Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cleansing Samskaras

I am currently doing an ayurvedic cleanse. It consists of two weeks of eating simply, participating in ayurvedic rituals to cleanse and heal, and steering clear of some of the most difficult foods for us to handle – coffee, alcohol, and dairy. Ayurveda is often called Yoga’s sister science because it is the ancient healing modality from India. There is so much to Ayurveda, and perhaps my next post will cover those issues, but today I want to focus on what it means to cleanse and let go.

This is the beginning of autumn in the northern hemisphere. Here in the United States, we often call this season fall. It gets that name because it is when all the leaves fall off the trees. Of course, that barely happens here in the Tucson desert, but it is my favorite time of year and one thing I miss from living in places that actually have four seasons. (Of course, come January, when I’m not wearing a parka, I stop my whining.)

But the point is that autumn is a time to let go of that which no longer serves us. It is a time to slow down as the heat of the summer begins to dissipate. We begin to crave warming and grounding foods. And this is the reason to cleanse in autumn. It is a time to reset after the summer and move forward into simpler times. It is also one of the two times of year where we are closest to equal parts light and dark in our days because it is right after the equinox. This major shift in the Earth allows us to make major shift within ourselves.

Certainly the cleanse is about releasing internal, physical toxins and calming the digestive tract to help it better digest our food. And as Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be they food.” Food has the power to harm and to heal and be a beacon for our overall health. But there is something more to this cleanse than simply cleansing physically.

Cleansing is an opportunity to release old patterns that no longer serve us. I have written before about samskaras. A samskara, while it sometimes has a negative connotation as a “bad” pattern we hold, is nothing more than a pattern. The word itself is neutral. If we act in a certain way often enough, it simply becomes a pattern, and we no longer have to think about what we are doing. It simply comes naturally.

To be clear, this is required in life. We have to be able to turn off our brains at times and run on autopilot. If we had to think about everything every time we tried to do something, we would get very little done. And we know physiologically, this is how the brain is set up. Babies are born with many more neurons than adults have. As time goes on, they go through a process called “pruning,” whereby they create synapses, or pathways in the brain, that lead to modes of being. This is why it is so much easier for babies to learn than adults. Their brains are more malleable because they have very few synapses but a lot of neurons to create them (though new research suggests adult brains are more malleable than previously thought). 

Therefore, patterns we develop in childhood lead to the patterns many of us carry into adulthood. These can include anything from good study habits to driving on the left side of the road to craving unhealthy foods to negative self-talk. While the neurosciences call these synapses, yoga philosophy calls them samskaras, and Buddhism calls them samsaras. So, some samskaras are uplifting and help us get through our days, while others of them bog us down and can eventually create dis-ease.

And as fall begins and we think about letting go and slowing down for winter, it is important to notice the patterns we hold that no longer serve us or might be causing us some disease. Louise Hay, who wrote, “You Can Heal Your Life,” talks about the power of affirmations to overcome all disease. And as I mentioned a few months ago, the medical literature is beginning to agree. What we think matters to our health, and what we think can shape our health perhaps more than some of us would like to admit.

So, what are some negative samskaras some of us hold? Simply read these statements and ask yourself if any of them resonate with you.

I’m not good enough.
I’m not loveable.
I deserve to suffer.
I will not succeed, so I will not even try.
I do not deserve happiness.
There is no joy in my life.
I am scared.

Can you think of others you bring into your life? There are so many ways we inhibit our greatest good from coming forward. But we can begin to overcome these negative patterns. There are several emerging psychological techniques specifically designed to reframe these negative patterns, including Somatic Experiencing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Tapping/Emotional Freedom Technique.

But the first step is simply noticing what we do to create this self harm. I see it so often in the work I do. It comes up everywhere to people in healing professions. It is so much easier to see when other people do it than when we do it ourselves. But I know very few people who do not do this, and therefore noticing is the first step.

