Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Finding Nourishment

There are certain words and ideas that show up in my life at various times. Recently, the word has been nourishment. It is a word I had barely heard prior to my yoga days. Of course, I knew certain things could be nourishing, but I did not really understand what that meant. Sometimes, I am still not sure I do. But I certainly have a better idea than I used to.

Nourishment is the deepest way of caring for ourselves. It is how we refill our yoga bucket. Nourishment is not about the craving of the day; instead it is about loving ourselves and others in a way that supports healing and growth. It is the feeling of comfort food that does not just fill our stomachs but also warms and fills our souls.

The desert, in all its beauty, can be very depleting. It is dry all the time, even when the monsoons come, there is a sense that the water is wasted because it cannot be absorbed as it needs to be. With record rain recently, Tucson and Phoenix simply flooded. Summer in the desert is very harsh. It is a time when we need to nourish ourselves more. But even in the winter, when we feel so good because it is cooler, the desert is still the desert, and the air and land can be very depleting.

On top of the Earth being depleting, our modern culture can be very depleting. One of the most common ways we nourish ourselves is with food, but we live in a world where food has lost its nourishing qualities. Instead of sitting down to eat and savor what is in front of us, we stare at screens, eat in our cars or desks, or eat food that would not be recognizable as food to our ancestors. When was the last time you sat and savored what you were eating?

This world in which we live calls us to find new ways to nourish ourselves. It calls us to slow down enough to understand what we need to find nourishment and how we can go about getting it. Discovering this takes stillness. It means being quiet long enough to listen. Imagine a newborn baby who is crying. We first try holding him, then rocking him, then feeding him, then changing him until something eventually works to calm him down. But we all know that if we get overwhelmed and nervous before the baby calms, then we halt the chances the baby will stop crying. While we are looking for the answer, we have to remain calm and collected. That is not easy when a baby is screaming, you want to stop it, and you have no idea what to do.

At our most basic level, we are still those newborn babies. We have to give ourselves the same calm and collected attention. We have to genuinely want to help nourish ourselves in order to find exactly what will be most nourishing. Interestingly, I first started writing this post a month ago, but I could not find the words to finish it. My life has not been very full of nourishing qualities recently.

The last post on this blog was The Ahimsa Challenge in which I challenged myself and others to really look at nonviolence in our lives and how to attain and obtain it. So, in this post, I want to ask you what you do to nourish yourself. It is no secret that one of my favorite forms of nourishment is hugging trees. But there are so many others. More and more research is coming out about the importance of being with friends and having loved ones in our lives. I have recently had a doctor twice tell me that hug therapy would help my back pain. And we all can find a way to eat food that fulfills our hunger needs more than our emotional needs.

Nourishment is about finding what it is we really need. It requires listening and then doing what is not “normal” in societal terms. Nourishment means listening to our bodies and our hearts in ways we did not grow up learning was possible. Nourishment is really about finding safety. It is when we feel the most nourished that we feel the most safe. We go back to being that crying baby when we feel under nourished, but we become just like a swaddled baby once we find our nourishment.

What do you do for nourishment? What one item can you add to your routine to help you feel more nourished?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, Finding Nourishment, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Ahimsa Challenge

Years ago on this blog, I wrote about the yamas and niyamas. They are the first and second limbs of yoga, or the complete yoga path. My first post on ahimsa, the yama of nonviolence, focused on how we can be nonviolent with ourselves. The second post on ahimsa focused on the overabundance of violence in our world (and it has only gotten worse in the past two years).  But I find myself coming back to this topic. I find myself struggling with ahimsa on a daily basis, both internally and externally.

Certainly, the legal profession does not put Ahimsa as its pinnacle. Unlike doctors, whose oath states, “do no harm,” lawyers are asked to litigate. Sometimes it feels as though the lawyer’s job is to make the other party look bad. Certainly that is not the actual job, but unfortunately, some lawyers take on their clients and stories so intensely, that this is what ends up happening.

