Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What it Means to Relax Part 2

Yesterday, we discussed why to relax and the healing power that comes with relaxation, but sometimes I think few of us know how to actually relax, so this post is dedicated to that specifically.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of techniques for relaxation. There are even apps for it. Some of the most popular are: meditation, walking in nature, restorative yoga, yoga nidra, yin yoga, somatic awareness, knitting, exercising, cooking, and vacations. There are even programs designed to change our brain waves to help us relax, including Holothink and Holosync. I could probably go on, but you get the idea. There are ways we have come up with to help us relax.

But how many of us are actually able to relax in these settings? How do you know if you have fully relaxed? Is that even possible in this modern world?

First, there are several reasons it is so incredibly difficult to actually relax. One of the main reasons is the one we all know – the world is moving incredibly fast, and we are inundated with information. We are expected to keep up with everyone all the time. That is a huge problem, but it is only a piece of the problem. The other might be genetic. I’m no scientist, and definitely no geneticist, but there is some new information coming out about epigenetics that helps explain our inability to calm.

Yogis and other mystics (and yes, the New Age folks) have always known that our ancestral lines play a huge part in our lives today. Shamanism has ways to clear and work with our ancestral lineage. Science is finally catching up and explaining how this happens through epigenetics. If you are really interested, here is a link to the Wikipedia article about epigenetics.  Basically, the idea is that our genes activate in different ways based upon what worked for our ancestors. It makes sense. If your ancestors lived in a place where there were lions everywhere, we had to become acutely aware of threats early in life, or we would die. Of course, what this means today is that we have generations upon generations of suffering, depression, fear, anxiety, etc. expressing itself in our genes, and on top of everything else we live in the most overwhelming cultural environment I can imagine.

Are you relaxed yet?

So, in some ways our bodies have become hard wired to not relaxing. This is a perfect week to point this out with Passover and Easter. Passover is about celebrating overcoming hardship . . . but the hardship came first. Easter is about rebirth . . . but the horrific death came first.  And that death and hardship live on in our cells and our gene expression. So, while yoga nidra is lovely, and yes it’s one of my favorite relaxation techniques, it has to overcome a lot of conditioning.

 As I mentioned before, I have been working a lot on somatic awareness. The goal is to begin to pay attention to the signals our bodies send to us. I have been doing this on some level for over a decade. It really has been my entire time practicing yoga. But these days, I am looking at it differently and really trying to understand it differently. I am also finally starting to notice where I hold tension. Everywhere would be an understatement, but it is useful to know.

What I have found over the past few months is just how intensely difficult it is to really, truly, let go and relax. I may be able to relax one part of my body, but then the rest of it tenses up. I have begun to notice what parts of my body tense when I go to move, and they are not the parts of my body needed to move in that moment. One of the relaxation techniques I left off above is biofeedback. The entire goal is to notice where you are tense, so you know to relax there.

Noticing is the first step. We simply cannot relax until we know where we are tense. Meditation helps us do the exact same thing with the mind. It helps us notice where our mind is tense or racing or confused or whatever, and then just let it go. While the body and mind are simply one entity, for some people it is easier to learn to relax the mind first, and for others it is easier to learn to relax the body.

But at the end of the day, relaxation is more difficult for us than it was 1,000 years ago. The techniques have not changed, but we have to learn to use them more effectively.

True relaxation begins with noticing where our tension patterns lie. As you read this, take a moment and stop. Scan your body. Where is there tension? Where is there no tension? For some of us, the only place without tension is the ear lobe. That is okay. I am starting to believe that is more normal than we would like to admit. Then begin to tell the body it is safe to let go. It is safe to relax the shoulders. It is safe to relax the thigh muscles when you are sitting and lying down. It is safe to relax the core muscles. We have ways to hold ourselves up without tension.

As we begin to allow ourselves to relax, relaxation can come. It may not come immediately, but it can begin to sneak in. It can begin to enter our being and our cells. Relaxation can happen when we notice what is stopping it and consciously let that go. But for that we have to stop. We have to notice. We have to take the time and turn inward. It is, at times, very difficult, but the rewards are endless. Eventually, we will begin to notice the tension and let it go even when we are stressed out at the grocery store or in traffic. When we learn to relax, we can live in this world with more ease and comfort. We can begin to heal, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Relaxation is key to everything. It is so, so simple and yet incredibly difficult.

