Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Heart and the Head

A friend of mine posted a great article on Facebook called, “The Downside to Down Dog” asking the question, “what is Yoga?” Her answer is that it is the path of the heart. Then I was reading a blog post by Lissa Rankin entitled, “Can You Hear the Voice of Your Soul?” And next weekend, I am going to see a teacher who starts his teachings by bringing people into their heart.

I think the universe is trying to tell me something.

The very first “alternative” medicine person I saw (actually, he was not the first, but the first who made any sort of impression and really started me on whatever path I am currently on) told me I am 97% in my head and 3% in my body, and that it should be the opposite. Yoga has helped draw me down from my head, but at the end of the day, I spend a lot more time being a lawyer than I do practicing yoga. Thus, I spend a lot more time in my head than my heart.

But what would the legal profession look like if more lawyers lived from their hearts? I am not even talking about doing more heart-centered work. I mean connecting to the heart in any capacity. Lissa Rankin, the blogger above, is a doctor. I mentioned her book, Mind Over Medicine, in the post, The Power to Heal (I find it hard to believe that post was from July).

In law school, lawyers are taught to “think like a lawyer.” I am sure this means something different for everyone, but the Dean of my law school at that time said it meant to her that we should be the last people in a room to make up our mind about something. But she did not tell us whether that should come from the head or the heart. Law school, for me, was amazing. I loved it. But one piece of it always bothered me. We read cases in a textbook, and we discussed the legal issues involved. That was great. But there was always something missing, and I noticed it most often in my Torts class.

These were real people. These were real cases. Whether they happened in 2003 or 1893, these people were harmed. We once read a case about a man who was turned into, “a human cannonball” because of an explosion at a construction site. But we discussed the negligence, not the person what was seriously injured as a result. I know doctors have to go through similar training. Instead of discussing the person, they discuss the symptoms. A person becomes a diagnosis. In the psychological realm, people talk about someone being depressed, not having depression, but otherwise someone has a mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

I do not want this to sound like I prefer people to BE their diagnoses. I am just pointing out how we talk about issues and people in professions. So, in physical medicine, psychological medicine, and the legal profession, we talk about criteria and elements. There are elements to a crime just like there are criteria for diagnosis. But we never look past those definitions to the person. We live in our heads and ask whether someone meets that definition for, and then we act accordingly.

There is a pull between the legal world and the yoga world I have never discussed. In some ways, it is the most difficult one to address. On one hand, I live in the world of lawyers where everything needs to be relevant, and nothing is true unless you can prove it. On the other hand, I live in the world of yogis, in the heart, where we know something is true because we feel it. At some level, this represents the ongoing battles between political and religious foes.

But when I say “feel it,” I mean the deepest sense of knowing. I cannot think of anyone I have met who would deny that intuition exists. We all get “ick” feelings from certain people and situations. It is those ick factors that sometimes save our lives. We sidestep situations that just feel wrong. Although the 1990s were called “the decade of the brain,” we still know next to nothing about how it works. Science has not yet helped us understand this head we live in and the intuition that we cannot deny.

And I certainly do not claim to have all the answers. What I do know is that this push and pull between head and heart is really a non-dichotomy. They are really one and the same. The separation we pretend exists simply does not. Reading those cases in law school, although we never discussed the fact that people were hurt and maimed and harmed, our hearts saw it and knew it, and it affected all of us. There is no way to separate. We can listen more strongly to one or the other, but at the end of the day, they are the same Being.

And so, I continue to wonder – how can we be more explicit about the heart in more professional settings? There are so many ways, but I have heard before that the first step is admitting there is a problem. If we could recognize there is a lack of heart speak and understanding, perhaps we could begin to see a way to acknowledge what is already there.

What about you? Do you listen more to your head or your heart? Do you believe there is a difference?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, The Heart and the Head, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Flowing Breath

It was my senior year in college when I really started doing yoga on my own. It was not until my first year in law school when I started going to classes, and it sort of became my life, but my senior year in college was the beginning of that path. I would practice in my living room with little more than a book to guide me (looking back, perhaps not the safest choice, but here we are).

Breathe is the most common label on this blog. And I have previously told the story of how I remember learning to breathe my senior year in college and how I then found my breath again in the mountains of Yellowstone. Nature has a way of bringing us back to our internal awareness and breath. Trees provide us with oxygen, and the Earth grounds us and heals us.

But we have the breath wherever we are, wherever we go, and in whatever we are doing. The breath can, therefore, heal from anywhere as long as we know how to find it.

Just knowing the breath is there does not mean we all know how to use it properly. In fact, I would think most of us do not. There is more to the breath than just trying to get as much air in as possible. I think I have finally realized this. When we try to take a deep breath with effort, we are actually fighting the breath rather than receiving the breath. And that is how so many of us try to breath, even when we think we are relaxing into the breath. We do not flow with the breath. We fight it.

The modern world does not make relaxing into the flow of the breath easy to do. Doctors and anyone else who studies anatomy (yoga teachers often included) know how the breath enters through the nose or mouth, travels down the windpipe, and goes into the lungs. The muscles of the diaphragm expand and contract the lungs for the breath. But that does not tell us how we can receive the breath. It tells us what muscles are used and where the breath goes.

