Monday, February 25, 2013

Most Difficult for Us

I told someone the other day that prior to going to New Zealand, I used to teach Stress Management for Lawyers (and other professionals) workshops. I sort of laughed considering how difficult stress management has been for me recently. He very kindly said, “we are often drawn to that which is most difficult for us.” How right he is. My response to him was, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

There is no question that growing up I was full of stress. I first went to a chiropractor for intense neck pain when I was 15. I could barely move my neck at the time. College was sort of ridiculous for me when it came to stress, but that is also when I discovered yoga.

But my yoga bucket takes a lot to fill. The summer I was studying for the bar exam, I did two things – study and yoga. I was at yoga classes 4-5 times per week. It helped, and I think yoga was the only thing that got me through three days of the California bar exam, which feels like more of a marathon exercise than an actual examination of your understanding of legal material. But it required that amount of yoga just to keep me somewhat sane, and I am sure if you ask the people around me, they thought I was still a stress bucket. (Of course, they did not see everyone else studying with me.)

But some of us are patterned to be high anxiety. We could argue ad nauseam about whether it is our biology or our environment, but whichever it is, it goes deep into our bones. I think the legal profession attracts these types of people. We thrive on stress, and we understand it. But it takes its toll, and as a society we are learning that we have to counteract it, or we are going to kill ourselves. 

This blog is full of tools to do at the desk and more reminders to breathe than we know what to do with. But all of that is for naught if we do not actually do it. It is easy to know what we have to do. It is quite another story to step up and actually do it, especially when society tells us we should be “working” not managing stress. Even with the societal changes happening toward more understanding and acceptance of yoga and other stress management techniques, there is still the underlying assumption that those activities are not work, regardless of how good, and necessary, they are for us.

I found yoga because I needed it. I was at a point in my life where I knew I had to make some changes. Luckily for me, this realization happened when I was 19 years old. It was many more years, however, before yoga became an everyday part of my life. But when push comes to shove, the underlying patterns of stress return, and the yoga bucket empties fast.

But that is exactly what drew me to yoga in the first place. That is exactly what drew me to teaching yoga and teaching workshops. Staying in the yoga zone is difficult. I know what it is like to revert to the stress and all its underlying issues. Getting out of that mindset is never easy; it exists in our cells and our samskaras (patterns). It becomes our default even when we know how harmful it can be.

Teaching yoga forced me to do more yoga. It allowed me to start this blog and put my yoga practice front and center in my life. It allowed me to be honst about yoga even within the legal profession, something I was nervous about doing until I realized I am not, by any means, the only one. Plus, knowing how hard it was for me for years to reduce my stress, I knew I needed to do something drastic to ensure I would actually follow through.

But even that was not a panacea. There were moments, days, and even weeks of stress. I knew I had missed the mark when I told someone to breathe, and my colleague said, “look who’s talking” with a wee tone of sarcasm in her voice. But I may be the perfect proof of what happens when we ignore those lessons we know we need to learn. There could be any number of reasons I had a herniated disc, including the many times I have fallen down. But there is no question stress had something to do with it, and that stress is internal (a post for another day).

I know how powerful yoga, in all its forms, can be. But I also know that we have to follow through. And that can be extremely difficult at times. But perhaps the greatest lesson of these past few months is that there is no end point. Yoga is not something with a pass or fail. You are not graded on it. No one except you is keeping score. So even when it is extremely difficult, you can set the intention to start anew tomorrow. Better yet, you can set the intention to start anew right now. Yoga is about presence, no matter how difficult, and being present is one antidote to all the stress, anxiety, etc. that permeates so much of our lives today.

So, why was I drawn to yoga all those years ago? It was the answer to something that has always been extremely difficult for me. But with anything in life, that relief ebbs and flows. And so I share this post as a way to reach out and say that the best way to learn is to teach someone else. And sometimes the most important lessons are the ones most difficult for us to learn.

