Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Nervous System Gone Awry

Almost ten years ago, I taught English in a small town in France about 40 minutes from Paris. It was an interesting and difficult experience on so many levels, and it would have been a great time to have had my yoga tools, but alas, that is a story for another day. But right now I’m remembering a scene in the teacher lunch room. I eat fast, but one day, I watched one of the teachers literally inhale his yogurt. Looking back, it sort of reminds me of how my dogs eat – they sort of forget to chew.

My grandfather was the polar opposite of that French teacher. When we were children (and I will admit, even a bit when I was in college and would visit my grandfather), my brother and I would make a joke of my grandfather’s eating habits and count the number of times he would chew his food. One time he got up to 27 chews . . . for a piece of lettuce!

Looking back on these situations, I see two very different nervous systems. The French teacher was jittery in general. His manner of eating was simply one manifestation of his underlying hyper quality. My grandfather, on the other hand, was an accountant. Now, I adore accountants, but they are definitely not known for their high-strung jittery qualities. Instead, they are methodical and calm and precise. And my grandfather’s ability to chew was just a manifestation of those qualities. (And in case anyone is keeping score, I’m writing this while scarfing down my breakfast faster than I should.)

But this post is not about eating, though I do think about that a lot. This post is about our nervous systems. I had some fillings done on two of my molars yesterday, and I was in pretty excruciating pain for several hours after it was done. And I just kept thinking that my nervous system is so strung out. Being in pain for over a year does that. But as someone said to me earlier this week, that pattern has been in me for years. One could even argue it was there as a child while I was getting annoyed with my grandfather for eating so darn slowly. Sometimes he would even have to microwave his food in the middle of the meal because it got cold.

 Yes, our nervous systems manifest in various ways. I have written before about people who bounce their feet constantly. But there are hundreds of manifestations of our internal energies. Have you ever met someone you knew was just totally wound up? Have you ever met someone who just seemed relax regardless of the external circumstances? That is the nervous system at work.

And most people I know are living with their nervous systems in high gear. It is why dis-ease is rampant, pain is everywhere, and somehow it is October when it feels as though the year started last week. Most of us are all running on nervous system fumes. This is, in many ways, a different way of looking at the fight or flight response. We are living on high alert. But the nervous system is what then starts to fire differently, and it changes how we see the world.

The nervous system is our connection to the rest of the world and to ourselves. It is how we feel. If we had no sciatic nerve, for example, we would be unable to walk. It is not just our muscles and bones that hold us up, but our ability to feel our feet that allow us to stand. Serious trauma to the nervous system can paralyze us. And our nervous system allows us to connect to others as well. Neurons are the transmitters that help our brain understand what is happening in the world around us. We need our nervous system to function at its peak, or else we stop being able to function at all.

When we are being chased by a wild animal, we need our nervous system to be on high alert. We need to have a single-track mind to protect ourselves from the imminent danger. But we do not need that singular focus the rest of our lives. In fact, it can get in the way of our relationships and our ability to live a full life.

When we are in a calmer state, we notice the world around us. We notice the people around us. We are able to give more of ourselves to our work and our lives. It is the biggest paradox of our culture that we think by working more we can get more done. But deep within our core, most of us know that it is really when we take regular breaks to recharge that our ability to work strengthens. Modern science is finally making these connections as well. I’m still trying to implement naptime at work, but I’m having difficulty.

Unfortunately, without regular breaks, without taking time to breathe, or sometimes as a result of dis-ease, the nervous system goes awry. It takes over and goes into overdrive, and getting it out of that state feels impossible. Doctors give us medication that is supposed to stop that overdrive, but instead of actually calming the nervous system, those medications simply block our response to it. Sometimes that is the boost we need to calm down ourselves, but sometimes it just makes it more difficult.

The good news is that the body/mind/soul do not want to rest in hyperactivity, so getting back to calmness is actually their natural state. We just have to get out of our own ways enough to make that happen. And that can take years of training. Or it can take a few minutes of breathing every day. There are so many tools to calm ourselves: Walking in nature, deep breathing (most accessible and easiest but somehow one of the more difficult to do), being with good friends, going to a calming yoga class (this means no Bikram when the goal is to calm the nervous system), meditating, massage, energy work, acupuncture, etc.

