Saturday, June 29, 2013

Good Guy Bad Guy

I just returned from attending another conference, and this one was focused almost exclusively on child abuse and maltreatment. It took place in Las Vegas. Let me just say that a conference with a focus on such difficult and heart wrenching topics really needs to be in a place where people can escape for some quiet time. Vegas is not that place. They blast music onto the streets. There were so many people we had to wait in line to get out of the Bellagio. It was an incredible conference, but I’m happy to be home!

On the last day of the conference, I attended a 3-hour presentation on child sex trafficking. Of course, as the speaker reminded us, we should really be calling it child prostitution. That is what it is. Trafficking sounds less bad, but it’s child prostitution, and yes it happens in the United States. And there is nothing ok about child prostitution. But something struck me during the presentation that made my yoga mind hesitate.

The speaker continuously referred to the perpetrators as bad guys. He often referred to himself as the good guy.

I want to reiterate that I find nothing good about child prostitution. But I also cannot wrap my head around this good guy vs. bad guy scenario. We all know it is child abusers who get treated the worst in prisons. There is something different about child abuse, particularly about child sexual abuse, than just about any other crime.

I have written about this issue before – “When we Dehumanize the Dehumanizer.” That post was also written after attending a conference about child abuse (a different conference, but both were great). And 1.5 years later I still find myself struggling with this issue. I still cannot find myself buying into the good guy vs. bad guy mentality.

Last time I mentioned Gandhi’s quote, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” But I think there is more to it than that, something deeper and more profound. We are all connected. I have known this my entire life. It was not until I started doing yoga, however, that I realized there were other people who realized it as well. Thus, if I consider someone else a bad guy, what does that make my connection to him or her? Because whether I like it or not, I am connected to that person even if we are never in the same room.

I still think we do better by addressing the actions as the problem rather than the person as the problem. We may be able to make the actions stop. But if instead we speak ill of people, then we begin to say there are people who are less than. That is dangerous because it has no end. At what point does our judgment stop? Perhaps child sexual abuse is the “easy” example, but if we start there, where does it stop?

I still do not have the complete answers to this. I struggle with seeing the way humans treat other humans, whether as child abuse, war, or bigotry. It hurts to see on any level. But I wonder whether we accomplish any good, or whether we create far more harm, when we talk about good guys and bad guys.

When I was a camp counselor many years ago, I remember in our training on discipline, we were told never to tell a child he or she was bad. We could say the action was not right or even bad, but the child never was. I know there are a lot of people who think that sort of parenting/discipline is not strong enough, but I can say I never had to call parents on my campers. It worked. I do not know if it works everywhere, but it worked for me there. I see no difference with any action, no matter how abhorrent.

And now, because of my yoga training, I can understand why. As soon as I begin to judge others, I judge myself. We are deeply connected, and whatever I say and do will definitely come back.

What do you think? Do you talk about people as good or bad? What are the repercussions if we do?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Good Guy Bad Guy, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Restorative Bliss . . . Just What the Doctor Ordered

Until yesterday I had not been to a yoga class since the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Thus, it had been nearly 7 months. Yes, SEVEN! I cannot believe it either. That is not to say I have not “done yoga,” whatever that means. But I had not attended a yoga class. Nor had I attended a group meditation. I sort of felt like an appendage was missing. 

But my back is at a place, at least for now, where it is safe to move a bit. I asked my doctor and my physical therapist if it would be safe to go to a restorative yoga class. I even showed the physical therapist some ideas of what that might mean. They both said it should be safe as long as I was careful. So, I waited for a class I had wanted to attend for quite some time, taught by a friend of mine, someone who understands my current physical limitations. It felt like a homecoming when I walked in the door, even though I had never been to that particular class before. It was a familiar world, and a world I had greatly missed. 

Restorative yoga is about turning inward and, well, restoring ourselves. It is aptly named. It nourishes the parasympathetic nervous system in a way that no other form of physical asana, except perhaps yin, can do. With props for support, and holding poses for 3-5 minutes, or longer, the body can surrender and open in ways it never feels safe to do when moving too much. It gives our bodies and minds time to move beyond habits and into resetting our nervous systems and brains to actually relax. 

But for me, it was still a place where old habits came up. There were poses I could not do, and others I had to modify a great deal. Of course I know that the point of yoga in general, and restorative yoga in particular is to meet ourselves where we are, wherever that is, but it is difficult to know what my body was once capable of doing and now knowing it cannot do that right now. I was embarrassed that I could not do one of the poses at all. Even the alternative poses seemed scary for my body. It was difficult not to do them, but I knew it was best.

