Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Power to Heal

I just started reading a book called Mind Over Medicine by Dr. Lissa Rankin. It is yet another book about the mind/body power to heal against all scientific odds. Somehow I have always known this was possible. Even in my pre-yoga days, I knew there was a power within our bodies and minds greater than anything we talk about on a daily basis. When I was younger, I simply did not have the words to speak about it.

And I knew it was not true just for new age folks and those meditating on mountaintops. As a quote I saw on Facebook put it, “The placebo effect is scientific proof that we have the ability to heal ourselves. Our thoughts are powerful enough to bring this into existence – when will we begin to absorb this?” (emphasis mine). There is no person attributed the quote, but it is a true statement.

So why do so few of us believe this to be possible? Why do so many of us rely on the images, the blood tests, and the machines that measure various levels of things we don’t understand in our bodies? Why can we not turn inside to understand our true potential?

And yes, after all the years of knowing the power of the body, I am beholden to those images as well. For one, they’re really cool to see, but they also tell us a lot. They just do not tell us the entire story. They are just a small piece of information. What they do not tell us is how possible it is for the body to change.

The doctor who writes the book is pretty clear she wanted scientific proof the mind is a powerful healer. I have not yet finished the book, but I am well on my way. And it is clear from the book so far that what the research has found is the mind not only changes how we feel about certain situations, disease, etc. It can actually change our physiology. That is a really hard concept for so many of us to handle. I have wondered why for a really long time, and I think I am finally beginning to understand.

I think it is twofold. First, as Marianne Williamson reminds us, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us." Why this is, I am not sure, but I see it around me all the time. People shy away from their power. We are told as children to be quiet and not speak until spoken to. We grow up feeling we are not adequate. And yet, the exact opposite is true. We are powerful beings on this Earth, and our greatest asset is to share our power with each other.

But this first issue leads to the second. In our society, we put a lot of faith in other people to fix things. If we do not believe in our power, we believe other people have power we do not, so we ask them to make our lives better. As a lawyer, my job is to fix legal situations for my clients as best I can. Doctors fix health issues. Mechanics fix our cars. We keep ourselves so busy we never have time to stop and ask ourselves what is really causing issues in our life. We just go to other people and hope they can make the issues disappear. 

But the truth is that we can do this ourselves. Certainly, if my arm falls off, I want a surgeon to sew it back on. But that is only the very first step in the healing process. The healing goes on after that first surgery. The healing must come from within. And the pieces that help us heal the most are the ones missing from our daily lives.

We need a supportive community, time to relax, and faith the healing will occur. But so much of our lives are spent in isolation from others, rushing from one thing to the next, and believing we are our illnesses rather than believing we are in a state of dis-ease that can become a state of ease.

Certainly there are people out there to help us find this within ourselves. Caring medical professionals, therapists, friends, pets, anyone really. But at the end of the day, it is our innate healing power that is being brought forth by those other people. It is our own power and light that brings the healing forth.

Once again, we are in a world of simple but not easy. It requires us to go against so much of what we are taught. But the scientific proof exists that it is possible. We all know “miracles” happen. Now we just have to believe it ourselves.

How have you noticed the power to heal in your own life? Do you believe you have that power?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, The Power to Heal, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Forced Solitude

I am in the process of moving. Everything is packed except for my cell phone, and Facebook only refreshes so many times. I have no books, no music, really nothing to keep me busy.

I used to think this would be great, a day with nothing to do, just be with myself and meditate. But the truth is that it's a lot to handle. We are so used to being connected all the time. Someone said to me the other day, "You are always on your computer." I sorry of chuckled and said that really I'm always on my phone. Sitting at my computer is too painful these days.

But even my phone got to be too boring this morning . . . until I decided to write about it.

It can be scary to be alone in quiet when we are used to the noise of everyday life. But it's also necessary. Quiet time is where we reflect and rejuvenate. It's where we come down from the energy that surrounds us. It is vital to our wellbeing.

I used to spend a lot of time in silence without the aid of electronic media to distract me. But as my ability to go out into the world physically has diminished, I find myself more and more reliant upon electronic means of connecting.

