Sunday, July 20, 2014

Finding the Heart

I do not usually like to point out on the blog when it has been so long since I have posted, but right now feels like the right time to do just that. The reason is because it has felt fake to write about health and healing when my body so often feels like it is giving out. It feels disingenuous to write about breathing when I fear taking a deep breath because I do not know if it will send shooting pain down one, or both, legs. And ever since a dear friend took her own life because of chronic pain, this blog just seemed a little ridiculous.

Until now.

Recently I began doing work that focuses almost exclusively on being in the heart. Yoga has always helped me turn inward, but this specific practice focuses exclusively on the heart. 

Physically I see people close off their hearts all the time. We sit at computers with stooped shoulders, tightening our chests and making it impossible to breathe into the heart space. I used to think, therefore, that the easiest way into the heart was to open that space. I used to think that meant backbends and lifting the heart toward the ceiling.

But then I found a quiet practice of turning inward. By no means have I mastered the art of living from the heart space. In fact, I have not even mastered the art of understanding what it is telling me. But I have learned two valuable lessons. First, we can only live from the heart by getting quiet. And second, the heart holds the answers.

As a society we spend so much time rationalizing what we do. We think through problems and ideas and hope that we get the answers through logic. We trust medicine and science as though they hold the answers to everything when in reality they are art forms And when these systems fail, we are told there is nothing to be done. Issues become chronic. They become chronic until they are not . . . and the research on this is in the book Mind Over Medicine, discussed on this blog here.

Closing off the heart is not only physical. It is something we do because we do not live in a society that promotes opening it up. We are told to ignore what it tells us and to listen to logic; we are told to be logical. Yoga is okay as long as we talk about anatomy, but are we really able to go deeper? Maybe for brief moments, but are we able to take the plunge and live there? When we close off the heart, we close off our connection and our chance to move forward. And it takes more than stretching it out and lifting it up. It takes slowing down enough to listen.

I have failed on this blog to speak from the heart at times. There were moments where I tried, but most of them involved living through a natural disaster.  But on the day of the Christchurch earthquake, I saw community. I saw people coming together because they wanted stability. But nowhere did I mention heart on that post. Looking back, that is what I saw that day, but I was not ready to share those words here yet. Almost 3.5 years later, and I finally understand that what happens when we are shaken to our core by disaster is that we become vulnerable. And when we become vulnerable and scared, and before our rational minds kick back into gear, we listen to our hearts. And that is when we connect. There are studies that people do better in natural disasters and even war zones than they do when being neglected. The reason is because people support each other through war zones and natural disasters whereas the very definition of neglect is a lack of support. 

This has always intrigued me intellectually, but it also pains me. I see this neglect every single day. And I remember the trauma from the earthquake, but much more than that, I remember being in my heart that day. There are so many people doing amazing heart work in the world, but it is isolated, and often done in secret, because these are not issues we can discuss in public. The heart is the antithesis of rational, so therefore the heart, we are told, cannot be rational. I think we are wrong. I think the only thing we can trust is the heart. Not our whims, our heart. And that takes true listening. That takes understanding.

From now on, this blog will be written more from the heart. It will be about learning to come inward, learning to find true compassion, and learning to listen to that which can help lead us to a better world. I started this blog because I instinctively knew lawyers needed yoga. I write it as academically and as formal as I can in order to make it sound smart and have lawyers and other professionals take it seriously. Also, that is how I talk (yeah, I’m a nerd).

I always thought it would be too much to write from the heart, to tell stories, and to connect for real. I was scared people would not take heart-centered discussion seriously. But that is all yoga is. In Chinese medicine the center of the body is around the belly because when doing Chinese practices, we stand. But in yoga, the center of the body is in the heart because when we meditate, which is the truest form of yoga, we sit. And when we sit, the heart is our center. 