Do you have moments when you feel like you walk the yoga path? Do you have moments when you take a step to the side? Do you have moments where you feel like you cannot even see the path anymore? What do you do?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Two Years Away

Two years ago, I was in Christchurch, New Zealand on the day the city was leveled by an earthquake. It was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life. As I mentioned last year on the earthquake anniversary, it took me almost a month to realize the earthquake left me in some sort of shock. But what I did not realize then is that the shock, in many ways, remains.

Just yesterday, I was at work, and I heard a crash. I live in Tucson. There are no earthquakes here (though we did have snow yesterday, so perhaps anything is possible these days). But when I heard that crash, I jumped inside. There is a bridge in Tucson that always shakes when you drive on it, and I drive over it nearly every single day. Sometimes I still flinch when I feel it shaking. I am starting to realize that earthquake has never left me.

We live in a world where we are told to just get over it. When something does not go our way, we are expected to just move right along as though nothing happened. But our bodies respond differently. Our bodies remember. This is why yoga is such a powerful tool. It reaches into our bodies and exposes that which we have been holding for days, months, or even years at a time.

Consciously I do not live in fear of another earthquake hitting, certainly not in Tucson. But those moments when I jump from a shake are reminders of how deeply embedded memories are in our bodies. While we can consciously attempt to forget certain things that happen in our lives, we cannot escape them fully until we go into the body.

The last post talked about support. An earthquake is the antithesis of support. Earthquakes shake us to our very core. But we all get shaken like that even when we are not experiencing the Earth below us moving. And those crises, or traumas, stay with us. But something as simple as a child’s pose, as discussed in the last post, can be a start to overcoming that trauma.

And then, of course, the breath. In those moments when we are reminded of whatever shook us, we can always come back to the breath and remember that the trauma is not reoccurring. Instead, it is our memory of it. And we can breathe through those moments.

Today, my heart goes out to Christchurch. I learned so much from that city, from that experience. And if my infrequent, unconscious reactions are any indication, the city has not left me yet. The theme in Christchurch after the earthquake was, “Rise up Christchurch.” I know it still has a long way to go, but that theme is an inspiration. From the depths of destruction, the people of Christchurch decided to come together and create a new and evolved city. I am forever grateful to the lessons I learned in Christchurch, even when they take me a bit by surprise.

Have you noticed how you hold memories in your body? What do you do about them?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Simple Child’s Pose

“No bending, twisting, or lifting anything more than 3-5 pounds.” Those were the instructions when I left the hospital from the surgery. There were no outside time limits on how long that would last. But finally, I got the approval from the physical therapist. I can do a child’s pose.

Child’s pose is considered a “resting” pose in yoga. Many people, though not everyone, love it. Yoga teachers often invite people to rest in child’s pose if they are tired or lose their breath during a class. It can be a calming way to find the breath, open the hips, and turn inward.

It is a simple pose. There are no difficult explanations. Child’s pose is a chance to settle. It is not for everyone, but for those who want it or need it, it is the perfect way to calm and breathe.

I am one of the people for whom child’s pose has historically been a difficult pose. I often get headaches when I am in it. But over the past few weeks, child’s pose has been what I feel like I want and need – only I did not think I could do it. Until I could.

It is amazing how wonderful a simple child’s pose can feel. For one thing, it felt great to be doing asana at all. It has been months since I have been able to do any postures. Being able to be in a posture means I can feel my breath in a new way. It is not the first time I have been in child’s pose, but it is the first time since a major trauma to my body. And it feels different. It feels like something new and exciting.

So much of yoga today in the west is about exercise, going into more “advanced” poses, and pushing ourselves, even when we think we are not. I have written about this numerous times before, but of course even I would find myself getting upset on days I could not balance or upset that I was still too scared to try a handstand (after a really bad injury from one a few years ago). But now I am excited and moved by child’s pose, perhaps the simplest, though not easiest, pose there is.

And child’s pose is an interesting pose to come back to. It leaves the back completely and utterly vulnerable. It also, however, teaches us to breathe into the back and soften through the spine, which in turn helps us soften through the belly. The belly is totally supported by the knees (unless doing a wide-legged child’s pose, but that is not what I have been doing), and the body can simply let go. It is the yoga paradox at work – the more support you have, the more you can let go.