And I'm not the only one. I watch people texting away in their cars, sitting in court absorbed in their phones, and walking down the street, and into each other, with their eyes focused only on the 3-inch screen in front of them.

But it's impossible to breathe when our necks are stained forward staring at our little screens. It's impossible to truly enjoy the world when we see it only through Facebook and instagram. It's impossible, therefore, to fully live our lives.

I'm torn about these issues. I know how damaging electronic life can be. I also know it can be a way of connecting across time and space. But like everything in life, it must happen in balance. And that means sometimes ignoring the ding saying you got a new email. It can wait. Facebook will still be there in an hour if you wait.

And yes, I'm writing this because I need to hear it. If my forced waiting game this morning has been any indication, I need the opportunity to be alone and quiet more often.

Alone time is healing time. It is an opportunity to let the stress of life wash away. When we are alone, we can be in the present moment with nothing but our breath. What an amazing opportunity so few of us take.

How often do you disconnect? How do you make quiet time for yourself? What benefits do you receive from those moments?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lawyers Type A? Who Knew?

I went to see a doctor earlier this week, and he diagnosed me as Type A. I am actually serious. Ok, maybe not a full diagnosis, but he said it was something he noticed. I sarcastically said to him, “what lawyers do you know that are Type A?” Then I tried to get around it and said, “but I work with kids.” His response was, “That’s a nice façade.” In other words, I could not get past him. I’m Type A.

Do you think lawyers have a reputation? (Of course I refrained from saying it was really a case of it taking one to know one. He is, after all, a neurosurgeon.)

He told me to stretch and relax. I saw another doctor the following day, and she wrote out three parts of a prescription for me: 1) Massage, 2) Yoga?, and 3) Stretch every 2 hours. What happened to the medical profession over night? She even told me to follow my gut.

But I think they were trying to tell me something. And it is partially about lawyers, but mostly it is about people in general who get worked up about a lot. We have to really try to calm down. We have to try to relax. We have to try to let go. Talk about an oxymoron.

What does it mean to be Type A? Well, Wikipedia, of course, has the answer. It was actually originally created as a theory to describe people likely to get coronary heart disease. I never knew that. But the general notion is that people who are Type A are high-strung workaholics. It is not surprising, then, that such people would become lawyers and doctors and other high intensity professionals.

But yes, that is why it is even more important for such people to incorporate yoga and meditation into our lives. But then comes the problem . . . workaholics always feel they have to be doing something. That sort of defeats the purpose of meditation. The point is to do nothing, even though that is sort of something. Sort of.  It certainly does not meet the definition of something for Type A personality folks.

But then there is an underlying problem, should I say, with Type A folks taking up something like yoga, particularly in the United States where yoga is synonymous with putting your foot behind your head and sweating to death on a mat. As the doctor said to me, and what I think prompted the comment about my being Type A in the first place, he was worried I would take his advice too far and push myself too much. The same is true for any asana-focused yoga practice. It can become too much, and even harmful, if not done in a yogic sense, but instead is done in a more Type A sense.

Of course, at its core, yoga is about balance . . . on all levels. It helps us see our limits work within them. But until we gain those tools from the practice, our well-patterned neural pathways run us. And as I have learned these past several months, those come back when the yoga falls away.

So what do we do about it? We learn to watch ourselves. Yoga is an amazing tool, and an amazing way of being. But it can be misconstrued, particularly by certain people, and there is no question lawyers and other professionals more likely than not fall into that category of people. There is nothing wrong with being Type A. One of my dear friends reminded me the world needs people like us. But we also have to be careful. We have to be careful not to hurt ourselves by trying to help ourselves. Most importantly, we have to remember to stop and do nothing sometimes. We have to remember to relax and let go.

Sometimes it is even a literal prescription. And that is where the question mark comes from above. The second doctor says yoga is fine . . . when it is. But be careful. We can benefit from working a lot and taking our work seriously. We can benefit from having order in our lives. But as the Wikipedia article points out, these traits can lead to being hostile and irritated with others. It is how we get to the downward spiral of emails.

