Love Interval Training? Why Not Try It with Your Meditation Practice.

I previously wrote about how much I love Power Zone training and shared the lessons it taught me that could easily apply to life and meditation practice. Interval training, such as Power Zone, is an effective way to train the body and build physical fitness because it taps into the benefits of both high intensity efforts and periods of rest. When it comes to meditation, intervals may not be the first thing we think about because we may view the entire practice of meditation as a rest period. But, for new meditators especially, meditation can be challenging since most of us aren’t accustomed to relaxing and because it may put feelings and thoughts that we’d rather avoid front and center. Thus, while meditation is a practice that can ultimately help you deal with stress in life more skillfully, the truth is that it takes effort and discipline.

For this reason, it might actually help you to think about incorporating some rest periods into your meditation practice. I first learned about this idea years ago on a meditation retreat I attended. During one of the afternoon sessions (which are the the toughest for me because that’s when sleepiness sets it), the teacher reminded us to rethink our approach to meditation. He explained that, while we often designate a time period to meditate due to our busy schedules, we can play with the structure of our practice. In particular, he had us try a period of 4 minutes of meditation with alternating 1-minute stretch/movement breaks.

When I heard this, I instantly thought of all the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) cardio classes I’d done. With this style of exercise, you do short bursts of high impact exercise followed by lower impact, active recovery periods. Of course, what the teacher at the retreat was proposing was actually “LIIT” or “low-intensity interval training.” I soon discovered that it was, indeed, quite LIIT. After several long periods of meditation that day, it was a breath of fresh air just to try a new way.

Why does this matter? It matters because, as with fitness, meditation practice is destined to run into roadblocks if you do it long enough. You may have injuries or illnesses. You may have mental resistance. You may just not feel like it. You may still be developing the skills needed to support a practice. Sometimes it helps to keep going if you free yourself of the mental constructs you’ve created as to the “way” you are “supposed” to do it. As one example, I usually try to get 30 minutes of meditation a day. When I ran into a bad patch a while back where I just didn’t feel like it, I committed to 5 minutes a day. I often ended up sitting for longer because, by the end of the 5 minutes, my resistance had passed. More significantly, though, I still have a practice today.

On the other hand, I have also had times where I needed more than my normal 30 minutes a day to work through particular stresses in my life. The problem, though, as I have learned with years of practice is that I tend to have diminishing returns when I practice for longer than 30 minutes. My feet fall asleep, my knees and back hurt, and I tend to be so low on energy that I am almost asleep. In those times, I have instead broken up my long sit into two shorter sessions of 20 minutes with a few minutes to stretch in between. The results were much better and more helpful for me than trying to power through just 1 session of 45 minutes.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? The point isn’t to have an ideal practice. It isn’t to have a practice that competes with anyone else’s. The point is to have a practice that serves your life. So, while discipline is certainly part of any good practice, don’t put your practice in a box. If there is one thing my practice has given me, it is an awareness of the dangers of all or nothing thinking. Sure, 4 minutes of meditation may not be as “good” as 5 minutes, but it is way better than 0. More significantly, recognizing that 4 minutes might serve me better than 5 minutes on a given day is practicing self-compassion and self-awareness which, as a lawyer, I constantly need to practice.

So, if you are struggling to find the time to meditate or have a hard time sitting still for very long, perhaps you should consider adjusting the way you are doing it. Think about where you are in your life and, with kindness and generosity towards yourself, try a new way. That’s what the meditation teacher was saying when he told us to try intervals: don’t let your mind get in the way of your meditation practice. To do this, you have to factor in your body and heart along the way. Low intensity interval training for meditation is just one way that you could balance your practice to help your mind, while acknowledging the whims and needs of your body and heart.

Book Review: Zen Golf by Dr. Joseph Parent

I am not really a golfer, but I owe a lot to the game. Despite being a lawyer, I have only played at the occasional outing during my practice and even then have not been serious about it. In high school, however, I took up the game because my basketball teammate was an excellent player and needed another girl to round out my school’s newly formed team. Knowing right off the bat that I would have no obligation to be any good, it seemed like a low-pressure compliment to the physically demanding and lengthy basketball season, so I gave it a shot.

