.” I figure this covers the vast majority of negative self-talk so many of us use. So I hope you are able to look in a mirror every day and say to yourself, "I love myself. I forgive myself. I am safe." 

How do you notice your self-talk? Is it causing you dis- ease? What helps you reframe the talk?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Cleansing Samskaras, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Starting Fresh and Forgiving the Trauma

I think we have all heard the word trauma. It probably means something different to each of us. This week, we marked the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and I have been reading an interesting discussion about how people in the United States were traumatized differently if they were actually in New York, D.C., or Pennsylvania vs. the rest of us who “just” watched it on television. This year, we had a similar event, though smaller in numbers, with the Boston Marathon bombing.

But even without these major events on our own soil, if you’re an American reading this, most of us hear the news about what is happening in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. I have not seen the photos (I refuse to watch them because I do not think at this point I can handle them), but I know they are out there. I did watch the video of the woman dying in Egypt during their revolution in 2009. As if we do not have our own individual trauma, we now have a world of shared trauma. In an instant, we can be across the world watching someone die . . . over and over again.

On an individual level, we all have experienced our own personal trauma. Today, I was talking to a yoga therapist, and she asked me if I had trauma as a child. My response was, “don’t we all?” I mean, I looked back at some of the very intense physical issues I had to deal with as a very young child, and I see now how incredibly intertwined they are with my current physical situation. There are many people who believe, and I think rightly so, that birth itself is a trauma. And then, of course, there are the children and adults, who deal with ongoing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. 

I rarely discuss the work I do on this blog. Part of that is because so much of it is confidential, but also because it is really not the specific point of this blog, and because I frankly think it would be unprofessional to get into anything beyond the most general. Trauma is a really big word in the juvenile court world. These days, the goal is to be a trauma-informed or trauma-responsive system. It is a noble goal, and one I do not think anyone takes lightly. The legal world is, therefore, focusing on this one word a lot. The military, and even the NFL, are talking about responding to traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.

The word trauma seems to be everywhere.

And I sometimes feel like we get lost in the word because we use it so much. Do we get desensitized to it because we talk about it so much? Do we forget sometimes real peoples’ lives are at stake below this word TRAUMA that seems to pepper every discussion we have?

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have these discussions, to help people accept that their trauma is real, and it is okay to experience the repercussions. It is important to have these discussions to find the best ways to work with trauma, and perhaps most importantly, to realize we can heal from trauma. I have written about this before in the context of healing professionals and vicarious trauma. But during this time to focus on forgiveness, I think it is important to look at trauma as something to forgive.

It is very easy to dwell on why things happen to us. It is very easy to dwell on how terrible it is that they happened.  It is very easy to be upset about decisions adults made in our lives when we were children when we think we would have made different ones. But the truth is that life happens. We all make the best decisions we can along the way. And as long as we hold onto the victim stance, our bodies will respond with dis-ease.

There is an entire aspect of yoga focused on trauma and how best to bring very traumatized people into yoga safely, so they can begin the healing journey. But regardless of who we are, yoga is going to force us to see our own trauma, whether we watched the Twin Towers fall, were beaten by a parent, or fell down one too many times as a child. We are going to face whatever good and bad experiences we have had in our lives, whether we want to face them or not. Yoga brings us to the brink of our humanness.

At times it can be very difficult to accept that we are still feeling the effects of what happened to us 5, 10, or even 50 years ago, but the truth is that we are. Some of us get really upset at ourselves for not healing, not getting better fast enough. But as someone said to me once, “what would you say to the child or the person in the moment they experience the trauma and the fear?” That is how we need to treat ourselves regardless of when the reaction to the trauma arises. We must learn to forgive the event, the people who we have told ourselves caused the event, and the fact that we are re-experiencing the event however many years after it occurred.

I have often wondered why the Jewish New Year is before the Day of Atonement. Would it not make more sense to let go of the past, ask for forgiveness, and then celebrate with the New Year? But as I look at it from this lens, I realize it does make sense.  In fact, it makes a lot of sense. The fact that the new year happens first reminds us that the world has already moved on. Now we just have to follow suit. We absolutely can move on and heal. We just have to do the actual work to allowing the healing to happen. And that is forgiveness.

We have to let ourselves forgive ourselves, each other, and the Universe for whatever we believe has caused us dis-ease during the year. And we can do this because we have already opened our hearts and attitudes to the idea that we have moved past it, that we are on a new path. And through forgiveness on so many levels we can begin to heal the trauma each and every one of us experiences, whether it be trauma or Trauma.