Support is a key word for child’s pose. Even though the back body is vulnerable, which for many people is a very scary concept, the front body is so well supported that the pose can be one of letting go and serenity. But because the back is so vulnerable, it can also be a very unnerving pose. When it is fully supported, however, the feeling of being unnerved lessens, and we can get deeper into the therapeutic benefits of child’s pose.

I know very few professionals who never complain of back pain. Actually, I know only one. Child’s pose is one of the best way to relieve that pain. And yes, it can be done anywhere. I was doing child’s pose on the floor of my office the other day. Luckily I work in an office that often has children coming in and out, so it works out well. But seriously, I would rather look a little silly on my floor for a few minutes and be out of pain than writhe in pain until I get home. If nothing else, child’s pose helps us breathe, something that we discussed last time is sometimes easier said than done. It may not look like much, but there is a lot going on, and there is a lot to help us come back to our breath, and back to our health. Child's pose is an entirely new world for me these days.

Have you ever tried to rediscover child’s pose? Does it feel different in the morning than in the evening? Has it ever helped you get out of acute back pain?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Easier Said Than Done

I have not posted in weeks. It has been years since I have gone this long without posting. But really, I did not know what to say. Back surgery recovery is going much slower than expected, and this is a blog about how yoga can help in life. But some days, that is easier said than done.

Breathing has been hard these past few weeks. Taking a deep breath actually hurts at times, and the fear that it will hurt stops me at other times. And yet breathing is exactly what calms the nerves, the very things causing the pain in the first place. And sometimes the fear just takes over, and the breath falls away.  

But there are moments when it comes back. There are moments when I talk to others I know in the legal community. In fact, over the past week, I have run into two people I know through yoga, and just their “coincidental” presence in my life has been soothing.

Healing takes time. While in some ways I am a very patient person, these past few months have shown anything but my patient side. Even when driving, or perhaps especially when driving, I find myself getting upset at the other drivers on the road and even yelling out loud at them. The daily stresses of life take over, and the calm, centered awareness of breath falls away.

Sometimes, it is simply easier said than done.

But the doing is absolutely vital. Taking that breath, and tuning in to what is underlying the stress and the anxiety is the most vital thing we can do to heal and move beyond our daily stress. It is very easy for people to say, “Just breathe.” I have been known to say it myself on occasion. But that simple statement presumes that taking a breath is going to be easy. It presumes that our stress does not feel stronger than the ability to breathe.

But sometimes the pain and the stress feel more powerful. Sometimes they take us to points we had no idea we could go. That does not mean that a breath is a bad idea. It just may mean it is the scariest thing we can do at the moment.

These past few weeks especially I have noticed how tight my belly muscles are, and not in the six-pack sort of way. Instead it is in the “I cannot take a deep belly breath” sort of way. Breathing too deeply into the lower belly, where every yoga teacher I have ever had says to focus the breath, is exactly across from the incision in my back. That is a very physical manifestation of the fear that sometimes arises when taking a deep breath. Going into the places our breath can take us can be scary. And that is why it is sometimes easier said than done to take our deepest breaths.

So what do we do in those moments? I do not know anyone that has never had them. I think the lesson I have had to learn the most is that it is actually okay to be in that space. It is okay to be afraid to take a breath sometimes.

My yoga practice both made that awareness difficult and possible. As a yoga teacher, I have this vision of myself that I should always be able to take a deep breath and relax. And as a yoga teacher, I know that it is important to accept ourselves exactly as we are in the moment. Only one of those is “right” in the sense that it comports with the truth of the universe. It is, of course, the latter of the two statements. But there is always the nagging former statement – the one where we try to live up to expectations that simply do not comport with reality.

As I sit here writing this I am actually breathing better than I have on my own in weeks. There is still hesitation as the breath moves into the back body. I would be lying if I said I am totally okay with it, but it is true that I am aware of it and learning to accept it. I am also learning to understand it.

Sometimes taking a breath is the most difficult thing we can do. But then you realize that accepting that fact is even more difficult. It is with the acceptance, however, that the breath becomes possible once again.

What do you do when the breath does not come? What arises for you when you struggle with the breath?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.