While playing golf was certainly a change of pace, I quickly found that “low-pressure” was not the word to describe it. Yes, I got to hang out on a beautiful golf course in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky and chat with my teammates and competitors rather than run suicides or fight them for position on the court. Though my surroundings and relationships with competitors were comparatively more peaceful with golf, I soon learned that my relationship with myself was far more difficult. Suddenly, I had to learn to coach myself to focus acutely, deal with setbacks, and use my judgment to try to make the best of hard circumstances. After 3 years of high school golf, I never became a great player, though my team generally used my score and won some matches, but the game helped me start the process of becoming a decent adult.

So, when a lawyer who had seen one of my mindfulness seminars reached out to me this year and suggested I read Zen Golf, it was almost like a blast from the past. I have no ambitions for rejuvenating my own golf game, but having played, I knew immediately how mindfulness might help anyone who wanted to do so. Zen Golf is written by Dr. Joseph Parent, a sports psychologist who has worked with some of the world’s best golfers and a long-time meditator. In the book, he offers some basic instruction in mindfulness practice and describes strategies that he uses to help golfers struggling with various aspects of the mental game of golf.

The book is now 20 years old, so some of the references to golfers may seem a little bit dated. In the same way, knowledge and awareness of mindfulness meditation has skyrocketed since that time, so some of Parent’s sayings and references such as “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” may sound a bit hackneyed. Overall, though, Parent’s analysis of the many ways that the mind can block even the best golfer’s success and his recommendations for a path out are ones that I don’t think can get old.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Zen Golf was when he describes the concept of “unconditional confidence.” While at first this sounded like business-book drivel and made me skeptically wonder how one could expect to be confident all of the time, I quickly realized that Parent wasn’t talking about cocky bluster or promising 100% good results. Instead, Parent was explaining the Buddhist concepts of essential goodness and self-compassion. According to Parent, unconditional confidence didn’t come from results, but instead from a player’s acceptance of their own intrinsic goodness and choice, time and time again, to treat themselves with kindness regardless of the circumstances.

This concept came through best when Parent talked about his approach to teaching putting, which for many players can be the most maddening and heart-wrenching aspect of golf. Parent explained that golfers, much like Happy Gilmore, usually define success with a putt as getting the ball in the hole.  But Parent suggests a different approach that defines success with the process rather than the result. He says that a golfer has “made” a putt when they have a clean, steady stroke, use the appropriate force, keep their head down, and select and execute the right strategy. For golfers who play regularly, this makes sense because it emphasizes and rewards the process of putting, which is within the player’s control, and lets the player off the hook for result, which (despite our frequently recurring delusions) is not.

Clearly, this utility of this advice may extend well beyond the golf course. As a lawyer, it is often tempting to judge ourselves based on the results we get in our cases. Despite our best efforts and even when the law seems to favor us, we just cannot entirely control the results we get. Thus, as Parent suggests, it may make a lot more sense and be a whole lot kinder to ourselves if we judge success based on the things we can control: doing our best, putting client’s interests first, complying with ethical rules, and advising, assessing risk, and counseling along the way.

In short, Zen Golf is a good read for golfers or anyone who wants to understand the practical benefits of mindfulness. The book explains in easy-to-understand language how the mind-body connection works and the many ways mental states and assumptions can ensnare us and impede performance. It also offers many lessons for not just playing the game of golf better, but also enjoying it more and treating yourself better as you play. In this way, even if Zen Golf doesn’t make you a better golfer, it offers strategies and advice that may make you better at dealing with life.

Brilliant Attorney Profile: Hale Stewart Insurance Lawyer and Moving Meditator

One of the most common complaints I hear from new meditators is that they “can’t sit still.” My common refrain is that “you don’t have to sit still; you don’t even have to sit!” I’ve written about this before, but I am not sure I am the best emissary of this message. Stillness has never been the problem with my practice. Instead, I’ve craved it and relished every bit of silence I could get because my problems were excessive thoughts, doubt, and self-judgment. 

So this week, I am going to let the story of my friend Hale Stewart, an insurance lawyer and moving meditator, make the point. I have never met Hale in person but became acquainted with him on LinkedIn. He is the Vice-President of Recapture Insurance, an alternative risk financing wholesaler and he posts regularly on insurance topics. Because that area is adjacent to my own, which includes some insurance defense work, I became connected with Hale and his posts started showing up in my feed. Hale’s knowledge of insurance so vastly exceeds my own that I often couldn’t contribute in a meaningful way to his content, but he had a good sense of humor and always had a joke or funny GIF to offer on my posts about mindfulness. 

