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Yoga and Work: Balancing Mind & Body, Part 1

Yoga and Work - Balancing Mind and Body by Bealisa Sydlik

I have been a lawyer for over 15 years, and a yoga practitioner for 12 years. Until a couple of years ago, these were separate spheres of my life. Like most Westerners, I accepted the mind-body duality—at work, we apply the "Mind;" in the gym or out on the track, we use the "body." We rarely allow our physical experiences to touch us spiritually, or influence our philosophies of life, or affect our work and communal relationships. In this way, our belief in the duality of mind and body limits us, both as individuals and as a culture.

I became aware of my own ignorance in this regard when, a couple of years ago, a middle-aged student of mine who was a manager in a high-stress position in Silicon Valley came up after class, saying: "You know, I feel more solid now when I take a position at work. I can actually feel myself breathe as I would in a Yoga pose. I notice my mind calm and become peaceful, more objective. Even my feet press into the floor the way they do when standing in tadásana (mountain pose). I feel I am a better manager because of Yoga, and I am happier doing it." When he said this, a door swung wide open. I began to look at Yoga as a tool for bringing balance, strength, and flexibility into the workplace.

My readings on this topic revealed that for centuries, the original practitioners of Yoga have rejected the mind-body duality. They not only refused to forsake the wisdom of their physical bodies in the use of their minds, they purposely sought to have the one influence the other. The statement below summarizes a basic tenet of both ancient and modern practitioners of Yoga: "Hatha Yoga is based on the principle that changes in consciousness can be brought about by setting in motion currents of certain kinds of subtler forces in the physical body." —I. K. Taimni

Accordingly, I opened myself to the possibility that my current consciousness about my own work as a lawyer could be directly influenced and altered by the Yoga postures. I identified six areas in which the practice of Yoga could help me maintain my mental and physical health, as well as my personal integrity, while practicing Law. These themes can be applied to any work endeavor or profession.

Focus and Concentration "The mind flutters here and there like a bird." --- Rig-Veda x.33.2 The word "yoga" derives from the Sanskrit word "yug," which means "to yoke, bind, join or direct one's attention." The yoga postures (called "ásanas" in Sanksrit) were originally created to teach focus and concentration in preparation for meditation. However, the practice of Yoga today has a much broader aim—to provide a tool for being in control of our minds in every aspect of our daily lives.

In Law, lawyers are expected to sort out myriads of facts and make sense of complex situations so as to apply complicated legal principles. It is difficult since, in reality, no situation is ever black and white. I often experienced frustration at this lack of clarity in Law, how clients told entirely different stories (someone must be lying!) and expert witnesses offered competing perspectives which merely served to cancel each other out. I was disappointed to find many attorneys purposely took advantage of this confusion to make the waters murkier, forcing judge or jury to throw up their hands and decide a case on impulse, inclination or even prejudice, as opposed to a learned and informed consideration of the facts and circumstances presented.

I found Yoga to be an extraordinary tool for developing discernment. More than any other physical discipline, it demands that one learn how to focus and concentrate so as to hold the pose beyond the limitations of the mind. The work-place, whether courtroom or office, cannot help but evolve into a place of clarity and purposeful intention when peopled by individuals skilled in focus and concen-tration as learned in a Yoga practice.

Strength and Endurance "One cannot understand the rhythms and meanings of the outer world until one has mastered the dialects of the body." —Timothy Leary

If we do not assert ourselves in our work, we are not living fully—we are just "getting by". To live and work fully requires effort and intention. We must be willing to push our bodies and our minds past our limitations and inner rebellions, and beyond our fears. To do so requires great strength and endurance.

Many misperceive Yoga as being solely the practice of meditation, sitting and focusing on the breath. While this can be part of it, Yoga is much more. The ancient practitioners of Yoga believed that a frail or diseased body was a serious obstacle to purposeful meditation and the path to enlightenment. They created 84 classical poses, the combination of which comprises an arduous means for physically purifying and strengthening the body on its journey of Life.

I call the kind of yoga I teach "Power Yoga" to avoid the connotation that it does not include a "body building" aspect. In Power Yoga, the student sweats, builds upper body strength, and works all the muscle groups, including the important ones about the spine (the foundation of the body). I tell my students to take the strength and endurance they build in their Yoga practices back to their desks at work, while standing in line at the bank, even as they brush their teeth. The aim is to bring the concepts of strength and endurance into mastering every aspect of their lives.

Balance "Evenness is called Yoga." --- Bhagavad-Gita II.48

When you think of "the Law," what symbol comes to mind? If you are like most people, it is the ubiquitous scales of justice. The scales of justice are a metaphor for the purported goal of our legal system: balance. Through the dynamic process of weighing truths and equities, of considering the interests of society versus the individual, we hope to attain an optimal level of social functioning. It is the professed belief of our adversarial legal system that Truth evolves out of the competing viewpoints given equal opportunity to express themselves.

As in Law, Yoga follows the principle that balance in life is achieved through the union of opposites (Hatha Yoga means "sun-moon union" in Sanskrit). Yoga teaches that there are two opposing energy forces constantly interacting in nature, and that the dynamic interplay between them is the source of that Energy which animates all living things. The goal is to achieve balance and harmony between these appositional life forces on the physical plane, so that the mind may be influenced to perpetuate these themes on the plane of daily existence.

While there may be an ideal of balance in our legal system, there is much in the way Law is practiced today which is very "out of balance." It is not necessary to enumerate all that is “wrong” with it; few would say that "justice" has either been the goal or the result. While we pay lip-service to the virtue of "balance," we are largely ignorant of it and do not practice it. It does not even play a crucial role in most western forms of physical sport or endeavor (except "dance").