So instead I just simply lay on my back with my knees bent and imagined I was doing what everyone else was doing. I tuned into their energy and their release, and for a brief moment, I felt a bit of my own. We all absorb the energy of those around us. How many times have you noticed when someone came into a room when you did not hear or see them enter? If we are constantly around people in stress, our bodies and energies respond with like stress. But when we are around people who are coming together simply to let go, surrender, and safely allow their bodies and minds to relax, we can do the same. In fact, we automatically do the same, even when we are programmed to hold the stress in.

And yes, that is exactly what my doctor prescribed. She told me to relax. Of course, about an hour before the class when she called me, I reminded her I was going to a yoga class, and her first reaction was, “be careful.” I had to remind her it was a restorative class, and she sort of laughed and said, “then relax and restore.” So, my doctor stopped short of actually prescribing yoga, but she came close.

And it felt amazing to be back in that space, back in a world where people aim to be calm. And it was a wonderful reminder that yoga has so many different facets and ways of being for us. We all move so much in our lives, almost never stopping. Restorative yoga is the antidote to those physical and mental stressors. It cannot cure all ills. I still hurt. But it cracked the way open into a memory of relaxation and restoration of body, mind, and soul. And that should be what every doctor orders.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Knowing Anatomy

Yoga teachers, in general, do not know a lot about anatomy. That's a controversial statement, for sure, but hear me out. Many people become certified to teach yoga after a weekend workshop. The vast majority of us become certified after 200 hours, many of which are spent learning how to do asana, and sometimes learning about the other seven limbs. Anatomy may be discussed, but I would doubt even ¼ of yoga teacher training programs have a skeleton in the teaching room and whether there is in-depth discussion about how muscles, bones, ligaments, and fascia interact.

When I was new to yoga, I used to ask my yoga teachers for help before and after class with various injuries. With my current injury, long before it became surgery-worthy, I asked a world-renowned teacher for some ideas. Granted, he spent five minutes with me instead of longer private sessions, but at no point did he say, “you might have a disc issue.” Even after my 20-hour Anatomy for Yoga class, I had no idea what I was facing.

And perhaps that is the lesson.

One of my pet peeves with lawyers who represent children, or do any work with families, is that they often say, “I’m a lawyer not a social worker” when asked to help clients through the mess that is both juvenile and family law (emotional mess, not necessarily system mess). But I remember my great uncle once telling me that, as a lawyer, he had to know his clients’ businesses better than they knew them themselves. How else can you properly advise them? In other words, we lawyers have to understand our clients on the deepest levels. There is no other way to be a proper lawyer.

And perhaps this is the lesson yoga needs to learn from law. Yoga teachers not only have to know asana (the law), they have to know the scientific anatomy as well. We may not be doctors, but we have to know the body incredibly well. As yoga takes the country by storm and becomes a multi-billion dollar industry, there are a lot of discussions we need to have. There is a lot of talk about whether yoga is, at its roots, religious. How much of “true” yoga is lost in the gym culture? Do we really have to chant? Do we really have to know Sanskrit? What about this meditation? And you want me to “live” my yoga off the mat? What does that mean? Those are all really important questions, and I have struggled with all of them myself in my life and on this blog.

But at the end of the day, the vast majority of people at least start with yoga as a physical exercise. I did not, and it took me a long time to recognize that other people do. Most of them.

So perhaps the most important question, if only to keep from hurting people, is “how much should yoga teachers understand about the clients we serve?” I was talking to a fellow yoga teacher friend the other day and opined that perhaps my current injury is really an opportunity to share these issues with others going forward. I will never teach a yoga class the same again. I had a doctor spend two hours with me the other day, and much of that time was an explanation of how and why spines get weak, why discs herniate, and how that affects the rest of the body. Prior to that discussion, I had read a ton on sciatica, studied yoga anatomy, and read my own books, but what she told me was news – a new way to look at this issue. And it made a lot of sense.

So, what are we really doing in yoga? I am not always pleased with the current specialization of professionals in our culture. My spine surgeon cannot explain medications to me. A pain doctor cannot explain anatomy to me. But the bigger issue facing yoga, and perhaps the law, is that we simply are not willing to take the next, and most important step. As yoga teachers, we have to know the body better than anyone. We cannot say, “I’m a yoga teacher not a doctor.” (For the record, I have not heard anyone actually say that except to say they cannot diagnose.)