I never expected Hale to tell me that he was interested in meditation. His sense of humor told me he was a pretty no-nonsense type of guy and I know he told me outright at least once that he wasn’t the type to sit and do nothing. But, one day, out of the blue, Hale messaged me to say that he appreciated my blog posts because they were practical, simple, and had helped him. This made me super curious, so I asked Hale to talk about his mindfulness practice. Despite Hale’s prior intimations that meditation wasn’t for him, I found out that he had created a unique, effective, and robust practice for himself.

Hale told me that he meditated during his daily cardio workouts on the treadmill. He had started this after thinking about spirituality and stress management for a while. In addition to being an insurance lawyer, Hale is also a former professional musician. While that experience exposed him to and made spirituality a part of his life, the steady march of time and the stresses of the current day caused him to begin exploring meditation as a new way to take care of himself.

After searching the internet, Hale found some guided meditations to pair with exercise. Hale said he enjoyed them because the teacher didn’t use a wispy, mystical, yoga teacher voice, so he could just do the practices without distraction. By doing those practices for a while, Hale learned to guide himself through the practice and he now meditates on the treadmill for nearly an hour most days. His practice includes body scan to get into his body as he begins his workout, breath focus to stay present with his experience, and visualizations of rainbow (“ROYGBIV” as Hale called them) colors. 

Hale, it seemed, didn’t know or care that this was impressive. He didn’t seem to notice that a daily practice of that length of time was incredibly robust for a new meditator. He also wasn’t too focused on the fact that his practice ticked some important mindfulness boxes (mental focus, body awareness, and breath work) or that rainbow colors have traditionally been associated with the chakra bodies from yoga philosophy. Instead, what Hale cared about was feeling better, enjoying the workout, and getting benefits. Though his practice is not yet a year old, Hale reports that he is already reaping those benefits, including feeling more present and focused and rushing less.  

Several things impressed me about this story. First, Hale’s willingness to explore and try something new is commendable. People new to meditation can take the practice and themselves too seriously at first, which can impede the curiosity and playfulness needed for the practice to offer its benefits. Hale didn’t do that and instead explored to see what was out there and played with the practice to make it work for him.

As someone who took way too much time reading and thinking about meditation before I tried it, I was also impressed that Hale didn’t need a lot of theory to get started because he trusted himself. Many people new to meditation worry initially about doing the practice “right” but Hale built a practice based on what felt good to him. This isn’t to say that theory is unimportant or that teachers and books are useless. On the other hand, though, it demonstrates that there are many paths to mindfulness and that we don’t have to know the path perfectly to walk it well. 

When we talked, Hale confided that he had never thought of himself as the type to meditate because he wasn’t someone who could just sit there. Rather than let this idea hold him back, he paid attention to what he needed and embedded the practice into his life, rather than conforming himself to what meditation was “supposed” to be. So, now when people tell me that they struggle with meditation because they “can’t sit still”, I don’t have to convince them. I’ll just remind them that there are lots of ways to meditate and suggest that they go talk to my friend, Hale.

F. Hale Stewart JD, LL.M. is a Vice President of Recapture Insurance, an alternative risk financing wholesaler.   Hale has been involved in alternative risk for 12 years.  He has written two books on the topic (U.S. Captive Insurance Law and Captive Insurance in Plain English) and provides periodic commentary for IRMI.  A former professional musician, he remains an enthusiastic amateur jazz guitarist. You can learn more about or follow him on LinkedIn.

What Is Body Scan Meditation and Why Should Lawyers Try It?

When people think of meditation, they typically think of the breath as the focal point. But in truth, meditation can use almost any focal point and the focal point doesn’t necessarily have to be a singular, stagnant object. One of the most beneficial practices that I incorporate in my routine is the body scan. With this practice, the focus is on the sensations in the whole body, rather than exclusively focusing on the breath. Traditionally, this practice flows systemically through the body, flowing from one part or region of the body into the next.

Most commonly, body scan meditations start at the crown of the head and proceed down to other parts of the body until you reach the feet and toes. There are, of course, many potential methods and starting points for body scans. For instance, you could start with the toes and work up or do a body scan that focuses on the chakras or plexuses along the spine. Regardless of the particular method you try, the object of a body scan meditation is to feel the sensations in the body and notice what you feel, rather than to think about the body.

Body scan meditation can sometimes feel more manageable to new meditators because the practice is more active than breath practice. Because the focus of body scan is to flow through the body, the mind has to work a bit more to stay focused on the sensations in the body. For this reason, it may not seem as hard to keep the mind engaged with the focal point as it does in the early phases of learning breath practice. In addition, in my experience, getting into the body is a great (perhaps the best) way to get out of your head. It is for this reason that resting in sensations during a body scan can be deeply relaxing even to new meditators and after relatively short periods of time.