How do you notice if relaxation is working? What techniques work better for you? Do you notice places you find it impossible to relax? What could you do to relax in those spots?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.
The post, What it Means to Relax Part 2, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What it Means to Relax Part 1

The internet and blogs and books are full of information about the fight, flight, or freeze response and the sympathetic nervous system. My favorite personal writing about it was in response to getting chased by a sea lion in New Zealand. It was a perfect example of the fight, flight, or freeze response done right . . . and for the reason we have the response in the first place. I was being chased by a wild animal, and I had to get away. I got away. What happens, though, when that threat is gone? Can our body go back to its resting state?

The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that activates when we are in fight, flight, or freeze. The parasympathetic nervous system is what allows us to relax and heal. It is the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system. It is what allows our body to go into its healing place. As I have mentioned before, the body is capable of healing itself, but in order to do that, it must be in a state of rest.

Chronic stress (of all varieties) has a tendency to keep our bodies in a constant state of the fight, flight, or freeze response without an opportunity to get into the parasympathetic “rest and digest” and heal mode. This, of course, can wreck havoc on our health. And look around at the world and notice how many people deal with chronic dis-ease. Many of us are not living in our parasympathetic state most of the time.

But what does it mean to truly rest? How many of us are able to get into that space? How many of us know what it really feels like to allow the body to release its tension patterns?

Most of us get so used to our tension patterns we do not even realize when we are holding them. Yoga is one of the ways we learn how to go into our bodies and learn to listen to them and find our patterns. The patterns in our body are similar to our mental patterns, called samskaras. Undoing a samskara is not an easy task. It requires knowing it and wanting it to change. But then it also requires unwinding the pattern itself, a task that can seem daunting when we have lived with the samskara longer than we have not. Imagine taking a hike and ask yourself which is easier – the pre-made path or the path never before taken? Imagine cutting down a path to hike, and that is what it takes to release a long-held samskara.

Releasing a tension pattern in the body is no different. We have to first feel the tension patterns and then be willing to release them. But then we have to understand what it takes to relax. We have to trust that when we release the tension, something else will continue to hold our body up.

Tension patterns exist for a reason. Some are there because of how we sit at a desk or in a car. Some are there, however, as a response to the traumas we have faced in our lives. Trauma can come in many forms – childhood abuse, relationship abuse, earthquakes, floods, and even vicarious trauma. When we experience trauma, we tense up to protect ourselves and never let go for fear of not having the strength to stay upright. But those patterns then begin to cause their own problems. Long after they have stopped protecting us from a trauma, they wreck havoc on our bodies and make it difficult to allow the body to relax.

And then we have a three-fold problem. The mental samskaras are the thoughts we hold as a result of our childhood and events in our lives, and they hold the body in tension. Together, they inhibit our parasympathetic nervous system from activating, and we end up with a downward spiral of tension and mental patterns that becomes more and more difficult to overcome, and at the end of the day it is our health (mental, physical, and spiritual) that suffers. Our ability to heal is diminished until we learn to bypass these tension patterns.

I want to be clear. We never lose the ability to heal. We inhibit our body’s access to its healing capabilities. And it is because we are literally stuck in a rut and trying to pull ourselves out. But this can be overcome, and deep within us we never lose the ability to heal ourselves. The parasympathetic nervous system is always there, and it is always able to function if we give it the time and quiet to do it.

But instead we hold our tension patterns. We live in a world with nearly constant overwhelm. There are more forms of pollution today than ever before. We have chemical pollutions, of course, but we also have noise, news, and phone pollution. We have stress of constantly being connected, and we have the stress of trying to keep up as the world moves faster and faster and faster.

But amidst it all, relaxation is still possible. We can find a way to release the tension in the body and allow our body to enter its natural healing state. But we have to be willing to surrender. We have to be willing to trust that when we let go, the body, and therefore ourselves, will be safe. We hear so often how the body and the mind are connected. I do not actually subscribe to that mentality. In my worldview, they are simply the same thing. The more I read in scientific, not new age, literature, the more true that statement is.

So tension is tension, whether mental or physical. They are one and the same. Our brains run our bodies, and together they create health or dis-ease. So, today I ask you to notice your mental patterns. Notice your physical tension patterns. Where are they? What do they mean? And then ask yourself the all-important question. In this world of constant overwhelm, are you willing to release these patterns to find calm and health? Part 2 will have some ideas for learning these techniques.


©Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved

The post, What it Means to Relax Part 1, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Compassion in the Law

I have been reading a lot of Lissa Rankin’s writing recently. You may remember me discussing her before. She is the one who wrote Mind Over Medicine, the book I wrote about back in June (has it really been that long?).

Her most recent writing to inspire me is a blog post called, “A Call for Greater Compassion.” Read it. You will thank me. Her main point is that we all have our faults, we all have our sins, and that is what makes us able to share our compassion with each other. She even asks, “Who are we to judge?” And she ends with a challenge:

Think of one person you’re judging today, one person who isn’t living up to your standards, one person who is disappointing you or doing something you don’t like. Would it be possible for you to tune into the part of that person that is hurting? Can you see that part as a little child who just needs love? Can you open your heart to that little child and reach out to that person with that kind of love?

It is not an easy challenge, for sure. We live in a world where we are taught to judge, even if we are not lawyers. At some level it is biological – we need to be able to tell safety from danger if we are going to survive as a species. But the judgment she discusses, and I think is the bigger issue, is the judgment we place on our fellow human beings for being human, for struggling with life, for making mistakes.

I notice this most in myself when I’m driving. When people do things I am not expecting on the road, I get really riled up. If they slow down to turn without a signal, cut me off, or anything really that does not fit with my ideal of how they should be driving in that moment, I freak out. Guess what? I do all of those things as well. Probably more than I would like to admit, in fact.

This sort of judgment does not serve us at all. But even that judgment can leave us quickly. It is judgment almost more at a situation than at an individual person. After all, we rarely know who cuts us off in traffic, and short of breaking into serious road rage, none of us then go discover their identity. But what about when we judge our friends for their choice in partner, or we judge our parents for how they eat, or we judge our neighbors for struggling with drug addiction, or we judge our soldiers for their mental health issues? What happens to these people when we judge instead of offer compassion? The best-case scenario is we lose someone close to us. The worst-case scenario is that we end up with something similar to the shooting this week at Ft. Hood.

And yet, lawyers are asked to judge all day, every day. It is, literally, in the job description (whether or not you are actually a judge). And think of the people the law judges – rapists, murderers, child molesters and abusers, and thieves. But as odd as it sounds in modern America, these are the people who need our compassion the most. And so do their victims. In parts of the world, the rape victim is the one put to death while the rapist walks free. I think I can say this pretty freely – that does not fit within this picture of compassion either. But I think I have more people on my side for that one. What about the perpetrators of these horrific crimes? Can we find compassion for them while still finding a way to keep other members of society safe from their actions?

When I was a camp counselor, we were taught two things that have stayed with me for the past 17 years: 1) we do not punish, only discipline, and 2) the child is not bad, only their actions are a problem. While my camp did not use the word compassion, we did talk about respect and caring. I have carried these ideas with me, and I try every day to separate the person from the person’s actions. After all, I work with the children who usually love their parents regardless of what they did to them.

But there are days when it is really difficult. There are days the lies become too much, the pain the children face becomes too much, and it is just easier to judge. After all, that is our learned response from a young age. But my yogi heart knows differently. My yogi heart says to ask the questions Dr. Rankin suggests. One day in particular I vividly remember offering compassion to someone who was screaming at me. It was not the first time he did it. The next day he wrote me an email apologizing for his actions. My compassion toward him was silent, but it worked. Never before had he written such an email.

There is no question the legal system is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of compassion than where we were even 20 years ago. We talk about rehabilitative courts, and we utilize alternative dispute resolution where available. We offer people services to help them on their way. But we still have so far to go. The big step, the really difficult step, is changing the attitudes of those of us who work there. The big step is changing the attitudes of society from judgment to compassion.

So, my fellow lawyers, can we find compassion in the law? Can we bring a lens of compassion to our work and still protect society from actions that harm? I had a conversation today with someone whose initial response to my discussion of being a lawyer was saying that the law teaches us not to be compassionate. I disagree. I believe we can do both, and I know so many people who do so on a daily basis. But can we do it all the time? Can we take judgment out of the picture? Can we come to the law with compassion for the people who sit across from us? Are you willing to take Dr. Rankin's challenge?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, Compassion in the Law, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.