So whether it is our bodies or our interactions with others, we need to be careful. And this week I had two doctors prescribe relaxation to me. Go figure. I guess that is why I’m sharing it with the world. It’s a great prescription for anyone, particularly those of us who may take even our need to relax a little too seriously.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Lawyers Type A? Who Knew?, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Proving Meditation Works?

Earlier this week, my uncle sent me the article, “The Morality of Meditation.” Similar to many articles these days, it is too short, and gives nothing but the briefest explanation of the topic, but it is an interesting idea.

The author, along with several colleagues, decided to test whether meditation actually makes people more compassionate towards others. The “test” they used was pretty clever. They had a group of people meditate for 8 weeks and a control group. Then they had people from both groups come back to the office where the waiting room had three chairs, two of which were already occupied. The subject always sat in the open chair, and then a fourth person came into the room on crutches and groaned in pain as he leaned against the wall. The question was whether the subject would give up his/her seat if the other two (who worked for the researchers) did not.

There have been many studies done that people are less likely to help others if they see other people are not offering assistance. Those studies, if you have never read them or heard about them, are actually quite frightening. Peer pressure is a powerful force, even when it is negative – not negative in the sense that you are doing something bad, but negative in the sense you are not acting. So others choosing not to act causes us to be less likely to act even to help someone in obvious distress.

This study found that people who had meditated were 3 times as likely to offer their seat to the guy on crutches. That is the “good” news. The not so good news is that it was still only about 50% of people. But their initial conclusion is that meditation does, or might, help people be more compassionate to others. (HUGE CAVEAT: I’m basing my understanding of this study on an article in the NY Times that was shorter than this post, and I have my own twists.) Also important, only 39 people participated in the study, and only 20 of them were asked to meditate. That is a very small sample.

All of those caveats aside, what does this tell us? First, I think it tells us that we as a society are obsessed with meditation as a fad. We want to know how it can help us. We want proof. I mean, what is the point of meditating if we do not get something out of it? I like science and studies as much as anyone, and I think I have even posted how excited I am about such studies in the past. But I’m getting tired of them. I do not want a scientist telling me meditation works. I just want to meditate. And I think that's my yoga side taking over my lawyer side. Lawyers like evidence. I really do like evidence, but I do not always need it.

But I see two other issues with this study, neither good nor bad, but just interesting. First, the guy who needed help walked into the room on crutches. That is an obvious injury. Of course, it does not appear he was really injured at all, just a research tool told to act in a certain way. I have been living for the past 6 months with the opposite issue. I look fine, but I hurt a lot. I feel terrible when I go to the grocery store and do not help bag my own groceries. I feel terrible when I choose not to sit because it is easier to stand, but then I am towering over people feeling like I am acting superior to them. I would have actually done the exact opposite of all the research subjects. I would not have sat in the empty chair. I would have stood up, and that’s probably true even before I was in pain. And so I wonder, how many of the research subjects had a reason not to get up for the guy on crutches? We do not all wear our lives on our sleeves. 

We all have hidden stories, and far more goes into those stories than whether we meditated that day. I would love to live in a world where we are all better at asking people their stories rather than making assumptions based on what we see only with our eyes.

And that brings me to my final point – what about compassion for self? This research study was conducted because the researchers were tired of all the studies about meditation being great for stress, memory, and intelligence. They wanted to show it helps people act more compassionately towards others. The article ends by saying, “The next time you meditate, know that you’re not just benefiting yourself, you’re also benefiting your neighbors, community members and as-yet-unknown strangers by increasing the odds that you’ll feel their pain when the time comes, and act to lessen it as well.”

But they were comparing this study to studies about performance, not about self compassion. I have never looked for such a study, but I would be surprised if one existed. How do we test that? How do we know if we are treating ourselves as kindly as we should? How do we know when we are offering ourselves the amount of love we all deserve?