Body scan meditations are very useful for attorneys because they remind us to pay attention to and take care of our bodies. In law school, we learn to emphasize rationality in making decisions for our clients. While separating fact from emotion is critical, we lawyers are still human beings with human bodies. To do our best for our clients, we need to understand and respect the limitations of our own bodies so we can fulfill our responsibility to our clients. As I’ve written before, emotions are sensations in the body, so body scan practices may also have the incidental benefit of building emotional intelligence and tolerance when powerful emotions arise.

Even outside of emotions, however, the body awareness that body scan practice engenders can have more fundamental benefits for lawyers and professionals. Some of the most common bodily issues that can impede us from doing our best work are represented in the acronym HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These symptoms are fundamental to the human condition, but in our fast-paced world it is easy to skip lunch, push our emotions to the side, miss out on social opportunities, and deprive ourselves of sleep.

Body scan meditations are excellent for lawyers because they remind us that we are not merely brains filled with legal strategy, but people who must be fed, rested, and cared for. If you practice body scan meditation, you will develop the skills to notice the symptoms of various conditions and emotions in your body in the early and more subtle stages before they get to the point where they affect your performance, outlook, or demeanor. These skills are not only necessary to performing our responsibilities as lawyers, but they are also beneficial for anyone who wants to be a top performer in a high-stakes environment.

Finally, body scan is building block to support further growth in your meditation practice or just when dealing with the difficulties of life. When you start a meditation practice, it can seem like the focal point is the object of practice. As your practice advances, you may learn, however, that the focal point is really a tool. In other words, the point of practice is not just to focus on the breath or the sensations of the body. It is, instead, to build the skill of resting with the breath or the body.

If you can learn to do this with body scan practice, then you have one more tool at your disposal when meditation or life throws you curve balls. For example, perhaps troubling thoughts or overwhelming emotions come up during your practice. A meditator proficient in body scan might be able to shift focus to a less reactive part of the body, such as the feet, to rest from the experience until they find enough stability and calm to proceed with normal practice. You could also do this in life, if for instance you have tense meeting with opposing counsel and need to keep your cool.

In short, body scan is a simple practice to learn and may be more accessible to new meditators than other styles of practice. It offers many benefits that support a meditation practice and build coping skills for life. Lawyers in particular could stand to benefit from the practice, so give it a try.

Do you want to try body scan meditation? Check out our meditations that incorporate body scan techniques.   

Cooking Is My Antidote to Languishing

I did not know that “languishing” had a clinical meaning until I listened to Adam Grant’s interview on the Ten Percent Happier podcast the other day. According to Grant, it’s the state between wellness and depression. As a busy lawyer and mom, I immediately recognized this description. As Grant put it, it’s a state where you might say that you “aren’t sick but aren’t well.” We’ve all been there, but Grant suggests that too many of us stay there and allow ourselves to progress on into depression.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves in this not quite great state, in that place where we are uncomfortably abiding but not thriving? My experience with meditation tells me that the first step might be to avoid panicking and to understand that all things, including nasty feelings, don’t last forever. My life experience also tells me that we need rest phases in our lives to grow. But, when you notice the feelings persist or take a turn for the worse, some action might be needed. Grant gives us a clue as to what might help.

He suggests that we ought to look for an activity that offers us the 3 m’s:

  • Mindfulness
  • Mastery
  • Matters

In the interview, Grant explained that playing Mario Kart with his family really helped him during the pandemic. Why? Because it required mindfulness by totally occupying his mind. It engendered in him a sense of mastery or prowess in playing the game and improvement as he progressed. And, it mattered. It was a fun thing to do with his kids and a way to connect with family that he couldn’t see in person.

I’m not a video game person and, historically, I have been extra terrible at driving games. Even so, as I listened to Grant, I knew what my Mario Kart was: cooking. I love cooking. I have loved it since I was a kid and outgrew my Easy Bake Oven in a matter of weeks because the small light bulb inside was insufficient to properly bake my cakes. This pushed me to start making recipes from old kids’ cookbooks that I’d scrounged from yard sales by age 7. By middle school (much to the delight of my parents), I was cooking family dinners by myself.

