Monday, April 29, 2013

Remembering the Tools

I remember the moment I decided I needed yoga and meditation in my life. I was 19 years old. It was the summer between my first and second years in university. I was having a rough summer, and I needed a way to relax. I had always been interested in yoga, but I had only tried it once myself. Yoga was becoming a big deal in America, but by no means was it yet the multi-billion dollar industry driving yogurt ads it is today. I just knew I needed something different in my life, and yoga seemed like the way to start.

Soon yoga just took over my life. It kept me sane, or at least saner than without it. Yoga became my refuge, both as a practice and as a way to connect to community. And I found a way to bring it into my world as a lawyer, not as a separate thing I did after work, but as a way to further create a professional community. My first teaching experience was at a family law conference, and for a brief time when I was "self-employed" I taught Stress Management Workshops focusing on yoga and meditation.

I attempted to fill my yoga bucket with practice and various tools, hoping to have a reserve for when the going got tough. And for awhile, I did. But then it got tougher.

For whatever reason, I am not recovering correctly from my surgery four months ago. No one seems to know why that is. But the words have begun to change from recovery to chronic pain. My life has gone from one of hiking the self-proclaimed most beautiful trail in the world to wondering whether I will be able to take a 10-minute walk home from Starbucks. And with the change in life circumstances has come the fear, the panic, etc.

I have said it before, and I will say it probably many more times. Something hit me during yoga teacher training. I was not necessarily destined to be a full-time yoga teacher, but somehow I had to bring yoga into some part of the legal profession, and perhaps to other professionals as well. The reason? Working a lot can be hazardous to your health, but it can also be rewarding. We just have to find the place where those two meet and remain healthy.

I made sure to make yoga a part of my life when I started my job in December 2011. Then there were weeks I did not go to classes, but I (usually) practiced in the mornings. Well, sometimes. And then began the nagging hip pain that eventually traveled down my leg and into my foot. That landed me on an operating table. And now I have an excuse - I cannot do yoga. But what does that mean exactly? I cannot do most asana. That is true. But everyone can do yoga. If you can breathe, you can do yoga. I often write about yoga and meditation, but there is no difference. They are one and the same.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine gave me a CD called Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief by Jon Kabat-Zinn. In it, he reminds us that mindfulness is not something that happens overnight. He reminds us that mindfulness is an ongoing process, a training system really. And something about that is difficult. All the tools in the world but somehow they feel beyond my grasp. I understand stress that comes from work. I have never done anything in my life except school and work. I can work with that stress. I do not understand the stress and fear that comes with a body that seems to be failing. I could always push through the pain before. But now I have to deal with it.

But we all reach these moments in life, these moments we are faced to deal with our lives and not run and hide. For some of us, many of the people I see, these moments happen as a result of work, especially in a stressful profession like law, but not only. For some it is the result of an illness, a divorce, the death of a loved one, but we all know these moments. They bring us to our edge. And if I have learned anything from yoga, it is that the edge can move. We can expand and grow. Sometimes it feels like it is impossible. Sometimes we push too far and cause ourselves more pain and suffering. But we learn to read it and understand it, and when we use the breath and mindfulness and awareness, we slowly begin to see we can handle more.

I would love to say I have had that moment of insight seeing my edge expand. But the truth is that there is not necessarily a moment. As Kabat-Zinn reminds us, it is a process. And no, it is not necessarily an easy one, even when you have all the tools. In that sense, it is sort of like practicing law - law school can only teach you so much, but then you have to practice to learn to really do it.

Practice. That's the word. Practice. No matter the endeavor, practice makes us better at it. And no matter the endeavor, there are days (or months, perhaps years) we do not want to practice. But the difference here is that practicing yoga makes all the other endeavors, including a body that does not work, easier. I am honestly not sure what has kept me off the proverbial mat/cushion. But I know that the only way to handle this is to utilize the tools I began learning when I was 19. Ironically, I'm back in the same location I was that summer, at least for another few days. Perhaps that is just the inspiration I need.

How have you gotten back into practice after a long stint away? How does your life change when you do not practice?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

"Remembering the Tools" first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In the Face of Tragedy

I do not usually post about man-made tragedies. I have certainly posted before about natural disasters (Christchurch and the Japan earthquake), but I never feel like I have a good response to shootings and bombings and the like. I do not, in any way, want this blog to become political, and these issues are usually so wrapped up in politics (perhaps as they should be) that I just feel uncomfortable.

And yet, the bombing at the Boston Marathon seems exactly like what needs to be addressed here.

If I have learned one thing from a yoga practice, it is how connected we really are. There is a lot of talk about oneness in yoga (and other spiritual disciplines), and yoga gave me the opportunity to experience that and know I was experiencing it. It is a concept the legal community would do well to understand a bit better. There is simply no escaping that what happens to one person happens to us all.

And it need not be next door. I am not a runner. Never have been. To be honest, I did not even know the Boston Marathon was happening yesterday. I have only been to Boston once. I loved it, but it is not a place with years of nostalgic memories for me. For all the ostensible lack of interest in the event and even the place, the tragedy touched humans and, therefore, touched me.

