Sit back, relax: first-person perspective on Yoga

BY JENNIFER GREENGOLD

We have a lot on our minds at Harvard Law School. Most of us spend every waking minute thinking about some jumble of classes, student organizations, causes, jobs, goals, world affairs, errands, significant others and friends. But I’ve found that the hardest thing to wrap my brain around is…nothing. With everything going on, it’s almost impossible keep everything off your mind.

Try this: sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, un-focus your eyes and clear everything from your mind for five minutes. Pay attention to the moment, and nothing else. Don’t think. Don’t judge yourself. Just relax.

Damn hard, isn’t it?

On Wednesday lunchtimes for the past six weeks, I joined about 20 other HLS students in a darkened classroom for a different kind of respite from the classroom. The workshop, called “Yoga and Mindfulness: Back to Balance in Law School and Life,” was presented by the Office of Student Life Counseling under the guidance of Brenda Fingold, a former partner at Hale and Dorr.

I don’t consider myself one of those spiritual, earthy people that most people associate with meditation. In fact, I consider myself pragmatic and instinctively skeptical of people who use touchy-feely lingo like “mindfulness.” But I do know that I’m under a lot of stress, even when it’s subliminal — this eye twitch isn’t just a result of the Sodexho coffee. I also know that, from the first day of the yoga class, I felt physically and mentally better than I have in a long time.

One of my main goals in attending the workshops was to gain mental self-control. It’s disturbing at times when you can contemplate complex legal issues all day but can’t sit still and quiet for five minutes. The first time I tried to meditate, I found myself mentally scheduling the rest of my day. But when I pushed those anxious thoughts aside, I started being bothered by physical distractions like an itch in my ear.

It was maddening. I wanted nothing more than to scratch my ear. But I had to believe that I was strong enough to deal with minor discomfort. If I could just chill out, I reasoned, it would go away. I started to tell myself that I didn’t have to scratch every itch, immediately solve every problem and control everything around me. And just before I reached the edge of insanity, the itch went away. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and willpower. It felt like kicking an addiction.

The workshop was particularly helpful because we got to share it with other law students, with similar dilemmas and, probably, similar attitudes. Our instructor, Brenda, earned our trust for the same reason: she has been one of us. She worked at Hale and Dorr for 17 years as a trial lawyer, as both a partner in the litigation department, and as the partner responsible for training and professional development.

Brenda told us she began using meditation as a young associate to alleviate stress. She found its results so powerful that, in 1998, she coordinated a mindfulness retreat that was attended by 70 Hale and Dorr attorneys and taught by meditation instructors from the Stress Reduction Clinic at University of Massachusetts Medical Center. She said all of the participating attorneys reported a reduction in stress and a more calm, creative outlook on life.

Meditation became even more essential to Brenda when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2000. During seven months of chemotherapy and subsequent recovery, she used yoga techniques to deal with pain and anxiety and to help herself heal. According to Brenda, cancer made her realize what was important in her life. She left law practice to teach yoga as “a way to learn how to relate to life differently.” For an hour and a half each week, I came closer to understanding that concept.

Maybe the administration is trying to look out for its students more than most of them thought. Thanks to Director of Student Life Counseling Mark Byers, all of us learned a valuable lesson about our bodies and about life. Hopefully, this edition of Yoga and Mindfulness won’t be the last.

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