But those are all “just” tools. They are absolutely amazing tools, and all of them will help us get on the path to calming the nervous system. They are not, however, panaceas. In order to fully calm our nervous systems, we have to want them to be calm. We have to step out of the mindset of the modern world and recognize that we need not be nervous wrecks in order to function. We do not have to go 100% all the time. We are allowed to stop and take a walk in nature. Until we allow that one thought, nothing is going to change long term.

Have you noticed your nervous system has gone awry? Are you willing to allow yourself to calm? What are your tools?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, The Nervous System Gone Awry, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Finding Your Voice

I have had an interesting few weeks. I have delved into physical posture issues that had me questioning whether yoga led to my current physical pain. I have delved into  emotional processes I have had my entire life wondering if they could be the root of the pain. And I have ignored the pain as much as possible and attempted to change my story around it only to have it come back and bite me in the rear, literally. There is so much to say. I have wanted to write about all of these issues and experiences, to share them as part of the yoga / modern world story.

And yet, I cannot find the words.

Where have they gone? Everyone who writes has moments like these. They come in waves and make us believe we have lost our voice for good. Is it a fear of a response to our genuine voice? Is it a fear that we have nothing to say? Is it a fear of showing too much of ourselves?

When I was living in New Zealand, writing came so easy. If nothing else, I could always fall back on the beauty surrounding me. The earthquakes provided nice, though disturbing, fodder as well. But since being back these for nearly two years, life has taken on a strange sense of normalcy even though I am finally a practicing attorney, the sole purpose for this blog. There is so much going on, but why would that matter to anyone? How do I put it into words? I do not think it is the practice of law itself that has taken my voice, but instead the implications on my practice of putting too much on a public blog.

But it's not as though my life is not interesting. I see human tragedy several times per day and opportunities to use a practice all the time. But as each day ends there are moments of regret, realizations that moments of practice were missed, and a deep sense of recognition that more often than not reaction wins when response was so necessary. It's not just my voice that is missing, it's the practice itself. And how does a yoga teacher share being caught up in the mind so much as to miss the opportunity to tune in and meet people where they are with a sense of yogic connection?

These issues go beyond the practice of law as well. A friend asked me if I wanted to teach a yoga class for her. Of course I do. But how? What if that morning I wake up unable to walk? What if I have lost my yoga teaching voice? What if I have lost my practice? When I started teaching yoga, people told me they loved my classes. Certainly they are different than the average American yoga class, but they seemed to work. But I have not taught in over a year. I have only taken a handful of classes. The fear has taken over. I don't know if my voice will come back or if my practice will either. There is a piece of the fight or flight response people often forget - the freeze response. As I have learned more about it, I see it more and more in the people around me. But more of that for a different day. Today, suffice it to say, my practice and my voice feel as though that is where they are.

And that is when yoga is needed the most. It is always there to guide us back to presence and ourselves. Yoga is not about finding something external. It is about finding the strength within us that guides us through life. I realized something this past weekend. Sometimes we have to get out of our own way in order for the magic to happen. Yoga is just a tool for making that happen. It is the path (perhaps better to say, one path) for getting out of our own heads and into our true Being.

Deep within ourselves  we cannot lose our voice. We cannot lose the practice. Both are always there. We just find incredible ways to hide them from ourselves and then fear they have disappeared forever. The truth, however, is that we can never lose our essence. By definition, it is always within us. And our voice is nothing more than our essence manifested in this reality.

And so, yoga is the practice of letting our essence shine again. Sometimes it even takes writing about it before we can trust ourselves enough to access it.

Do you tune into your essential voice? Do you let your true voice manifest in this world? If not, what is holding you back? And what do you need to break out of that rut and shine? The modern world tries to quiet us and deprive us of our deepest voice, but yoga beings us back to it simply by silencing all the noise blocking it out. And sometimes remembering it is there is the first step on the journey toward finding it again. How are you finding your voice?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Finding Your Voice, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, October 6, 2013


“I’m exhausted.” It is a phrase that permeates the courthouse and society on a daily basis. And you can see it in peoples’ faces. Earlier this week, I was in court wondering whether the lawyer sitting next to me was going to fall out of his chair he looked so tired. The best place to see it is while driving (am I the only person who people watches while driving?). According to Wikipedia, the clinical definition is fatigue. But exhausted is the word most of us choose to use on a daily basis.