The next step is to reframe the pattern. As Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” When we leave our old patterns behind, we can begin to create new patterns. We have to make the choice to do that. And we begin to create new patterns by reframing our self-talk. When we notice a negative statement coming, state a positive one. There are literally thousands of affirmations we could say, but I want to leave you with one in particular.

No single blog post is going to help you overcome all your negative samskaras.  But a friend of mine gave me one of my favorites, “I love myself. I forgive myself.” And I add to that, “I am safe.” I figure this covers the vast majority of negative self-talk so many of us use. So I hope you are able to look in a mirror every day and say to yourself, "I love myself. I forgive myself. I am safe." 

How do you notice your self-talk? Is it causing you dis- ease? What helps you reframe the talk?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Cleansing Samskaras, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Starting Fresh and Forgiving the Trauma

I think we have all heard the word trauma. It probably means something different to each of us. This week, we marked the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and I have been reading an interesting discussion about how people in the United States were traumatized differently if they were actually in New York, D.C., or Pennsylvania vs. the rest of us who “just” watched it on television. This year, we had a similar event, though smaller in numbers, with the Boston Marathon bombing.

But even without these major events on our own soil, if you’re an American reading this, most of us hear the news about what is happening in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. I have not seen the photos (I refuse to watch them because I do not think at this point I can handle them), but I know they are out there. I did watch the video of the woman dying in Egypt during their revolution in 2009. As if we do not have our own individual trauma, we now have a world of shared trauma. In an instant, we can be across the world watching someone die . . . over and over again.

On an individual level, we all have experienced our own personal trauma. Today, I was talking to a yoga therapist, and she asked me if I had trauma as a child. My response was, “don’t we all?” I mean, I looked back at some of the very intense physical issues I had to deal with as a very young child, and I see now how incredibly intertwined they are with my current physical situation. There are many people who believe, and I think rightly so, that birth itself is a trauma. And then, of course, there are the children and adults, who deal with ongoing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. 

I rarely discuss the work I do on this blog. Part of that is because so much of it is confidential, but also because it is really not the specific point of this blog, and because I frankly think it would be unprofessional to get into anything beyond the most general. Trauma is a really big word in the juvenile court world. These days, the goal is to be a trauma-informed or trauma-responsive system. It is a noble goal, and one I do not think anyone takes lightly. The legal world is, therefore, focusing on this one word a lot. The military, and even the NFL, are talking about responding to traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.

The word trauma seems to be everywhere.

And I sometimes feel like we get lost in the word because we use it so much. Do we get desensitized to it because we talk about it so much? Do we forget sometimes real peoples’ lives are at stake below this word TRAUMA that seems to pepper every discussion we have?

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have these discussions, to help people accept that their trauma is real, and it is okay to experience the repercussions. It is important to have these discussions to find the best ways to work with trauma, and perhaps most importantly, to realize we can heal from trauma. I have written about this before in the context of healing professionals and vicarious trauma. But during this time to focus on forgiveness, I think it is important to look at trauma as something to forgive.

It is very easy to dwell on why things happen to us. It is very easy to dwell on how terrible it is that they happened.  It is very easy to be upset about decisions adults made in our lives when we were children when we think we would have made different ones. But the truth is that life happens. We all make the best decisions we can along the way. And as long as we hold onto the victim stance, our bodies will respond with dis-ease.

There is an entire aspect of yoga focused on trauma and how best to bring very traumatized people into yoga safely, so they can begin the healing journey. But regardless of who we are, yoga is going to force us to see our own trauma, whether we watched the Twin Towers fall, were beaten by a parent, or fell down one too many times as a child. We are going to face whatever good and bad experiences we have had in our lives, whether we want to face them or not. Yoga brings us to the brink of our humanness.

At times it can be very difficult to accept that we are still feeling the effects of what happened to us 5, 10, or even 50 years ago, but the truth is that we are. Some of us get really upset at ourselves for not healing, not getting better fast enough. But as someone said to me once, “what would you say to the child or the person in the moment they experience the trauma and the fear?” That is how we need to treat ourselves regardless of when the reaction to the trauma arises. We must learn to forgive the event, the people who we have told ourselves caused the event, and the fact that we are re-experiencing the event however many years after it occurred.

