Sunday, January 20, 2013

Defining Ourselves

In many ways, this post has been years in the making. It sort of sums up why I created Is Yoga Legal. How do I define myself? Am I a lawyer representing children? Am I a researcher trying to find better ways to represent children? Am I a yogi? Am I a yoga teacher? This blog has always been a way to try to be all of these things as well as an attempt to recognize how they can influence each other.

But are any of these characteristics really who we are? Would I still be me if I stopped doing yoga? Would I still be me if I stopped being a lawyer? Someone asked me the other day, “how else do you want to be defined?” I really had no answer.

What I realized is that so many of us define ourselves by what we do. That is the cocktail party question, right? “So, what do you do?” In some ways, this is just an easy way to connect. It is a good way to break the ice in an otherwise super awkward moment. One of the things I have always liked about conferences is that there is an underlying assumption that everyone does the same work, even if it is from a different perspective. But that is not asking the person, "who are you?" It is simply a way to start making small talk. It might lead to interesting conversation, but it does not necessarily set the stage for truly understanding the person.

I have spent a lot of time traveling and getting away from past situations, not necessarily purposefully running, just moving and starting over again. I moved from Michigan to California when I was five (obviously not my choice), from California to Michigan when I was 18, from Michigan to France when I was 21 and again when I was 22, from France to Arizona when I was 23, from Tucson to Phoenix when I was 28, from Arizona to New Zealand when I was 29, and then back to Tucson just before I turned 30. 

I have had new experiences, “done” different things, and met hundreds of people. But I was always there. That person who cannot be defined. The same hopes, fears, relationships, etc. followed me from place to place and from experience to experience. Yoga was always the one aspect that helped me reconnect to my deeper self. It helps that I started doing yoga in college, so it has remained the one constant in my adult life, even if at times it has been more or less a part of my life.

So, how does yoga connect us to our deeper selves, the one who is beyond being defined by what we do? To be clear, this is not a way to define ourselves as yogis. Yoga helps us see beyond the definitions of “doing” rather than “being.” Yoga, through concentration on the breath, helps us step out of this cocktail party world into one where we can see what comes up for us.

We learn to see how we respond and react to difficult situations. We learn to hear our self talk. We learn to see how we connect to other people. On a yoga mat, or a meditation cushion, or even breathing deeply while lying flat on your back on the couch recovering from surgery, it does not matter what you “do” in life. The president of the United States meditating is no different than the janitor in the White House meditating. 

And the more we tap into that inner being, that inner power, the more of what we do in life becomes a manifestation of our inner self. We may not physically change our work, but we are no longer defined by it. We define how we do it. Our identity need not be tied up in what we do, but rather in who we are, and how we share that with the world. 

So, the answer is that the yogi and the lawyer can absolutely coexist when they are both manifestations of the deepest self. The conflict arises when we allow lawyer and yogi to define who we think we are. I think there is more to say on this, but right now, I am not sure what that is. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Do you define yourself by your work? Are you able to take the step to manifest your inner being and let the work flow from there?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Future Together

Today is my 31st birthday.

I say that only because one year ago, I wrote a post on my 30th birthday, and in it, I promised to live my life for others, to consciously use yoga to refill my reserves to be of service to the world. But as I pointed out in the last post, I had back surgery 2.5 weeks ago, and I have not been this reliant on other people since I was a child. This has gotten me thinking about my post a year ago.

Yoga and the law have something in common I have not really considered until now. In many ways, they are both solitary activities. And yet, I have learned more about community from both of them than anything else in my life. And that is just the point. Both of them could be very isolating unless we consciously open up to the support and encouragement of those around us.

For example, at my job I have my own case load. I meet with my clients, prepare for hearings, and participate in hearings. When emails and phone calls come on a case, I respond. But I work in an office with several other lawyers, and we all help each other. When I have a question, I find someone who might know the answer. If it is one of those situations where there may not be an answer (all too common in the legal profession and the world), we discuss the issue until we figure out how best to move forward. I could choose not to interact on that level, but it is through the interaction with others that I learn so much.

Yoga works similarly. A yoga practice could certainly be on a mat or a meditation cushion in your own home. And as I have learned these past few weeks, it can also be flat on your back on the couch just remembering to breathe and let go. Even in a community class, the practice is internal. No teacher, no matter how great, can know what you are feeling in your own body. And yet the teacher, as well as the other students, can help us learn to understand ourselves on a deeper level. It is the presence of the community that helps us understand and connect.

I wrote last year’s post about dedicating myself to others for a few reasons. First, I realized that my 20’s were a bit self-serving. And second, I firmly believe the legal profession is an opportunity to serve the community, and we should treat it as such.

But the individualism/community aspects of both the legal profession and yoga and great examples of how we need to balance the service to ourselves and the service to others. And sometimes we have to accept the help from others as well.

The world is more interconnected than it has ever been before. We are developing new ways to communicate faster and faster. And yet, somehow, we are more distant from one another. So many of us have our heads in ten, or more, different places at once, that they are rarely with the people around us. We have brief interactions, brief facebook notes, or brief text messages that would make Shakespeare roll over in his grave. But that is not enough to sustain us.

We can turn inward at times and be solitary creatures. We need that time alone to rest and rejuvenate. We can be part of the community just for fun at times and enjoy other human company. And we can serve the community, be there for our friends and family, and support the world. All of these happen together. They are a symbiotic relationship.