And I am sure you see it all around you. People putting on make-up to cover up the tired bags under their eyes, drinking coffee all day long “just to keep going,” people forgetting to do work, etc. Exhaustion is deeper than just a lack of sleep. We create exhaustion in our lives through non-stop stress, lack of sleep, poor eating (really poor digestion), and frantic overuse of technology. Not only do we spend all our time on our phones, computers, tablets, televisions, etc., but we are being bombarded with information, some of it useful and some of it not, but most importantly, it is simply too much.

The old adage is true – there definitely can be too much of a good thing!

And when we are exhausted, our bodies do not function properly. Our brains need time to rest and rejuvenate. Our bodies need time to heal during the night. It is not called beauty sleep for nothing. Our skin even looks better when we sleep enough. I have had healing practitioners tell me that they can cure ailments like pain simply by improving peoples’ sleep quality and quantity. Exhaustion is not, therefore, something just to push through. It underlies so many other dis-ease states.

And beyond just our individual selves, in our modern world, the Earth itself feels exhausted. There are physical wars happening, political wars happening (I’m writing this while the US government is shut down), and interpersonal wars. We deplete our soil, overuse our goods, and pollute our air. No wonder we all walk around looking like zombies. Our phone addictions help protect us from having to feel the exhaustion. As long as we have a distraction, we can pretend we do not feel the full effects of the exhaustion. But then sometimes we do. Have you ever had a day where you could not face getting out of bed, where your body just did not seem to move? Have you ever gone to a yoga class and slept through savasana? That is when exhaustion overtakes us. And in the long run, it will win. It is just a matter of time . . . unless we counteract it.

So what do we do about it? How do we take back some of our exhaustion and begin to feel we have some energy again? There are a myriad of ways, and at some level I am reticent to give too many. After all, I do not want to exhaust you with things to do. But here is the most important thing to remember – do what feels like a really good idea to you. If it does not feel right (not because you do not want it to feel right but really does not feel right) do not do it.

First, at least one meal per day actually pay attention to your food. Stop reading, texting, or watching television, and eat your food consciously. Yes, it takes longer. And yes, it can seem boring. But try it. I have been trying to do this again, and I cannot express how hard it has been. I find my mind wandering everywhere but my food, but that is just a sign I have gotten away from this good habit. I used to do this really well - interestingly that was back when I was just out of college. And once you can do it for one meal per day, start doing it for two or even all three.

Second, take some time every day to breathe. Just breathe. This should really be the tagline of this blog in general – just breathe. But it is true. And if you want to really help calm the nervous system and relax before bed, try doing some alternate nostril breathing. When you feel something bothering you, take a deep breath. It is amazing how simple this is, and it is amazing how many of us forget to do it.

Third, get more sleep. Even just going to bed 30 minutes earlier will help. And while you are at it, turn off the television, cell phone, and tablet while in bed. And this is where I need to practice. My phone sits next to my bed, and although I have turned it silent overnight, it is still there when I cannot sleep, and I turn to facebook at 3am. That is not the best way to get back to sleep. In fact, it is one of the worst.

Fourth, stop watching and reading the news. It is designed to be dramatic and rile you up. It is not designed to be informative and uplifting. Sadness and violence sell, and that just increases our exhaustion. We hear about these stories, and we then internalize them. And we are bombarded with them all day, every day. So turn it off in moments when you feel totally exhausted. This is not to say never watch the news again – just choose wisely when you do and ensure you are ready for the onslaught and are prepared to breathe through it.

Exhaustion is simply rampant in our culture. We are expected to be exhausted. And that is unfortunate. We are creating, or have created, a culture where destruction of ourselves somehow shows we are stronger than others. It is a difficult belief system to overcome, but exhaustion is not the way we have to live, and deep down we all know it is not going to make us do our jobs better. In fact, it means we are going to end up not only exhausted but with chronic dis-ease patterns that make it impossible for us to function.

So, ask yourself if you are exhausted. And if you are, what one step are you going to take today to help overcome that exhaustion? For me, I am going to keep my phone off no matter how awake I am at 3am. Facebook can wait.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Exhausted, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.