The question, I guess, is whether people will jump off this bridge with me? It is not going to be easy for me. I can talk about anatomy and stability and even community. But the heart, in all its glory, has always been a little off limits. But if there is anything that makes yoga real and powerful, it is that it helps us drop down and into a place of listening. And when we truly listen, we find our heart. And when we find our heart it guides us somewhere great.

Is anyone willing to join me?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

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

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Summer Rejuvenation

Have you ever been exhausted? I do not mean the after-the-workout exhaustion. I mean the kind that makes it so you wonder how you remain upright each day. We live in a culture that not only expects people to be exhausted, but glorifies it. Some days I feel like it is a race to prove you are more exhausted than the next person. Do you ever feel that way?

I see it around me all the time. People are expected to do everything. We are expected to be on-call 24/7. Did you hear that France recently prohibited checking work email after 6pm? It was not actually true – there was no legislation banning work. Nope, everywhere in the Western world, we are expected to work, work, work. And even being at work is not enough. We have to volunteer, coach our children’s teams, and still post to Pinterest. Basically, we are expected to work until we collapse. And collapse we do.

Dis-ease is running rampant in society. And even the very things that are supposed to be healing, such as yoga, have become a way to get a yoga butt and not to relax and rejuvenate. And then there is the even more interesting phenomenon where we only realize how tired and stressed we are when we give ourselves a break. Have you ever gotten sick your second day of vacation? Do you always get sick your second day of vacation?

Today is the summer solstice. Summer is a time when people tend to break out of their shells and get out into the world. Interestingly, this is less true in Tucson where it is over 100 degrees nearly every day. But the energy of the Earth shifts in summer. Whether it is in June in the Northern Hemisphere or December in the Southern Hemisphere, those around us have a different take on life. Everyone seems to talk about what they are doing over the summer, even those of us who have not had a summer break since we left school.

Summer is, therefore, a chance to rejuvenate. It is when the Earth itself is blossoming, warm, and inviting. It is when we all want to get into water to cool down, but what we do not realize is that water has healing properties all its own. Even the pop culture of summer is one of relaxation and rest – we see people laying on the beach, we talk about summer movies and books (those that do not require much brain power to watch and read), and in the United States, although summer really begins today, the mentality of summer goes from the bar-b-ques of Memorial Day to the bar-b-ques of Labor Day (neither holiday, of course, having anything to do with partying, but we have made them that way).

Even if you do not honor the Solstice as such, how can you honor summer? How can you give yourself time to rest and relax? Here in Tucson, a lot of people complain about summer (with good reason), but the reason is because summer can be unbearable at times. That just means we need to rest and relax even more.

Summer is a strange dichotomy. It is full of light and warmth and yang energy, but that can be unbearable. The summer solstice is the day of the year with the most light. It is the day that reminds us that no matter what is happening in our lives, or in the world, the sun will always rise, and it will shine its strength and power on us. And so, the solstice is the reminder that too much of a good thing can become troublesome. 

So when that light becomes too much, when the yang energy feels like there is no balance of yin, we have to find that balance within ourselves because air conditioning is not the answer. Instead of actually helping us handle the dichotomy of summer, it exhausts us more by confusing our system. It makes us feel cool when we know we should be warm. I am definitely not opposed to air conditioning all the time, but it is not the answer to the summer yang heat.

Instead, summer is the time to read books on the beach just as pop culture makes us believe. It is the time to go on vacation to “get away.” Really, summer is the time when the Earth finally exhausts us so much we have to take notice of the fact and move out into something more bearable. Out own exhaustion from the stressors of our daily lives, coupled with the exhaustion summer provides, creates the perfect storm for forcing us to find a way to rest and rejuvenate.

There are so many ways to do this. For me, I am finding that I simply want to lie still and breathe. I find that when the heat becomes intense, it is important just to breathe with it and allow the body to do what it does best – regulate temperature. We are warm-blooded, after all. Our bodies are designed for this. And when we turn inward in this way, we find ourselves better able to handle the stressors of our lives. We notice when our exhaustion becomes too much. And awareness is the first step. We can notice before we become sick. We can notice just by taking a breath and allowing it to cool us down.