After 30 years of cooking, I can now walk into the kitchen and come up with dishes on the fly to either make a classic dish I’ve been craving or use up what I have on hand. It’s a thrill to reuse leftovers in inventive ways and a game to transform one dish into something else entirely. During the pandemic, it offered me the practical benefit of forcing me to stop my work for a while and get away from my computer because my family and I had to eat (and my husband is a terrible cook). So, instead of using my brain to find answers, I got to take a break and use my senses and creativity to come up with something good. And, of course, it mattered that I ate something good and decently healthy, that my kids experienced some new kinds of foods, and that I could offer us something that we couldn’t get delivered from takeout.

As a litigator, there are many days and weeks that I don’t have the time to cook or have to come up with something super easy, like tossing meatballs and marinara in a crockpot. Even so, cooking during these times helps me find little pockets of play in the midst of the grind. When my calendar opens up again, it’s like coming home when I get to cook something that requires more thought, planning, skill, and attention. After some time in the kitchen, I usually find myself ready to dive back into work again because letting my senses drive the bus in the kitchen gave my rational brain a much-needed chance to rest.

I know that cooking isn’t for everyone, but I think everyone should have an activity that they can rely on the same way I rely on cooking and Adam Grant relies on Mario Kart. Look for something that fills up your mind and appeals to your senses, helps you feel a sense of mastery, and, for whatever reason, matters to you or someone else. If you find this activity and keep coming back to it, you may find that it is a powerful antidote against languishing and part of a happy life.

Is Meditation a Spiritual Practice?

A friend shared a meme recently which listed 4 buckets of self-care strategies, including physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. I was glad to see that it included meditation, but my lawyer brain fired up when I saw it listed meditation only in the spiritual bucket. Literally starting with the phrase, “Well, actually” my mind began drafting a response to my friend’s social media post to explain that meditation was not just a spiritual practice.

Rather than alienate my friend, however, I decided that a blog post would probably be a better forum for these thoughts. So, here it goes. Is meditation a “spiritual practice?” Undoubtedly it is, since various forms of meditation have overtly been part of numerous spiritual and religious traditions throughout history. Meditation also may be a spiritual practice for many individuals outside of the context of religious and spiritual traditions. In my view, a spiritual practice is one that establishes or promotes a sense of connection between an individual and other beings or the universe. Meditation has clearly offered that for me and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

But I rail against putting meditation only in the spiritual bucket for a few reasons. The biggest is that, as a lawyer, I am a super practical person. Emphasizing the spiritual aspects of meditation can therefore be problematic when it is done to the exclusion of other practical benefits. Sure, meditation can connect you with the universe. It can also help you not be troubled by your thoughts. In my case, it consistently reduces or abates my headaches and other physical signs of stress. And, it routinely helps me get over myself by letting me see that I need to apologize/ask for help/forgive myself/ease up/just let something go. Having experienced all of these practical benefits firsthand, I can’t put meditation into the “spiritual” bucket alone because it contributes regularly to my mental/emotional/physical/social wellbeing.

But maybe that really takes me to a different point altogether. Maybe the problem isn’t with calling meditation a “spiritual” practice at all. Instead, perhaps the issue is that all of these aspects of personal well-being – spiritual, emotional, physical, and social – are actually intertwined. As a pedagogical tool, it may be helpful to separate out these needs so that us wayward humans who often stray from the path of health and happiness can find our breadcrumb trail to stumble back to sanity. But the truth, as my meditation practice regularly reveals to me, is that these human needs are intertwined and interdependent. Thus, most wholesome activities can’t be put into one bucket alone, but rather support, cycle, and flow into all the others.

So, am I telling you to stop sharing that meme and others like them that separate out human needs into categories? Of course not. But as you share or view memes like these, it may help to just consider for a moment if they are 100% true and, more significantly, whether they are true for you. It may be even more eye-opening for you to think about the personal practices that you rely on to keep yourself well and whether they fit in just one, multiple or all of the “human needs” buckets. Considering this myself, I can’t agree that meditation is only a spiritual practice any more than I could agree that exercise is just a physical one. In the end, I think meditation is a human practice made for human needs, including those that are spiritual, physical, social, and mental.

Is the Hobby that Feeds Your Spirit the Same as Meditation?

When I talk about mindfulness or meditation, people frequently tell me that they don’t/can’t/won’t meditate but that their favorite hobby or pastime is “their meditation.” Some say “running” is their meditation. Some say “fishing”. Some say that they do “walking meditations.” I understand what all of these people mean. If I didn’t have a seated meditation practice, I’d say cooking and writing are my meditations. They are pastimes that make me feel connected to others, they connect my mind, heart, and body, and they both help my mind quiet down for a little while. But is this really the same thing as meditation?