I have often wondered why the Jewish New Year is before the Day of Atonement. Would it not make more sense to let go of the past, ask for forgiveness, and then celebrate with the New Year? But as I look at it from this lens, I realize it does make sense.  In fact, it makes a lot of sense. The fact that the new year happens first reminds us that the world has already moved on. Now we just have to follow suit. We absolutely can move on and heal. We just have to do the actual work to allowing the healing to happen. And that is forgiveness.

We have to let ourselves forgive ourselves, each other, and the Universe for whatever we believe has caused us dis-ease during the year. And we can do this because we have already opened our hearts and attitudes to the idea that we have moved past it, that we are on a new path. And through forgiveness on so many levels we can begin to heal the trauma each and every one of us experiences, whether it be trauma or Trauma.

How are you forgiving the past? Yourself?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Starting Fresh and Forgiving Trauma, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Forgiving Ourselves

 We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” – Dalai Lama

I have posted several times before about this time of year. I was raised Jewish, and while now most of my practice comes from Yoga, the roots of Judaism are still there. And this time of year, the High Holy Days, is when I think about it the most. The period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time to reflect on how we have acted the past year, ask for forgiveness, and forgive those that have hurt us. I can think of no spiritual tradition that does not place forgiveness at the forefront of living a good life.

The legal world is not generally a place that forgives easily. In fact, we can be accountable for long periods of time for actions that occurred years ago. Interestingly, though, I work in one area of the law that starts by saying, we know what happened in the past, but it is time to move forward. The goal is to move on from the past and make the future a brighter place for children and families. That is a pretty amazing concept. I cannot say it always happens, but that is generally the goal at the outset. It is inspiring to see the times when it actually works out well, and families can move forward into a greater future.

But it takes a lot of work. Forgiveness and moving on are not traits that come easily to many of us. Yoga, however, can give us some tools for finding forgiveness and, sometimes more importantly, asking for forgiveness.

But there is no way we can offer our forgiveness to others until we find it within ourselves. The Dalai Lama, in the quote above, says it perfectly – we need to find our own peace, our own forgiveness, before there can be external peace and forgiveness. But how does that even look? Self-forgiveness is a difficult process, but it is fundamentally necessary to surviving in the world.

When we practice yoga, we are forced to look at ourselves head-on. We cannot hide who we are from ourselves. Instead, we slow down, and we turn inward. Yoga is not about getting fit. It is not about exercise. It is not about having a cute butt. Yoga is about coming face-to-face with who we are. A friend of mine posted a question on facebook. She asked, “Why am I brought to the depths of sorrow and tears near the end of each Yoga class?” I have posted before about how yoga is not always about making us feel awesome every single time we go to class. It is about understanding ourselves and discovering who we are. It is about seeing our true selves, not the mask, or masks, we share with the world.

And so, in many ways, yoga is about forgiving ourselves for pretending to be something we are not. We all have our masks. And everyone else shows us his or her masks as well. We live in a world where we hide who we truly are for fear of making someone angry or hurting someone’s feelings or even of just feeling different. But then our soul begins to react and get upset about our hiding it from the world. It begins to create dis-ease in our life. So, one of the answer’s to my friend’s question is that yoga brings us to this reality. It shows us what we have been hiding from the world, and the relief can come across as laughter, tears, and powerful emotions.

But after those emotions start to clear, we see our true selves. We can be with who we really are. And from there, we can begin to find the peace and forgiveness the Dalai Lama mentions. And once we are finally able to forgive ourselves, and see ourselves for who we really are – perfect beings on this turbulent ride called life – we can begin to forgive others and connect with them on a deeper and fuller level. No one is going to claim this is easy, but that is what makes this year so amazing. Just like Christmas is a day where you can smile at anyone, this time of year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has something in the air, even if you have never heard about these holidays before, so you have some support to start now.

How has yoga brought you to see yourself differently?

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Forgiving Ourselves, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.