By the Earth pushing us to our limits, we are forced to face the fact that we push ourselves that way as well. Hopefully the summer is a time to learn new tricks and tools so we learn to be a little kinder to ourselves as the Earth moves into a more yin space.

Do you find summer rejuvenating? Do you find summer unbearable? What do you do to rejuvenate?

© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, Summer Rejuvenation, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why Yoga Matters

My life has been a bit of a roller coaster these past several weeks. I went to another AFCC conference and taught yoga there. It was my first time teaching a “regular” asana class in over 1.5 years. It was so fitting to be back there teaching again. As very long-time readers may remember, the AFCC conference in 2010 was the first class I taught after teacher training. It is such a special place for me.

And it reminded me, yet again, what I love about yoga, and why it is so important for professionals. It also reminded me some of the problems with the modern yoga culture. For example, there were several people in the class who thought they had to look a certain way to be in the “right” asana. Although I tried to say over and over again how important it is to do each pose with integrity for your own body, so many people just looked uncomfortable in what they were doing. And often, the adjustments fell on deaf ears. That was partly because I was out of practice, but I think it sadly said far more about our culture than my out of practiceness (though there is no doubt that was part of it).

What I see so often both in and outside of yoga classes are people who are completely disconnected from their bodies. I see this in how people sit, stand, and move. I see it in how people talk about breathing. I see it even in how people talk about pain. They push and push and push, take something to intercept the pain, and then they push some more. Then finally the pain or dis-ease is so intense they cannot take anything more. We are asked to ignore the pain and push through it, or there will be no gain. And if there is any sort of pain, for a long time before doing anything serious about it, we are told to just take a pill. We are told to just numb the pain, not heal it.

But yoga can bring us out of that place of numbing before the pain, whatever it is, hits us so hard. Yoga brings us into our bodies. It brings us into our emotions. It brings us into our souls. I was at a yoga class this morning, and at least three lawyers were there. I remember when I started this blog I had no idea how many lawyers actually do practice yoga. But what amazed me even more is that it was a Mindfulness Yoga class.

What I have noticed is that most of the lawyers I know who practice yoga practice styles like Bikram, Ashtanga, and the more intense varieties of asana-focused practice. Some are moving into a more meditative practice, but the truth is that is what so many of us need. We need to slow down. We need to learn to listen to our bodies and what they are telling us.

This need to constantly push ourselves and feel that we need to look a certain way is destroying so many people. We are asked to push and not listen and then to numb away whatever ails us. This is certainly not the only thing happening in the world, but I see it so often I wonder what the antidote can possibly be. I worry that yoga has become as much of the problem as the solution. Today in class, the teacher said he recently read a study where 70% of yoga injuries come from forward folds. This number would have shocked me before, but now that I know more about the body, more about the way people push, and more about the stress the modern world puts on the low back, this number actually now seems low to me.

And yet, as I look to other ways to find solace and peace, I always come back to yoga. I love yoga. It saved me once, and deep down I know it is the answer to my own and so many other peoples’ pain. But that means that we actually have to do yoga as it was intended to be done. The modern asana practice is nothing more than gymnastics. But yoga is an ancient system that heals on every level – physical, emotional, and spiritual. And for that reason, yoga matters. It matters that we learn from its teachings. As I look around and see how depleted society is, how tired everyone I know is, how pained they are (physically or otherwise), I know that yoga may be a path out of their misery.

These thoughts have been percolating for quite some time. As my own practice has ebbed and flowed, I feel this need right now to come back to it with full energy. But the irony, of course, is that full energy means less energy. It means slowing down and tuning in. It means finding the yoga that brought me here originally. And I want to offer that to others. I am finally going to have a regular class – two Sundays per month I will be teaching a Calming and Connecting yoga class. It will not be any specific type of class, but it will focus on breathing, meditation, restorative yoga, and mindful asana practice.