This isn’t an easy question to answer because it really depends on what one means by “the same.” If you are talking about research-proven benefits, then the answer is probably “no.” Surely, research exists to demonstrate the health benefit of cooking one’s own meals, engaging in exercise, or even having hobbies. But whether that research would reveal benefits of the same kind that the practice of meditation offers is another matter. Indeed, the current research seems to suggest that various types of meditation can produce varying mental or physical health benefits. Thus, it stands to reason, that a different activity altogether may not truly be the “same” as meditation in terms of impact.

Another significant difference between meditation practice and other pastimes is one of degree. While certainly, favored activities like cooking, running, or fishing may unite the body and mind and even evoke a sense of spiritual satisfaction, that would make the pastimes far more similar to yoga asana practice than seated meditation. These practices may be excellent for managing stress and increasing happiness because they can help quiet the mind. Quieting the mind is one common benefit of meditation but it isn’t the only one.

For a style such a vipassana or loving-kindness practice, meditation will actually help you examine the mind. Since movement is minimized and even focal points restricted with these types of meditation practice, the meditator will almost inevitably be faced with their thought patterns and emotional reactions with no extra activity to distract their attention. As you can probably understand, the benefits of seeing these patterns include understanding oneself and increased agency in one’s life.

In other words, my opinion is that meditation is not the same as most personal hobbies, though parallels and some shared benefits undoubtedly exist. But does this mean that meditation is better than other personal hobbies? This, in my opinion, is a trick question. I think meditation might be more helpful to some people than personal hobbies in certain contexts, but I could also envision times when the opposite might be true. Thus, I don’t think “better” is an absolute answer. Moreover, my honest opinion is that one should not be choosing between meditation or satisfying personal hobbies. Instead, I think you should do both because I have experienced the benefits of both in my own life.

In short, when people tell me that their hobby is “their meditation”, I don’t tell them that they are wrong. I don’t think that I am better because I meditate. But I try to talk about and teach meditation in a way that people can understand the particular benefits it offers and that it’s available to them whenever they decide to sit down and give it a try. Until they do, I am thrilled to know that many people have hobbies that mean so much to them that they see them as akin to a self-care or spiritual practice.  It may not be the same as meditation but that’s not a bad thing. It just means other opportunities for benefits and personal exploration exist for you if the need and desire ever arise. 

Yoga Has Been There the Whole Time

When Brilliant Legal Mind’s founder Claire Parsons told me September’s theme was yoga my immediate response was “I don’t really have a yoga practice anymore. I don’t really have anything to write about.” But then I read Claire’s post Confessions of a Reluctant Yogi and Aman Costigan’s post Yoga is More Than Just Stretching. Both posts made think about how much I use yoga daily and the role my yoga practice had in setting a foundation for my meditation practice.

I first discovered a regular yoga practice the summer after I finished law school. My husband and I moved from Chicago to Northern Kentucky, I was studying for the bar, we were rehabbing a 150 year old house, and starting our own law practice. I was trying to exercise occasionally mostly just to keep myself sane. One day I tried a yoga class at the gym and let’s just say I was hooked. I had tried yoga sporadically over the years but looking back I’d just never found the right teacher. The teacher I found that summer was perfect for me.

She was an athlete and busy professional so the classes were mostly vinyasa and ashtanga style yoga which are considered more athletic forms of yoga. But they are also flow styles of yoga that connect the breath to movement so my teacher focused heavily on moving through each pose with your breath. Because the yoga teacher was a busy professional and mom she also focused on the mental aspect of the practice. We’d set an intention for each practice, focus on that intention throughout the class, and then end with a meditation. Looking back, these yoga classes were part of the beginning of my regular meditation practice. I got stronger, more flexible, I had less aches and pains, and I started to notice my busy mind felt a little calmer too.

That teacher moved out of state and since then I’ve taken yoga classes on and off at various studios, but looking back I can see now that I developed a foundation that’s helped not only helped me physically but was an important step in building my meditation practice. A few years back, when I suffered from two herniated discs in my back I discovered restorative yoga. While I craved doing the more rigorous styles of yoga, the restorative helped me work through the pain. Restorative yoga can be deeply meditative which helped me mentally deal with the pain and discomfort.