A tragedy such as this is an opportunity to remember that what we do to each other matters. How we treat each other affects the entire world. And I have lamented before about how it takes a tragedy or a disaster to remind us of these truths, but sadly we seem to forget in our everyday life.

The people at the Boston Marathon finish line experienced firsthand trauma. Whether they were physically injured or not, they experienced the shock and horror themselves. Those of us watching from afar had to experience the secondhand trauma, the vicarious trauma. And this is why these moments shock us into paying attention. All of a sudden, we all need to be comforted at some level. For anyone on facebook, I am sure you saw, as I did, the number of prayers sent out. And then there was the Mr. Rogers quote reminding us to “look for the helpers.” In the internet age, it takes only seconds for there to be an iconic image of an event, and the ones emerging from Boston always seem to have people helping out. The favorite story was of people who had finished the marathon running to the hospital to give blood.

We reach out together to find the people that make us feel better about the moment. After the Christchurch earthquake hit, I remember people in suits helping dig people out of rubble. In Boston, police ran into the street unsure of whether more bombs would explode and others helping those who were wounded. Mr. Rogers’s quote reminds us we need those stories because we need to feel a sense of calm. We need to see that not all of humanity is set on destruction. That is how we shake the trauma.

As people start saying Boston will never be forgotten, just like 9-11 and the Holocaust, I ask you, again, what that means. Does it mean we just remember these awful tragedies? Does it mean we expand our knowledge and remember other bombings and genocides? Or does it mean we remember the lessons of these tragedies?

Can we remember every single day how precious life is? Can we remember every single day how precious our friends and family are? Can we remember every single day how precious the stranger on the street is? Can we remember every single day how precious even those we do not like are?

That is what we learn in the face of tragedy, and hopefully that is what we can remember going forward. 


© Rebecca Stahl, 2013, all rights reserved. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Getting to Know the Body

One of my favorite parts of Yoga Teacher Training was learning anatomy. As I have mentioned before, I am an academic at heart, and anatomy, to me, is the “heady” side of yoga. At some level, it is vital to understand anatomy to teach yoga, and at another level, it is even more vital to intuitively understand the body. The anatomy training was fascinating, and it really helped me understand and explain what I had intuitively known, such as why sitting is bad for us.

As much as I loved the anatomy, I did not get as into it as even I would have liked. I can tell you a little bit about the trapezius muscles, and a little bit about the biceps and triceps, but at the end of the day, I do not know much about them. I have never fully experienced them. But I could probably write you a tome on the piriformis, its relationship to the gluteus muscles, and how all of them relate to our back muscles. I even learned about the quadratus lumborum muscles. And this is all because I have been experiencing these muscles, and their relationship to the sciatic nerve, for months, perhaps years.

I am starting to realize there is more to the body than meets the eye. Looking back over this blog, I had a “hamstring injury” during yoga teacher training. With the benefit of hindsight, that very well may not have been a hamstring injury. Instead, it may have been the first signs of an impinged sciatic nerve. For most people, that simply goes away. For me, it became a huge herniated disc and back surgery. But at the time I just assumed I had pushed my hamstring muscles too far. 

Pain forces us to pay attention. Whether it is a moment of pain that allows us the opportunity to stop pushing too far, or pain that continues for months or even years, we learn to stop and listen. Pain is our body's way of saying something is wrong. Sometimes it is easy to figure out what that is, such as when we simply push too far and need to back off. Sometimes the pain continues on, and we have no idea why that is.

And that is when we start exploring.

I have spent hours and hours reading about the illio-psoas, the piriformis, the quadratus lumborum, the sciatic and femoral nerves, and the spine. Our bodies are an amazing network of muscle, nerve, and fascia. And on top of all of that, we hold memories in our bodies, and those memories affect how the body itself operates and the pain we feel.

Prior to experiencing this for myself, I sort of understood. I understood that our bodies are fascinating and intricate and difficult. But I did not fully understand. To fully understand anything, we have to experience it for ourselves. Interestingly, people have always said the same thing to me about lawyering. As someone who loves theory and research, I have had no less than the top researchers in the field tell me I need practical experience to be a better researcher.

The old saying is that practice makes perfect. I would suggest that instead, practice makes understanding. Sometimes that is understanding we want. When it comes to pain, we may not want it as much. But there is no question that we can learn from it either way. I feel like I can now picture my psoas and how it attaches to the spine and the thigh bone.

In many ways, pain is the ultimate form of experience. It is experience we cannot ignore. We can sometimes mask it with medication, but generally, if the medication is used as a mask, the pain returns. Pain has a way of literally stopping us in our tracks and forcing us to take note of where we are. I cannot say that is fun, but it is an opportunity to learn and a way to experience on the deepest levels of our bodies.

As someone who has spent so much time in my head, both in yoga and the law, my body is forcing me to experience in ways I never could have imagined. That experience may not be coming in the form I would have chosen, but I am also learning more about the body and how it works than I ever could have without this experience.

How have you been forced to experience the body? What have you learned as a result?

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.