There is no doubt that yoga can heal us from so much. It still matters even when sometimes it feels it has been stolen by the fitness community. That can never diminish that yoga is something far older and something far more powerful. I am curious to know – how has yoga changed you? What has it brought to your life?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, Why Yoga Matters, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Subtlest Movements

I finally attended my first Feldenkrais class last week. For those who do not know, Feldenkrais is a body movement / awareness technique. Really, it is more of an awareness technique. In many ways, the Feldenkrais method is the antithesis to modern culture, and that is its beauty.

We live in a world where bigger is better. Exercise fanatics say, “no pain, no gain.” Feldenkrais is the opposite – how small can the movement get where you still feel a change? Can you simply imagine a movement and notice?

The answer is yes. And therein lies the power.

The human body is incredible. It holds answers to so many of our ailments and protects us from ourselves. We hold our emotions, fears, and excitements in our body. From it, we derive pleasure and pain and everything in between. Our bodies are our greatest tool for understanding. It is through our senses that we understand the outside world, but we have an additional way of understanding called proprioception.  Proprioception is our understanding of how our body fits together and moves relative to itself.

Proprioception is about understanding ourselves so well we can relate better to others. It is the minutest form of understanding, but when we can understand on that deep of a level, the macro understandings become easier. It is similar to how meditation works – if we can slow down the mind enough, we can understand it better, and then the mind becomes an ally instead of an enemy. But as I explore more and more, I am beginning to understand how important the body is to that process. It is, I think, why yoga became such an important part of my life. It became the way I could meditate most easily. But now, with my body not cooperating, I have had to find ways other than through an asana practice . . . and my understanding has grown exponentially.

More and more, doctors of western medicine are realizing how connected the body and mind are. They tell us that stress can cause ailments like ulcers. I believe it will be a long time before the run-of-the-mill MD writes the word disease as dis-ease, but the tide is turning. My yoga/proprioception exploration has shown me a deeper level. The body and mind are not connected – they are the same thing. There is no separateness between them that needs to be connected.

I have known this for years, but I have never been able to articulate it or to fully understand it. I have read countless books about it, but somehow the Knowing did not come until recently. It was not until I opened my mouth and said it one day that I realized how deeply this went.

And it was then that I also realized how deeply this affects our lives. My experience of body therapies has always been my access point to experience the mind and spirit. The concept of proprioception was, in some ways, another way of accessing qi or prana, the life forces of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Yoga. I have come to understand how important it is for us to move slower in life and as we make change to make it in simple and quiet ways. As we notice the body, we notice the world.

We live in a world where Cross Fit and Bikram Yoga dominate our mentality. There is nothing inherently wrong with either, but the more I come to understand, the more I see how important it is to come at change from a different angle, a simpler angle. This is, perhaps, especially important when dealing with the spirit and emotions. Society tells us it is inappropriate to share our emotions with one another, to express true anger and sadness. Even true happiness is considered out of place in expression. So instead of expressing our emotions, we suppress them. We hide them deep within ourselves, and they try to appear, but we hide them more.

This can lead to a variety of types of dis-ease, and sometimes accessing our true emotional and spiritual state helps bring us back to a place of ease. But it is like taking the cork out of a champagne bottle. We can do it quickly and explode the cork across the room, potentially taking out someone’s eye with it. Or we can be calm and slow about it and open the cork in such a way that we can access the goodness inside calmly and safely.

The first step here is just to notice. Notice how moving your head from side to side moves other parts of your body. Notice how you can feel simply by imagining movements. Notice, notice, and then notice some more. The irony, of course, is that the smaller the movement, the greater the shift. It takes incredible conscious awareness to notice the smallest movements, and that consciousness is what shifts. When we get away from momentum and move toward true awareness, the world comes into focus. That does, of course, require slowing down.

Are you willing to give it a try?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, The Subtlest Movements, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

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?

Namaste!

© 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.

Namaste!

©Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved

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