Right now I’m training for a half-marathon and after reading Claire and Aman’s blog posts I noticed that my stretching routine is almost a yoga flow series. I also noticed that I use my stretching time at night and after a workout not only to just stretch my body to help my aches and pains, I use it as a meditation time as well. Like my meditation practice, without even realizing it, yoga has been with me all along.  

Want to explore restorative yoga further? Check out this guided meditation from founder @claireeparsons to pair with the legs up the wall pose. Even if you don’t have any props at home, you can try this by positioning your legs up a wall or over a chair. This meditation offers a variety of breath instruction tools so you can explore meditation and restorative yoga practice t at the same time.

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator and yogi who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Book Review: Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley

I have this bad habit of buying books so that I don’t forget about them. Then I flip through them once, decide I don’t have time to read them right now, and set them on my bookshelf only to forget about them. I did this with Every Body Yoga years ago. I had heard the author, Jessamyn Stanley, on an episode of Call Your Girlfriend and thought she sounded so personable, down-to-earth, and cool that I couldn’t resist.

But life and law practice intervened and I didn’t get around to reading it until I enrolled in yoga teacher training and heard multiple classmates and teachers mention it with affection. When I dusted off the book and finally read it, I wished I had done so sooner. Then, I shared it with a friend who told me she was interested in trying out yoga to balance out her fitness routine. As I wrote previously, my own yoga practice got off to a rocky start because I was saddled with judgments about my body’s appearance and perceived limitations. I found in Stanley’s book an experience that, though it was undoubtedly unique, reminded me a bit of my own.

Stanley came to prominence when she began posting pictures of herself learning and mastering yoga poses on Instagram. At the time, Stanley wasn’t anyone famous or even a yoga teacher. She was just a person seeking community and support as she did her practice, largely on her own. Indeed, Stanley recounts in the book how she learned the basics of yoga with studio classes, but practiced on her own in her apartment for a time due to a lack of funds. It wasn’t until she gained a following and built her own confidence that she became a yoga teacher. Now, she’s got nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram, her own online studio, and a second recently released book.

Though this story certainly showcases the power of courage and following one’s passions, it also demonstrates how yoga as a practice can help yogis of all kinds learn to love and care for themselves. In Every Body Yoga, Stanley relates how yoga helped her care for herself through the difficulties of her own life, including making decisions about education and work, challenges in her intimate relationships, and even losing loved ones. While yoga was a powerful force for her, Stanley explains that practical impediments to yoga practice still exist for many people. She offers examples throughout her story of the emotions elicited for her as she walked into a class with only thin white women and the expense of maintaining a yoga habit with studio classes. It is for this reason that Stanley felt compelled to start documenting her own practice for others.

To make yoga truly accessible to everybody, Stanley also offers a thorough but concise summary of yoga philosophy and the varieties of asana practice. This may help those new to yoga determine what classes might best suit their bodies. In addition, about one half of the book is devoted to explanations and demonstrative pictures of commonly used poses and props, and sequences paired for specific purposes. Thus, any new yogi could pick up Stanley’s book, a yoga mat, and some blocks, and start a home practice for the same price of attending two or three yoga classes in a studio.

In short, Every Body Yoga is a how-to guide intended and best suited for those new to yoga, but it offers inspiration, heart, and a great story of self-love that even experienced yogis might enjoy. If you are curious about yoga but aren’t sure it’s for you, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Everybody Yoga. But don’t let it sit on your shelf gathering dust. Give it a read, give Stanley a follow on Instagram, and get on the mat.

Confessions of a Reluctant Yogi

As a yoga teacher, I’m not supposed to say this, but I didn’t like yoga at first. In fact, the first class I ever tried felt so awkward and terrible that I didn’t try it again for several years. The impediments for me were manifold. I was not used to “being” in my body. I thought I had bested my perfectionism years ago, and still hadn’t learned that this latent tendency would stay with me for life. I am not small, naturally flexible, or graceful in any context. And I’m kind of a work horse. I do physical activities for a purpose – scoring points or walking to somewhere nice or cooking dinner – but generally not just because they feel good. So, when I first went to a yoga class, I was preoccupied with making the poses look right, worried about how my awkward feelings did not match the picturesque poses of the women in the class who (in my memory at least) looked like runway models, and not falling or pulling a muscle.