I see the opposite of ahimsa, however, in other places in life as well. There is little that bothers me more than speaking badly about people behind their backs. I am not going to try to say I have never done it. I probably do it on a daily basis. Somehow this has bothered me from long before my yoga practice, but it has been yoga that has taught me why it is so damaging to myself and the universe.

The energy we put into the world is the energy we receive. When we put out negative energy statements about others, we are only harming ourselves. We are harming the people who hear them. It creates a violent atmosphere. The violence is not with guns and rockets, but it is violence nonetheless. I look at so much of the larger violence happening in the world today (Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq), and I try to make sense of it. I try to understand how humans can be so awful to other humans.

And then I realize, war happens when we do not understand one another. I have been incredibly blessed to have traveled in many parts of the world. I have lived in two foreign countries, one of which I did not speak the language fluently (France), and one of which arguably does not speak the same language as me (New Zealand – I still sometimes don’t understand Kiwis). But all my traveling has made me believe one simple truth:

If everyone in the world lived in a country where they do not speak the language natively for six months, war might disappear. There is nothing more humbling than having to trust the people around you with them knowing you are not from there. I have been welcomed into peoples’ homes, provided directions, showed amazing places, and treated wonderfully everywhere I have been. And yes, I was an American living in France when the United States went to war against Irag in 2002.

There are other ways to reach this without actually living in a foreign country (though I highly recommend it). I think the first way is to do our best not to belittle others. It sounds cliché, but clichés exist for a reason – they are often correct. I will not say it is easy, but I do know it is possible. I work in a field where it is easy to be judgmental. Children’s lives are at stake every single day. People make decisions with which I do not agree every single day. I make decisions with which other people do not agree every single day.

None of that means, however, that we have to be cruel to one another. The idea that sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me is not actually accurate. Not only can words harm, they bring a lack of understanding for others, which can lead to physical violence in the future. In the world of domestic violence, we do not differentiate between emotional and physical abuse. I have actually heard victims say the emotional abuse was worse than the physical abuse. This is not something I understand personally, but the sentiment is not lost on me. Thus, our words are just as violent as our weapons even if they result in fewer immediate deaths. Words also have the power to bring positive change. What if instead of belittling others we attempted to understand them? What if we took the time to stop and think about the words we speak?

To be clear, venting is different than what I am talking about. We can vent and be frustrated, even angry, about situations and what happened, but we do not need to belittle people in the process. We do not need to, for lack of a more mature way of saying it, call people names. When I was a camp counselor, we were adamant that the children in our care were not bad even if at times their actions were bad. When we disciplined, we were sure to make that distinction. That distinction matters. It matters to the person making the distinction, the person about whom the distinction is made, and to the energy of the universe.

I have come to realize there is little I can do in my current circumstances to stop the Israeli-Hamas war or to stop the riots in Ferguson short of offering prayer/light/healing/etc. But there is a lot I can do to change my own way of bringing violence into the world in the form of words. This takes a lot of strength, and sometimes, frankly, it is strength I do not think I have. It is easier to follow the crowd and poke fun at the target who is not there. But I started practicing yoga to find a new way of living, and this is a very important step. It is taught that ahimsa is the very first step on the 8-limbed yoga path because it is the foundation. How can we proceed along a path when we constantly bring negative energy into our lives and the world?

As a positive affirmation, nonviolence means compassion. It means understanding, or at least attempting to understand. That means stopping and thinking – an act that is often lost on us in the digital age. But I am challenging myself, and those who wish to join me, to go one day without speaking unkindly about someone. Our words matter.  How can we use them to be compassionate instead of violent? And after that one day, try one day more. Start small and see how the changes affect you. 

There are so many ways to bring ahimsa into our lives, but this is one small step that can make a huge difference.

Are you willing to take this ahimsa challenge?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, The Ahimsa Challenge, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

Monday, August 11, 2014

“We Are All Damaged Goods”

My uncle, who also has his own blog, made this statement once: “We’re all damaged goods.” It just sort of came to him. And right he was.

