Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thick Skin

We hear it a lot. It is supposed to be a sign of strength. Someone has a thick skin. But what does that really mean? We think it means they can handle whatever is thrown at them. We think it means words do not harm them. We think it means people do not take things personally.

But what does it really mean? What does it mean not to have thick skin?

Lawyers are simply expected to have a thick skin. Although all professionals have to learn some level of objectivity in their work, somehow lawyers are expected to be more stoic about it. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of types of law, but lawyers are often lumped into one category in terms of personality. We're supposed to be Type A, ruthless fighters who, by the way, have a thick skin. Lawyer ads exemplify this when lawyers are  compared to eagles and sharks and tigers. We are tough and often ruthless and definitely fight for our clients.

But that sort of mentality also comes with a price.

I know a lot of lawyers, and very few of them actually meet that description. But somehow deep down, I see a lot of lawyers think they have to meet that description. They feel they have to pretend to be strong even when the work is incredibly hard. They feel they have to push through pain, stress, fear, etc., just to show they are good enough to practice. They have to ignore the pain their clients feel because the law is reason devoid of emotion. That charade causes some people to disconnect from their true nature and forget that it is okay to be vulnerable. A thick skin is supposed to protect our inside from the harsh realities of the outside. 

And how do we show thick skin? Does it mean that we never sleep? Never take care of ourselves? Never show that we are upset? Never show that we need help? If we believe as a society that thick skin equals strength, does that mean those who do not have a thick skin are weak? 

At times, it seems as though that is exactly what the legal profession suggests. More than once, I have overheard lawyers telling stories - and laughing - about the person who cried on the witness stand. But when they tell those stories, I realize they are talking about the people I find the strongest in what they do. They are the ones I admire. I do not necessarily admire them because of their tears, but I know who they are discussing, and inevitably, it is the people I trust. Of course I trust people who do not cry, but tears are rarely a reason not to trust someone, particularly in certain types of work.

There is another aspect to a thick skin that involves not taking care of ourselves as we should. I have seen several articles floating around facebook about the vacation time Americans leave unused while the rest of the world uses every last day of it. And I have heard Americans call those people lazy. Interestingly, more and more people around the world are starting to follow the American model, which I do not understand, but it is happening nonetheless. Why do we feel this need to push ourselves and show everyone else how pushed we are? Why do we feel the need to never look "weak" in public? What part of taking a break, showing emotions, or even being vulnerable makes us so afraid?

I actually do not believe the biggest reason has to do with showing others how strong we are. It is that in some ways we actually feel less when we put on the thick skin charade, and in this world, that can have its advantages . . . in the short term. The world can be difficult to see. As news comes at us from all sides, we see the atrocities of the world from which we were able to hide only a generation ago. Being vulnerable to it is scary because it is scary to see the pain that others experience. When the Buddha first left his palace, he could not believe the horrors he saw. But then he decided to do something about it. He decided to show his followers a way through.

Similarly, yoga teaches us another way than believing we always need to have a thick skin. Yoga teaches us to be softer and more open to the possibility of feeling. And sometimes that can be scary. But arguably, in the long run, it also makes us stronger. Instead of hiding from the world in which we live, we learn to live within it and connect to people on deep levels.

And yoga shows us what strength is from a different point of view. We can be strong when we are vulnerable and scared and unsure. In fact, that is where our true strength lies. Our thick skin is no match to a yoga mat. On the mat, we cannot hide from ourselves, but it is the fact that we see everything about ourselves that makes us stronger. It often does not feel that way, but as we go deeper into our practice, we find a sense of strength we didn't know we had.

All too often, however, we think the true sign of strength is a thick skin. But that can cut us off from feeling anything at all. It can cut us off from the world around us. It can be important not to take what happens in our lives too personally, but the concept of a thick skin has moved us out of ourselves and into a world where the only way to be strong is to hide from what we are truly feeling. And that only leads to more dis-ease and distress later.

How often do you find yourself saying you have a thick skin? Has it served you? Are you willing to break it down and see something different?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The Post, Thick Skin, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Yoga, Pain, and Something Bigger

Over the past year, a lot of people have asked me, “shouldn’t yoga help your pain?” I have learned to try to just smile and nod. But a few times I have responded, “there is a chance yoga caused my pain.” Let me be clear before I go further. I still think yoga is amazing. I am not giving up being a yogi – in fact, I am teaching a restorative class next month. But yoga, as it is taught in the United States, is not the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

This is a shock to some people. William Broad took on the yoga establishment in 2012 with his book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. The yoga blogosphere would not stop talking about it for months. And he is back with another article in the New York Times titled, Women’s Flexibility is a Liability (In Yoga). And we can fight and argue until we are blue in the face (very yogic of us, I’m sure), but there is no question we have to be careful.