So what changed? My body sure didn’t. I’m 5’11” with a solid frame and have had 2 babies since my first yoga class. I’m no more thin or lithe or any of that nonsense than I was when I first tried yoga. My mind and heart, however, are quite different. You see, some time after that first failed and what I thought was humiliating yoga class, I started my meditation practice. At the time, I had no idea I was doing yoga. Some teachers would call my cross-legged seated posture a restorative pose. Others would point out that the yogic path has 8 limbs, one of which is meditation. I didn’t know any of this, however. Instead, I was drawn to meditate because my reading had told me that it might help me handle all the thoughts swirling around my brain. It certainly did that, but also helped me get more comfortable with my body by doing body scan meditations and loving-kindness practices that helped me learn that emotions weren’t thoughts at all, but instead feelings—sensations in the body.

After a few years of this, I had built up enough calm and self-compassion that I noticed my body needed something more. Though an athlete for most of my life, I had let exercise fall by the wayside in the early years of law practice and motherhood. Once I had reestablished some stability after the birth of my youngest daughter, I decided to start exercising again to try to get back in shape. Despite a past history of going all out, this time was different. Having had success building a meditation practice in incremental steps over time, I did the same thing. I started small, adding in walks around my neighborhood and a few exercise classes here and there.

This is where yoga comes in. I knew I wasn’t ready for intense cardio or strength yet, so I decided to give yoga another try. I found a local studio with reasonable teachers and welcoming and compassionate students. I got a trial membership and walked into a “yin” class that billed itself as slow and calming. I had no idea what this meant but, when I walked in, the teacher warned me that I would hold poses for 3-5 minutes. This news might alarm some, but as a meditator, I thought “Oh, I can do that.” Even though I needed tons of props to help me manage my inexperience, and lack of range of motion and strength, I loved the class. It became a regular for me and I gradually worked up to slow flow classes. By the time I worked my way up to power yoga, my exercise regimen was established as a habit.

Though yoga had helped me feel better by getting more into my body, I did the same silly thing I had previously done with my meditation practice: I fell away from it for a while. At it turns out, just like my experience without meditation had shown me, falling away from yoga helped me see how important it was. Once I got my exercise habit re-established, I wanted more intensity. I started going to Orange Theory and so stopped the yoga studio because I didn’t have as much time (or money) for the classes. I loved the classes and still stretched regularly but the tread running caused me to develop plantar fasciitis. I tried a lot of things to fix it, but the problem lingered until the pandemic forced me to switch things up.

In late 2019, I had purchased a Peloton for my husband to try to help him stick with cardio.  By March, 2020, that item was a lifeline for me. At first, I focused on the bike, then added some strength, and then finally explored the yoga content. Lo and behold, the plantar fasciitis started to resolve when I added yoga back into my repertoire. This helped me learn that my body needed intense strength and cardio workouts, but it also needed the flexibility and balance that yoga offered. As I practiced more, I found that sometimes yoga was not just good for a stretch but needed in times when I was too worked up to meditate. I realized that moving first or meditating during a restorative practice was sometimes a more compassionate way to take care of myself.

In other words, I realized that yoga was a practice that could balance and add depth to my exercise and meditation routines. Though I had never been the biggest devotee of yoga and am definitely not doing Instagram-worthy arm balances any time soon, this experience made me curious. I realized that there was another side of mindfulness to explore and, since the pandemic didn’t seem to be ending as soon as I’d hoped, I enrolled in the 500-hour yoga teacher training program with My Vinyasa Practice.  So, now this awkward, unbalanced, hyper-rational lawyer who thought she didn’t like yoga, is a yoga teacher.

So why do I share this story? I share it because it taught me that there are lots of paths to mindfulness. Some of us, like me, are so tangled in thought that we have no choice but to start in our minds. Others, though, may have better luck by starting with the body. In the end, though, these paths intersect and over time can come together like tributary streams forming a powerful river. That’s what happened for me and so I am grateful for all the mistakes and wrong judgments I made along the way that forced me to look at mindfulness again and again so that I could understand it better.

The truth is that I never disliked yoga at all. I disliked myself or at least didn’t like the image I had of myself. Once meditation helped me get a better and more compassionate view, I found that I could enjoy yoga too. Thus, even though I was a reluctant yogi, the practice did for me what it promised to do. The word “yoga” means to “yoke” or unite mind and body. I had started yoga distant from and judging my body for how it looked and what it couldn’t do. When I dropped the judgment, paid attention to how my body felt and gave it what it needed, my mind and body became united and I learned that I had been doing yoga all along.