I work with the people we traditionally think of as damaged – abused and neglected children. And they are very often damaged. But interestingly I wanted to be a lawyer because I saw harmed children in another context. I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in northern California, and I worked in a city even wealthier than the one in which I grew up. I was a camp counselor and worked in an after school program as well.

There were very few times I suspected “traditional” child abuse was occurring in these families, and the times I did suspect it, those suspicions tore me apart. I still wonder, more than ten years later, whether I made the right calls in certain situations. But traditional physical abuse is actually not as common as people think when people think of child abuse. Although I see it more now than even 2.5 years ago when I started my current job, the real issue remains neglect.

When neglect gets really bad, children do not develop properly. Children often have speech delays, and research tells us their brains actually develop less fully. There are physical symptoms of physical neglect. I do not want to minimize physical abuse or physical neglect. They are awful and horrible. I wish there were more media coverage of just how bad these issues affect the children in our communities. But here I want to talk about something else.

What I saw all too often where I worked was children dropped off at 7am and picked up at 6pm. I expect children would have been dropped off earlier and picked up later, but those were the hours we were open. I saw, and had to administer, a growing amount of medication over the course of the 4 years I worked there as families decided it was too difficult to deal with children who acted like children. As cars got bigger parents and children were more and more separated. Sure, these children could read well, and their speech was perfect, but something major was missing.

I started this post about a week ago, but I guess the universe had other plans for me. Today Robin Williams took his own life. He blessed this world with such humor, grace, and true talent, and yet he was depressed. There is nothing wrong with being depressed, but society asks us to hide it, to put on a happy face. Instead of getting help, Robin Williams became Mork and Mrs. Doubtfire and my personal favorite – O Captain My Captain, the great Mr. Keating. Interestingly, I watched that movie this past week, and it touched me as much now as it did nearly 15 years ago when I first saw it.

But the truth is that all of us have experienced some sense of loss in our lives. No one had a perfect childhood, and our pain is what helps us grow. These are clichés, but they also miss part of the point. The damage is real. The damage is scary. And we are all looking for how to heal that damage. I have written often about community on this blog. For awhile it became one of my favorite themes. Although I did not know it at the time, research tells us that having people, even one person, helps us recover from trauma.

What I see is that we are unable to respond to trauma and damage the way our bodies were intended to respond. Instead of allowing ourselves to cry, we hide our tears for fear of looking weak. Instead of allowing our muscles to shake, we hold ourselves stiff until our bodies give out. Instead of reaching out for support, we put on a happy face and act our ways through life.

But we are all damaged at some level. This is not a nihilistic approach. It is a heartfelt approach to life.  And we all need each other. Yet we do the very things that make it so much harder to recover. For me, yoga was my way out. Some might say I have become too sensitive since starting yoga. The truth, however, is just that now I know the importance of touching base with others and reaching out.

Yoga has been that path for me. It has allowed me to notice when something is not right and to feel the damage. That does not mean it needs to linger. Sometimes that allows it to go away faster. But my uncle’s realization is huge and important. When we finally realize we are all damaged goods, we no longer have to hide our own damage. What kind of amazing world would it be if we showed our true selves and helped each other out instead of hiding behind our different masks all the time?

It is this recognition that we are all damaged that helps us learn compassion. And compassion helps us actually feel more loved. It is, therefore, our damage that allows us to heal, but first we have to recognize there is damage. And that comes in so many forms. This is not to say we are all horribly damaged, only to recognize that when we notice we are damaged, it is actually incredibly freeing, and we can then learn to reach out to one another, and ourselves, with love in our hearts rather than expecting everyone to be strong all the time. 

Are you able to share your heart with others? Are you able to see their damage, and yours, without judgment? 


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights resered.
The post, We Are All Damaged Goods, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal. 

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?


© 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.