The balance poses in Yoga are the most difficult and frustrating for my students. The proposition of maintaining a personal center of gravity between the competing poles of energy manifested by the body is strange to them. Frankly, we are used to being buffeted by circumstances. I view the balance poses as psychophysical templates capable of educating us about the nature and causes of all balances and imbalances, personal and societal. A workplace peopled by individuals who are not deceiving themselves or ignorant about the principle of "balance" cannot help but bring "justice" to everything they do and all with whom they deal.

Flexibility and Openness "Only when you are extremely soft and pliable, can you be extremely hard and strong." —Zen Proverb

Many people come to Yoga for the "stretching," hoping it will "loosen them up," make them "more flexible." We all have an instinctive need to flex, lengthen and loosen up our muscles; we breathe more deeply and have more energy after we stretch.

When we stretch, we require our muscles to elongate or move in unfamiliar ways. This opens our mind to experience the body in a new way. Applying our imagination to what we feel in the stretch can put our mind into a "listening mode;" it opens to new perspectives and possibilities.

This heightened "receptivity" of mind and body is, I believe, largely responsible for the fact that many students experience moments of creativity and inspiration during or just after doing Yoga. Myself, I often keep a notebook beside me to jot down the ideas that seem to flow more freely during my Yoga practice. I encourage students to bring the fruits of this heightened state of awareness into the work place. The more frustrated and “stuck” they feel, the more they need to develop this particular aspect of their Yoga practices.

Energy "Prana is in the air, but is not the oxygen, nor any of its chemical constituents. It is in food, water, and in the sunlight, yet it is not vitamin, heat, or lightrays. Food, water, air, etc., are only the media through which the prana is carried." —Swami Vishnudevananda

In the western world, we have been taught to think of “energy” as something that powers machines or which we get after consuming a health drink. Yet in eastern philosophies, there exists a widely-acknowledged and revered kind of energy. It is called "Chi" in China, "Ki" in Japan, and "Prana" in India. It is the energy of the subtle, ethereal body; an energy which fuels the mind and soul, not just the body. Yoga acknowledges the existence of this other realm of energy and teaches us a means of controlling and directing it in positive, life-giving ways. We are all vested of this type of energy; we are simply unaware of our possession of it, and untrained in how to access and use it. Yoga teaches us this.

There is much about Law (or any workplace) which depletes this Energy. How often I would come out of legal situations feeling exhausted and discouraged. Our western legal system is not a holistic endeavor. It is adversarial, it generates conflict, it is competitive and judgmental. To the litigant, it is ponderous and frustrating, often ineffective. We profess to aim for justice but then seek to confuse the path to it with games, "hiding the ball," giving nothing away. The legal system seems to have become a playground for destructive energies which lead us away from our own center, from the core of our being, our intuitive know-ledge, and our own morality of Energy.

I know this concept of ethereal energy is perhaps the most doubtful to my colleagues, and the most likely to get me labeled as a New Age kook. However, it is my belief that our failure to become conscious of this life energy, and to develop the wisdom to use it, will perpetuate a legal system which is diseased, unbalanced, and continues to wreak havoc in the affairs of men and women. Without incorporating this kind of Energy into the legal system, we will always remain unconscious and out-of-control of the intentions and consequences of our lawyerly actions.

Mindful Breathing "Our breath is the bridge from our body to our mind...it alone is the tool which can bring them both together..." —Tich Nhat Hanh

Breathing derives from the region of the body known as "the solar plexus." In the yogic tradition, the solar plexus is a great storehouse of Prana (Energy). Even western medicine recognizes the solar plexus as a main energy source for the nervous system. Improper or shallow breathing deprives the nerve cells in the solar plexus of oxygen and, consequently, of the nourishment and cleansing they require to be efficient conveyors of impulses and synapses. Without proper breathing, we do not function well, mentally or physically.

Yoga trains us to regulate our breathing so as to cultivate vigilance over our minds and to influence the flow of Energy throughout our nervous systems. By being in constant touch with our breathing, we train ourselves to be in constant touch with our lives.

The lawyer confronts many difficult situations of conflict, hostility and imbalance. It is easy to be caught off guard, to “react” without thinking, even to be frightened by the aggressive mannerisms of your “opponent.” It is difficult to maintain one’s balance in such situations of stress but necessary in order to not perpetuate unhealthful modes of confrontation and conflict resolution. Injustice will simply recapitulate itself without lawyers who have the wisdom of mind and body to change it. The breath is one of the most powerful tools we have for assuring that, in such situations, we remain centered and able to function, both mentally and physically, in an optimal capacity with equanimity and control.

Conclusion Yoga is much more than a form of physical exercise which can keep our bodies strong and flexibile. It teaches the ancient art of influencing our mental states to greater consciousness about every aspect of our lives, including the workplace. For myself, I have found it to be a discipline through which I can achieve greater balance, awareness, clarity, and personal morality about the practice of Law. To perpetuate the duality of mind and body by restricting our beliefs about how each can influence the other only serves to perpetuate unhealthfulness and contradiction in our personal and work environments. Yoga provides a means for each one of us to bring the intelligence of our bodies into the workplace...and beyond.

BeaLisa practiced law for 14 years before moving to Oregon in 1995. She has been a Yoga practitioner and teacher for over 12 years, and currently teaches classes at the YMCA and at Willamette University. She may be reached at (503) 316-0785, or email.

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