How are you forgiving the past? Yourself?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Starting Fresh and Forgiving Trauma, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Forgiving Ourselves

 We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” – Dalai Lama

I have posted several times before about this time of year. I was raised Jewish, and while now most of my practice comes from Yoga, the roots of Judaism are still there. And this time of year, the High Holy Days, is when I think about it the most. The period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time to reflect on how we have acted the past year, ask for forgiveness, and forgive those that have hurt us. I can think of no spiritual tradition that does not place forgiveness at the forefront of living a good life.

The legal world is not generally a place that forgives easily. In fact, we can be accountable for long periods of time for actions that occurred years ago. Interestingly, though, I work in one area of the law that starts by saying, we know what happened in the past, but it is time to move forward. The goal is to move on from the past and make the future a brighter place for children and families. That is a pretty amazing concept. I cannot say it always happens, but that is generally the goal at the outset. It is inspiring to see the times when it actually works out well, and families can move forward into a greater future.

But it takes a lot of work. Forgiveness and moving on are not traits that come easily to many of us. Yoga, however, can give us some tools for finding forgiveness and, sometimes more importantly, asking for forgiveness.

But there is no way we can offer our forgiveness to others until we find it within ourselves. The Dalai Lama, in the quote above, says it perfectly – we need to find our own peace, our own forgiveness, before there can be external peace and forgiveness. But how does that even look? Self-forgiveness is a difficult process, but it is fundamentally necessary to surviving in the world.

When we practice yoga, we are forced to look at ourselves head-on. We cannot hide who we are from ourselves. Instead, we slow down, and we turn inward. Yoga is not about getting fit. It is not about exercise. It is not about having a cute butt. Yoga is about coming face-to-face with who we are. A friend of mine posted a question on facebook. She asked, “Why am I brought to the depths of sorrow and tears near the end of each Yoga class?” I have posted before about how yoga is not always about making us feel awesome every single time we go to class. It is about understanding ourselves and discovering who we are. It is about seeing our true selves, not the mask, or masks, we share with the world.

And so, in many ways, yoga is about forgiving ourselves for pretending to be something we are not. We all have our masks. And everyone else shows us his or her masks as well. We live in a world where we hide who we truly are for fear of making someone angry or hurting someone’s feelings or even of just feeling different. But then our soul begins to react and get upset about our hiding it from the world. It begins to create dis-ease in our life. So, one of the answer’s to my friend’s question is that yoga brings us to this reality. It shows us what we have been hiding from the world, and the relief can come across as laughter, tears, and powerful emotions.

But after those emotions start to clear, we see our true selves. We can be with who we really are. And from there, we can begin to find the peace and forgiveness the Dalai Lama mentions. And once we are finally able to forgive ourselves, and see ourselves for who we really are – perfect beings on this turbulent ride called life – we can begin to forgive others and connect with them on a deeper and fuller level. No one is going to claim this is easy, but that is what makes this year so amazing. Just like Christmas is a day where you can smile at anyone, this time of year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has something in the air, even if you have never heard about these holidays before, so you have some support to start now.


How has yoga brought you to see yourself differently?

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Forgiving Ourselves, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Subtleties of the Bigger Picture

Yoga teaches us to trust our intuition. Some days it is a really good idea to go to a vinyasa class and move. Some days it is a really good idea to relax into a calming, restorative class. But every day is going to be different, no matter who you are. One of the only parts of each of us that is the same is that we change on a daily basis.

And yoga not only allows this, but it encourages these differences. It encourages us to look at our subtleties and understand them more fully. We can move into our bodies each and every day and understand its needs that day. We can use different modalities to calm our minds and calm our nerves every minute. We live in an age where there are thousands of modalities, and we just need to find the one that works for us.

The “real” world, however, still has not quite caught on. Law schools still seem to think the right answer for every student is a law firm life, the bigger the better (and yes, I know not all schools do this, but the underlying culture still does). Professionals specialize more and more such that simple answers outside their specialty evade their understanding. We live in a world where we try to make every situation the same because then it fits a pattern that is familiar to us.

When I was studying in New Zealand, there had recently been a change in New Zealand requiring lawyers who represented children to actually see their child clients in person. Prior to that, many lawyers just assumed all children were the same, so they did not actually have to meet their particular client in this case. And that was in family law, where seeing the child with each of the parents and more fully understanding that child’s relationship with each child was even more important.

I do not mention this to say these lawyers did not care. They simply did not think through the fact that every single person is unique and has individual qualities. When I went to see a surgeon, he really only looked at my MRI. The physical therapist and another doctor said, “I want to see you before I look at the images.” When we get into too much specialization, we lose subtleties of each and every person.

And this does not only affect the professional world. It affects our everyday lives. If we stop expecting people and situations to be different, we start making assumptions about how certain situations are going to happen. And with that, we have the potential to stop trusting ourselves in the moment of those situations. But yoga helps us tap back into that intuition in the moment. It helps us see that each and every day our body and mind are different.

