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?


© 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?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

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

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Daily Gratitude

Gratitude is something some people only think about in November (particularly Americans because that is the month in which the holiday Thanksgiving falls). Certainly, a time focused on giving thanks is a great time to think about Gratitude, but it can fuel our lives each and every day. When gratitude permeates our lives, the difficulties of our lives become less visible, more of a teaching moment, and may even disappear. Actually, the one downside I see to living in a country where Thanksgiving is such a big deal is that it takes away from finding gratitude every day. We can just compartmentalize it to a particular month. Not all societies have such a holiday; in fact most do not.

Our minds are powerful. While yogis have known this for millennia, and the new age community has been saying it for decades, the modern, conventional world is finally catching on, and some people are making a big stink about it. But why? What is so important about gratitude? What is it about bringing gratitude into our lives that makes our lives so much better?

Stress hangs out in our bodies and can physiologically change them. I am not just talking about a sore back or a headache. I am talking about serious disease processes and serious physical pain. While I have known this and talked about this for years, even I was skeptical about just how powerful it is. We are so trained to believe that pain and disease have other physiological causes. And sometimes they do, but stress underlies many of those “real” causes as well.

As I mentioned in the last post, a great book about this is called Mind Over Medicine. It said nothing I did not know, but it used the scientific proof so many of us crave. The proof was in peer reviewed medical journals. It is no more proof, really, than intuition, but we have been trained as a society to only believe these proven facts. And when I say stress here, I mean more than just working too much. I mean the stress that eats away at our bodies and minds, the stress that enters us and never leaves. I mean the stress that turns us into pessimists and makes our brains and bodies think we are constantly under attack. 

But back to gratitude. Gratitude is one of the antidotes to that stress. It helps create the optimism to overcome it. Stress puts us in the fight, flight, or freeze response, and chronic stress keeps us there. The antidote is, therefore, relaxation. But relaxation is more than vegging out in front of the television or even getting a massage every month. Relaxation has to permeate our lives to counteract the chronic stress many of us experience. A gratitude practice can be what helps us enter that relaxation phase.

Gratitude helps us start to see beauty in the world. It helps us recognize the good in our lives. And when we start to recognize the good in our lives, our brains can slowly begin to come out of that fight, flight, or freeze mode. We can reprogram the brain to recognize the fear that put it in fight, flight, or freeze is not life threatening. It is not a lion about to eat us. We can slowly begin to let go of our defenses and begin to find healing again.

This month on the Is Yoga Legal facebook page, I am going to post a daily gratitude. Join me there and share your gratitude as well. It is a beautiful time of year. We are in the end of summer, schools are going back in session, and here in Arizona the monsoon skies continue to show us unmatched beauty. I rarely have themes I follow each month, but this month it seems fitting to find a deep and true gratitude practice, one that is not just a passing phase but that infuses each and every moment of the day.

How do you bring gratitude into your life? Have you ever kept a gratitude journal? How has it changed your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Daily Gratitude, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.