Last year’s post was called “A Future for Others.” That is why this year’s post is called “A Future Together.” I have learned this past year how necessary it is, at times, to reach out and ask for help. Sometimes that means help with writing an appeal, and sometimes that means help doing the laundry. And there are plenty of moments to offer a hand when someone is in need. And through it all, there are times we need to retreat from the world for a brief sojourn and refill our yoga buckets to continue being able to be a part of this world together.

How do you connect best with others? Have you had to ask for help recently? Have you had to offer help? How do you restore your sanity?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Waking Up

I have a confession. I am a yoga teacher who, three weeks shy of her 31st birthday, had back surgery. In the grand scheme of back surgery, it was minimal and non-invasive, but it was back surgery. And it changed my life. And I am finally waking up to the multitude of ways it changed my life, and all of the lessons touch on themes this blog has addressed over the years. Only a few of them can be addressed here, but there is no question this experience, the surgery and what led to it, has been a turning point in my life.

The first way it changed my life is that now I can walk again. I really did not want to get into it before, but for about a week prior to surgery, I could barely walk three steps without stabbing, shooting pain in my entire right leg and foot. Sciatica is a scary thing, and it can have so many causes, but as the orthopedist who looked at my MRI said, I was an easy diagnosis. I had a huge herniated disc. But just a few hours after surgery I walked down the hallway in the hospital. I walked slowly, and someone was with me, but I walked. The next day, I climbed two flights of stairs.  Today, two weeks after surgery, I took a 30-minute walk. 

It seems silly for someone who spent three days backpacking last year to be excited for a 30-minute walk, but that is a really big deal to me after the months of physical pain. And this is a great reminder that we cannot judge ourselves by what others can do. I was getting a bit jealous of a dog earlier today who is able to do upward facing dog pose and downward facing dog pose (there are reasons they have these names), and I was told not to stretch at all right now. But it was a great reminder to just be where I am. We cannot judge ourselves by how others are in yoga classes or at work or at life, and we certainly cannot judge ourselves by our pets. Some days a 3-day backpacking trip is where we are, and other days a 30-minute walk is where we are. Neither one is good or bad. It is simply our body, our situation, on any particular day.

But being able to walk again has not been the only benefit of surgery. It has woken me up to what it means to let go and feel true community and true gratitude. It has woken me up to the fact that we cannot always explain why things happen even if we think or know there should be a reason, but we can accept that they have happened and move forward.

I spent most of this holiday season flat on my back recuperating, but I also went to a Christmas dinner at which no one expected me until two days before Christmas, slept in three peoples’ homes (one of them twice), and had a friend come stay with me for a few nights, and have been driven to a variety of appointments by a variety of people. Never before have I had to rely on people so much. There are definite moments of frustration (on my part and theirs), but overall, I have seen that there are a lot of people willing to lend a hand, and that is an amazing feeling.

And it is not just an amazing feeling because all these people have taken care of me. Believe me, I am grateful for that. Supremely grateful. But on a deeper level, it is amazing and wonderful to be reminded of the willingness we have to help one another. I wrote about this on Christmas Day. But the past ten days since then have just been one reminder after another about the way we connect and help each other when it is necessary. I do not think we can write about this, talk about this, and live this too much. I want to shout from the rooftops about our need to connect, but alas, I cannot climb onto a roof right now. 

Acceptance has been another lesson. Not just superficial acceptance, but deep acceptance. I have missed a lot because of the pain and surgery. I missed two really big family functions and a lot of work. I missed spending time with friends and family over the holidays because even when I was with them, all I could think about what the pain or the fact that I had just had surgery. But a huge lesson we gain from yoga is the ability to accept where we are in life and let go of our expectations of what should be. This does not mean we do not try to change and work toward goals, but it means that sometimes life does not happen as we expect. And learning to accept that is a big step toward our own sanity.

Anyone who has been around me the past several weeks knows this has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. I have been analyzing this situation from every angle imaginable. I have explanations for every twinge of recovery pain and have spent hours on online forums reading and learning about herniated discs and surgery. But guess where all that analyzing has gotten me? It has made me crazy.

These past few days, however, have been different. I still notice the twinges of pain and notice how drastically different my body is. But the need to understand why has faded. That is the lawyer need. We like to understand, as if that is ever fully possible. Sometimes we just have to be. Sometimes, we just have to accept that we do not fully understand. That is a scary concept to this lawyer, and I am sure to many others as well. But I am in a very different state of mind since making that shift. And not surprisingly, I am also in less pain.

No one has an explanation as to why I herniated a disc. No one has an explanation as to why it did not respond to all the non-invasive techniques of healing that I tried. Instead, I ended up on an operating table. But I woke up from anesthesia and the experience with a very different outlook. Sometimes these things happen, and there is no explanation, and the fact that you do a bunch of yoga and take care of your body in other ways does not change the fact that our bodies are fragile at times. And learning to accept that fact without trying to understand it has been a wondrous and valuable lesson. It has also been incredibly difficult, and believe me, not fully learned.

This weekend I finally feel like I am waking up from the fog of pain and surgery, and I am waking up to a world where I can be more accepting . . . or at least attempt to be. And still, I am sometimes jealous of dogs who can stretch. But overall, the experience has woken me up to truly understanding the lessons I have been trying to learn for years. Sometimes the universe operates in mysterious ways.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.