There is no question in my mind that compassion for others is a great benefit of meditating. I have meditated specifically to cultivate such compassion. And certainly, it’s great to have a little less stress in life as a result of meditation. And perhaps these are all areas that researchers will continue to study. But we also have to learn to have self compassion. After all, the heart pumps blood to itself first.

So while all these tests and research are happening, I may or may not pay a lot of attention. Interesting to see the proof, but the real magic, no proof needed, happens on the mat/cushion and in how we conduct ourselves to ourselves and in the real world, not how 39 people conducted themselves in an office on one particular day.

What changes have you noticed in yourself if you meditate? What changes have you noticed when you stop? That’s always my big clue to the benefits of meditation, and that has nothing to do with research.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Proving Meditation Works?, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Last Human Freedom

Freedom is an interesting word. It can mean physical freedom, such as not being in prison or enslaved. It can mean emotional freedom, as I wrote about three years ago. It can mean political freedom, which we are watching unfold around the world, but particularly in Egypt and Syria right now. And that is what we in the United States celebrate on July 4th every year.

There are all sorts of arguments we are not free in our lives. We are expected to work and pay off debt. There is no country in the world without a government. And certainly there has been a lot of discussion about freedom when our phone logs are being watched by government agencies. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, governments “deriv[e] their power from the consent of the people.”

But as I have said many times before, I am not publicly political. What I think of the revolutions happening in Syria and Egypt, and what I think of Edward Snowden and the NSA, is not really important. But I think all these situations reflect perfectly what Jefferson said. We have to consent to any limitations on our freedom.

And that includes limitations on any type of freedom. Our deepest freedom, however, is one that we should never consent to limit, though many of us (including myself) often do.

Viktor Frankl, who was a holocaust survivor, said, “The last of human freedoms - the ability to chose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances.” We get to choose how we respond to any situation. We can respond with anger and revolt. We can respond with acceptance. We can respond with fear. We can respond knowing we have joy and contentment within ourselves, and nothing external can change that. But we have to remember to consciously choose that response. Frankl further stated, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

I think it is important to look at the larger, political freedoms, not only for ourselves but for others. We live in a world where child prostitution and human trafficking occur. We live in a world where Google and Facebook are not allowed to exist in certain countries. But even if we had all of our political freedoms, how many of us consent to our own lack of personal freedoms? How many of us forget that space between stimulus and response to get to our last human freedom of attitude? 

Lawyers can be great at helping people obtain political freedoms as well as keeping people out of prison. But law does little to help us break free of our personal freedoms. Yoga, however, helps us there. It is not always easy. These are the limitations that are much harder to see. There is no whisleblower inside us to tell us when we are limiting ourselves. We have to learn to listen. And in that listening we have to ask if we are reacting or responding.

I notice when I am getting caught in my limitations when I am driving. Even after more than a decade of yoga and trying to learn to let go of my anger, when someone cuts me off on the road, I sometimes go into a fit of rage. Some days I can let it go quickly, but other times it boils inside of me even when I know it serves no purpose except to drain my energy. I know I am not alone in this. Road rage is a pretty serious issue and sometimes leads to death. Thus, driving is my teaching time as well. And I do a lot of driving.

Another common area of limiting freedom is our response to our physical bodies. We often feel defined by them rather than our higher Being. I cannot tell you how often I hear people say, “I’m too fat,” “I’m not flexible,” or “I’m in too much pain.” We let our bodies limit our souls. There is no doubt that our bodies have limitations at times. But look at the amazing examples of people who have done so much despite their limited bodies. Stephen Hawking, Roger Ebert post cancer, and all the stories you have hopefully heard of people on their death beds with a smile on their face and love in their hearts.

Our Being is bigger than our bodies and bigger than our road rage. No matter how limited we feel, we have to consent to giving up the freedom to choose our attitude. We can also choose not to consent. We can choose to feel that freedom regardless of external consequences. So, while people are celebrating a revolution over 200 years ago with barbeques, parades, and fireworks, how are you celebrating your internal freedoms?