Many people are stuck in fight or flight mode. Lawyers are particularly adept at this. We live in an adversarial world. When we spend our working hours thinking in an adversarial manner, it is difficult not to be adversarial with ourselves, even with our breath. We tense up our driving and computer muscles, furrow our brows, and forget what it means to be soft. And so we fight with the breath.

As you are reading this, notice if you are simply allowing the breath or if you think the breath needs to come differently. Even as I write it, I can feel the tension building at times. And when the breath becomes stilted and tense it stops being an avenue for healing and becomes an avenue to strengthen our patterns. We often talk about samskaras as mental patterns, and ways of being. But they work on our body similarly. We all have our own ways of walking and moving. Think about how you can tell someone walked in the room long before you see their face simply by how they move. When we hold our tension through our breath, we ingrain those patterns even more rather than relaxing into the healing power the breath can bring.

The breath can heal nearly anything. The stories of miracles I have read this year are long, and while there is a logical part of me that doubts it can happen to anyone, the yogi in me knows otherwise. I know the breath is capable of producing miracles. But we have to let the breath guide us instead of trying to guide the breath.

I just started reading a new book called, Awakening Somatic Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Embodied Mindfulness, by Risa Kaparo. I have read a lot about movement, somatics, and breathing, but this book puts it all together in a way I have never seen before. But the most important aspect it teaches is that we have to get our beliefs out of the way. We cannot understand the breath through our eyes or even our anatomical understanding. The only way we can understand the breath is by letting it teach us.

When I sit in a courtroom, I can feel all my tension patterns and can see everyone around me fall into theirs as well. Everyone’s breath tightens as we await whatever is going to happen. We rob ourselves of our own health in those moments.

What would happen if while sitting in incredibly stressful situations, we just listened to our breath? What would happen if we just allowed the breath to come? No force. No pain. No tension. Just allow it to come. That is how the breath flows. That is where healing can happen. But we have to get out of our own way.

It is amazing to think that almost 10 years after learning to breathe my senior year in college I still feel like just a beginner.

How about you? Where do you notice your breath?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, The FlowingBreath, first appeared on Is YogaLegal.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Words We Use

It is January 1. This means half the people we all know are full of New Year’s resolutions. There has always been a joke that most people do not last through January on their resolutions, and I never really understood why when I was growing up. I have come to realize it is because we have to be truly committed to the resolution. We have to recognize how it will actually help us and the world. We have to be invested in wanting something to be different.

I have written before about using intentions rather than resolutions. That still holds true for me. Intentions are about how we interact with the world less than they are about the outcome of that interaction. The same outside shape of the body can be used in gymnastics, acrobatics, and yoga, but the intention is different between the three. Our intentions are what define how we engage with ourselves and the world.

About a week ago, I was frustrated with a situation, and I mentioned that a person with whom I was interacting was useless. A friend caught me in that moment, and asked me to think about what I had said and how putting that energy into the world changes the actual structure of the world. What if I had not said that? Might the person have been more useful?

I hate gossip. I have not touched on this subject in over a year, but I did back in October 2012. At its root, gossip is about using our words to bring energy into the world that harms people. That may not be the intention of the gossip, but that is essentially what it does. It brings the energy of the words into existence.

But at another level, we need to vent. We need to talk about what is bothering us, or it can become even stronger and make us even crazier. Yoga has helped me see and understand how it is not the situation that causes problems so much as it is our response to the situation. But there is another level where we live in a very difficult, fast-paced world, and venting is sometimes necessary.

The other day I was frustrated by a situation, frustrated by a person involved in the situation, and I had been venting about it all day. But did I have to use the word, “worthless”? Is there another way to vent without bringing the negative energy into my being and the world? The underlying issue was that people were not getting what they needed, and I saw one person as the obstacle to them getting it. But the truth is that this one person is not the only problem. The issue is much larger, and my words did not reflect that.

The other place I see this play out is with sarcasm and jabs at people we all love. How is it that we have learned to interact with each other by poking fun at them? Although we may be joking (and I would argue there is always an underlying truth to what we say), the universe does not recognize tone. The energy of our words are the same regardless of the smirk or chuckle that accompanies them.

Sure, it can be easier to poke fun than to have a serious conversation. I am one of the first people to go there. But why? What purpose does it serve? Frankly, it keeps us at a distance from people. It is a way to interact without really having to interact. It is a disconnected connection, similar to facebook, but in-person. In fact, I see people being more honest on facebook sometimes than they are in person. It creates its own barrier, so we can be more honest. In-person, the only barrier we have is sarcasm.

A new year is just a reminder to stop and assess. Where are we on our paths? Are we open to new possibilities? Are we expressing ourselves as we want to be seen in the world? And if not, how can we change our expression? I think one of the best ways is to change the words we speak. Is that person useless? No. Is the situation frustrating? Yes. But I can ask myself what I can do to change it instead of just throwing up my arms and screaming.

Of course, I can never stop the water cooler gossip (does anyone actually talk to people around the water cooler at their office? I don’t!), but I can change how I speak. I can choose to use words that bring positive energy into the universe instead of negative energy. Will I be perfect? I am pretty sure the answer is no. But I do intend to change how I speak. In some ways it is a scary prospect. Our society is built on sarcasm, and the current non-stop political environment only fuels the flames, but we each can take a stand. A stand to be mindful of the words we use.

Are you in?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, The Words We Use, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.