There is absolutely no question that the huge benefit of yoga is the ability to turn inside and know our bodies intuitively better. That is amazing and wonderful. But it is not the entire picture, certainly not in a 24/7 culture where as soon as class ends people are back on their cell phones. Living in an ashram, we would have the time to truly and fully know our bodies. And for people who choose that path, thank you! But for the rest of us, let’s use the information we can from modern science. We can look at x-rays and MRIs and understand the body on an entirely new level. Together, intuition and science can give us the insight about ourselves to truly heal.

This multi-billion dollar industry has brought us cute pants and cute slogans, but has it brought us health? We can argue ad infinitum about whether yoga has lost its true essence because of this explosion of people participating, and my answer would be yes. But I think there is an area where we can all agree yoga teachers, and the yoga industry, need to step up their game.

If we are going to be sharing this with the masses, we need to understand the masses better. We need to know the bodies first. We need to know them intuitively, as the yoga masters have for centuries, and we need to know them in a way in which we can speak to a modern audience, to the people whose only time to themselves may be on the yoga mat. We need not take out the other seven limbs to do this. This is an addition, not a subtraction. And for the people who take classes, our clients/consumers, whatever word you choose, you need to tell us to step up our game. You need to ask your yoga teachers what they really know about anatomy. It is, after all, your body. 

What do you know about anatomy? How do you share that with yourself and others?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Knowing Anatomy, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

All We Have to Give is Ourselves

Once again, I attended my favorite conference of the year – the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts Conference. This year was the organization’s 50th birthday, and it was amazing to see and learn how far family law has come in the past 50 years. Even when I think about all the work we still have to do, it is sobering and awe-inspiring to realize exactly how far we have come as a “system.” 

As longtime readers may remember, this is the conference where I first taught yoga after my yoga teacher training finished. I was scheduled to teach again this year, but my back made that impossible this year. But as hard as it was for me not to teach, I felt great that someone else took up the reins, and the tradition continued. While I know yoga is taking the country, and professional settings, by storm, it was extra special to see that this particular community, the one to which I am so grateful and owe so much, loves the idea enough to continue the tradition even when I am not involved. I just hope that next year I get to teach again!

But this conference, and a discussion I had following it with a friend, really got me thinking about how we offer ourselves to our communities, our jobs, and our “systems.” It fits nicely with the theme of the last post - Facing Our Powerlessness. These conferences are always inspiring. They remind me why it is I do the work I do, why I choose to be a lawyer. But there is an underlying notion that we can never do enough. I work in family and juvenile law, and the truth is that divorce, custody fights (I don’t like that word), and child welfare are always going to be difficult for families. The truth is that we may never be able, as professionals, to do enough to make these systems completely non-traumatic.

And some of the systems are more broken than others. Sometimes I wonder if the legal system does more harm than good. Deep down, I am pretty sure it does not, but I wonder. But it is in those moments of concern for the children and families that I realize the most important lesson – I may work for the rest of my career to make the systems better. I may attend conferences, learn new techniques, and perhaps one day even create new programs. But at the end of the day, I cannot offer the perfect system for every child and family. None of us can.

But that is where the yoga becomes the most important. And no, I do not mean asana, though that has its place as well. I mean the internal yoga, the compassion we learn each time we stop and take a breath. Yoga has its benefits in terms of stress reduction. Some people use yoga as exercise. But the greatest gift we get from yoga is relearning how to engage with ourselves and others.

Yoga teaches us to be truly present. One of the common themes of conferences is that we must remind ourselves as professionals that even though we see case after case every single day, for the individuals we serve, this is their only interaction with the court system. While stories may sound familiar to us, to the people telling those stories, they are unique and personal. And how we respond to that is how we help these children and families.

And if I have learned anything from the yoga teaching situation at the conference, it is that we never know where our influence will end. Even when the system is not perfect, every piece of research I have seen is that people feel there has been due process if they have had the time to tell their story – if they feel heard. Through yoga, we learn to listen to our bodies, begin to quiet our minds, and feel some sense of calm in the face of storms. Translating that to listening to the people we serve, regardless of the situations in which we find ourselves – even the grocery store – means we are serving people in the best way we can.

Changing systems that need work is a great goal. It is work that must be done. But in the meantime, when the waters are rough, and the end is not clear, we always have ourselves to give. And for that, yoga is the perfect opportunity to learn to offer ourselves.

How does yoga help you in your daily interactions off the mat?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, All We Have to Give is Ourselves, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.