Are you remembering to breathe deeply? Are you taking the time to ask if you are doing what you were put on this planet to do? Are you letting yourself forgive others as well as yourself? Are you finding gratitude in moments that at first are difficult? Are you choosing an attitude to serve your highest self or one that makes life more difficult? As Viktor Frankl said, this is the last of human freedoms. Nothing external has the power to effect us without our consent. It may seem difficult, or even impossible, to choose a different attitude in the face of adversity, but the choice is always there. What attitude will you choose?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, The Last Human Freedom, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When Yoga Meets the Law

The title of this blog, Is Yoga Legal, was sort of a joke. A friend in yoga teacher training said she had it open on her browser, and her daughter looked at it and said, “Mom, is yoga legal?” as if there were an actual question of its legality. We all laughed and thought such a question would never arise.

But it did. In Encinitas, California.

A brief overview in case you are unaware of the case: Encinitas, California began to offer yoga in its schools. This yoga was funded by the Jois Foundation, the group that promotes Ashtanga yoga. Some Christians in town got upset by this and sued the school district for allowing religion in schools, something that, if true, would be a clear violation of the First Amendment if it is the school promoting that religion. The parents said yoga has a Hindu origin, and therefore, by allowing yoga in schools, the schools were promoting Hinduism.

To make a long story short, there was a several-day trial, with experts, and the judge ruled earlier this week the yoga in the school did not violate the First Amendment. Yoga is just exercise. YogaDork has a great post with some great quotes from the ruling. The Jois Foundation spokesman said the yoga was a way to keep children away from sugar and video games. Of course, the school district took out any reference to Sanskrit and called the postures by English names.

Here is the overarching sentiment from the judge’s ruling:

“Yoga as it has developed in the last 20 years is rooted in American culture, not Indian culture,” San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer said. “It is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon. A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas school district yoga advances or promotes religion.”

So, I guess the answer is, sort of. Yoga is legal so long as it is not really yoga. The Jois Foundation “Ashtanga Yoga” webpage says Ashtanga yoga “is an ancient system that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential. The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (aṣṭāgayoga) can be described as eight disciplines.” I have discussed the yamas and niyamas on this blog. I have said over and over again there is more to yoga than asana, the postures.

But does that make it a religion? Does that mean it should not be in schools? Can yoga have a benefit when the spirit is removed?

Honestly, I do not have an answer. We had yoga in my high school. It was offered as part of our Physical Education program. No one thought twice about it. And no, I did not take that class (I was a band geek in the marching band instead of doing other PE). But several times since I have started getting into yoga more for myself, I have wondered whether that is where it should have been.

Just like the Pledge of Allegiance, children in the Encinitas School District may opt out of the yoga classes. But the parents argue that makes them feel ridiculed and somehow different, which is a test the Supreme Court uses for whether a school is endorsing a religious belief.

And if the Judge and the School District are correct, why do I have this blog? Why are there literally hundreds, if not thousands, of yoga blogs on the interwebs? They are not all talking about stretching. There are enough blogs and websites for that. And if we take the yoga out of the yoga, why not just call it a relaxation/stretching class? Is that not cool enough?

Yoga is a billion-dollar, secular industry in the United States. It is also an ancient spiritual practice of which asana is a small part. Both sides in the Encinitas argument are right. And based upon the facts of this particular case, the judge seems to have made a correct decision (I have not read the entire ruling, nor did I follow the case all that closely, but based upon the arguments and ruling I have seen, that is my early-morning, pre-coffee legal analysis opinion.)

But perhaps we need a different discussion. No one does it better than Linda over at Linda’s Yoga Journey. Perhaps mindfulness and deep breathing and stretching should be in our schools, but calling it yoga does create a possible assumption of something more. Do I really think schools are indoctrinating schools with Hinduism? Of course not. But do I think we lose something in the yoga world when judges rule that yoga is nothing more than exercise? Absolutely!

What do you think of the case? Did you follow it closely? Do you think the judge ruled correctly? Do you think the Jois Foundation is speaking double speak? I’m curious. Because, as I said, I certainly do not have the answers, but at least one judge in America thinks yoga is legal.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, When Yoga Meets the Law, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.