For example, we learn to tap into the subtleties that make up our every day lives. We learn to find new meaning in what we might have otherwise thought would be a mundane situation. This is really the next step in gratitude. Not only can we be grateful for what we have, but we can start to see how nothing is really as it seems, and our lives are richer and more interesting than we might otherwise imagine.  But first, we have to learn to look. We have to learn to step outside of our focused vision and see the bigger picture. But in order to see that bigger picture, we have to learn to notice the small differences in each and every person, encounter, and situation.

I guess the big question is, “so what?” My 8th grade English teacher used to ask us that on our writing assignments. Why am I mentioning this? How does this affect our daily lives? Some people believe that one of the underlying reasons for unhappiness in our world is when people believe they are not fully seen for who they are. If we believe that everyone of a certain characteristic (whether race, occupation, age, etc.) is the same, we fail to see the person before us. It is not easy to do. It is much easier to put everyone in a box and go from there. It takes less mental effort . . . on the surface.

But in the long term, what takes less mental effort is not keeping people in those boxes, whatever they are, but allowing yourself to fully experience life. Just like we do not usually need the fight or flight response in our daily lives, though it is great when we do, we do not need to box people into categories anymore. We live in a different world than we did 10,000 years ago when there were reasons not to trust anyone but our clan.  Now our world will be better served by tuning into the subtle differences of each and every person and situation. For me, I have found the ability to start doing that through yoga.

Do you find yourself caught up in assumptions? How do you get out of that mindset? How do you see each person as an individual?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Looking at Ourselves

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

Yoga in America is an interesting phenomenon. I started doing yoga as a way to find some semblance of peace in my life. I was 19 years old at the time. But now yoga in America happens in gyms and on commercials for decidedly unhealthy products, including McDonald’s. It has become Westernized and commercialized. There is, of course, a lot to say about what this means for us and for yoga, but I want to focus on one particular aspect today. And it starts with law school.

I loved law school. Loved it. I loved it so much I went back to get my Master’s of Law. But I was lucky in law school. I was lucky because a) I went to a great school that did not focus on competition amongst students, and b) I was too na├»ve to even notice the competition that did exist. For anyone who is not a lawyer, or who has not seen, The Paper Chase (sadly, Legally Blonde is a not-too-realistic example of law school), law school is about competition. Grades are almost always on a curve, and students are told it matters a lot where you graduate in your class. It is extremely important to some students that they get on the journals and help publish articles written by law professors attempting to get tenure.

But the point is that everyone is compared to everyone else. There is no question this happens outside of law school as well. I once heard that at Julliard School of Music, you cannot leave your instrument lying around because someone could come and break it. I have no idea if that is true, but the point is that competition is everywhere.

And now it is in yoga spaces. For years, there has been discussion in the yoga blogosphere about the people (usually women) who are on the cover of yoga magazines, particularly Yoga Journal. They are always thin, extremely bendy, and white. If you look here, the Yoga Journal cover gallery, that was not actually true until around the year 2000, when yoga began to take the United States by storm. Prior to that, more men were on the cover, they were older, and they were not always in asanas.

And now people tell me they are afraid to go to yoga classes because they don’t want other people to see them. When people do make it to class, they compare themselves to others. I do not know anyone who has not done it. It is a natural part of life. But how does it serve us? We are all unique and come to our mats with our own struggles and our own abilities.

But the point of yoga is to turn inward. And the best professionals do their work well because of their own inner talents and drive, not because they are competing with others. It does no one any good for surgeons to compete. We, as the recipients of their services, do best when they are all incredibly good at what they do.

Some people argue that competition makes us all better. We strive to be like others and along the way become better at what we are trying to accomplish. I used to buy into that belief. I really thought that if I compared myself to people I admired, I would only get better. But that is not how the world works.

The underlying message of competition and comparison is, “I’m not good enough. I have to be better.” That underlying notion causes dis-ease, not a sense of empowerment and betterment. We all have our own unique gifts to offer the world. Some people may be able to do a handstand, and some may be able to write a novel, and some may be able to build a bridge. All of these are noble endeavors that make the world a better place. As Einstein points out in the quote above, we all must find our own path and passion. And that is how our genius will shine.

I am often dismayed at the modern yoga situation. But perhaps the most dismaying part about it is that instead of taking us out of the world in which everyone competes, it brings us deeper into it.

As I continue to read book after book about the power of the mind to heal the body, I keep coming back to the same sentiment, whether it is from Louise Hay or medical doctors – we have to accept ourselves as we are before the healing process can begin. At its core, this is the point of a yoga practice. This is the work we strive to accomplish.

This very personal practice that is yoga can be the antidote to so much of our dis-ease causing beliefs about ourselves. How do you stay in that mindset instead of getting caught up in what others are doing in classes?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Looking at Ourselves, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.