Let us examine for a minute what yoga is. First, on this blog, I hope I have been clear that yoga is not about asana. It is about a way of life. Yoga is about yamas and niyamas and breathing and meditation. Asana is a piece, but it is nothing more than a piece. And in my life recently, it has become even less of a piece of the yoga bundle. Yoga to many in the West, however, is exercise. When I used to tell people I was not in the best shape (I have never been a runner, for example), people would respond, “But you do yoga.” Sometimes I would get into the discussion about yoga not being exercise, but more often than not, I would simply nod and smile and move along.

Yoga in America and the rest of the Western world has taken on a feeling of gymnastics. It has permeated the gym culture and become a source of sweaty movement. That is fine for what it is, but it is not yoga. Even, or perhaps particularly, in asana, we must be aware and mindful of how we are moving, feeling, and changing. Vinyasa practices, for anyone except the super aware, take us out of that place. And please do not misunderstand. I LOVE vinyasa practices. I just realize now they may not love me.

And why do we love the sweaty movement of yoga? I personally think it has a lot to do with our culture. We like to feel like we are doing something good for ourselves while still “doing” something. I used to fall into that mindset as well – is it really beneficial if I do not move? I knew the answer was yes, but I still gravitated toward classes with vinyasa flows. I also did a lot of yin and restorative, now my only source of asana, but those classes were my dessert, not my daily practice.

People who know me outside of a blogger persona know I need to take a deep breath and calm down. I would expect that many of you reading this are in the same boat. This blog is, after all, for people in high stress places in life. So many of us have spent our lives looking for external gain – the good grades in school, the good university, the good graduate school, the good job, that we forget to stop and breathe, and before we know it we wake up, and we are stressed and sick and in our late 20s. Sound like anyone you know?

And big-money yoga took on this mentality. There is nothing inherently wrong with the yoga dominance. But there is a problem when it is causing harm, and we as yoga teachers ignore it. The yoga teachers I know do not ignore it. The yoga teachers I know tell me to come to class if the only thing I can do is lie in savasana and imagine myself in the various asanas. But I know there is a different culture out there. I see it in the discussions I have with people. I see it in the yoga ads. It is why I stopped my subscription to Yoga Journal.

So before everyone gets all up in arms about William Broad again, I think it is important to see how he ends the article. He does not tell people not to do yoga. In fact, he makes a very yogic statement, “Better to do yoga in moderation and listen carefully to your body. That temple, after all, is your best teacher.” Each and every body is different. We can look at every single skeleton and chart about muscles, ligaments, fascia, etc. we can find. But at the end of the day, those are guides. Incredibly useful guides, without which I would not want to be a yoga teacher, but nothing more than guides.

Some people have livers on the left side of their body. Some people have naturally fused vertebrae. Some people have hip sockets that misalign. Some people walk pigeon-toed. Some people . . .

So can yoga cause pain? Of course it can! Anyone who tells you otherwise is, frankly, dangerous. Can some people have a vinyasa practice for 20 years and feel great? I guess so. I’m skeptical of that, but I know people who have sworn by it for years. But they are also incredibly strong, incredibly attuned to their bodies, and most likely, incredibly lucky.

My yoga practice has taken a strange about-face turn. This year has turned my life upside down. But I’m slowly finding myself again, and moving again. And these days I understand my body better than ever and still do not understand the first thing about it. But that is the point. We have to be slow, understand what we are feeling, and move from there.

Making your first yoga class ever a vinyasa power class is not the way to do that. They may have their place for some people, but at the end of the day, they are simply not the answer for most people. And yes, that can cause pain. And yes, that is something the billion-dollar yoga industry does not want you to know. But guess what? Yoga is so much more. Through yoga, we can calm our nervous systems and begin to respond to life calmly. Through yoga, we can begin to understand ourselves better. Through yoga, we can begin to understand our relationships better. And as a dear friend keeps reminding me, through yoga, we can heal the world.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The Post, Yoga, Pain, and Something Bigger, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.