Well-being

Why Yoga Makes Me A Better Attorney

Stephanie and her teacher Jim Bennitt
Stephanie and her Chicago-based teacher Jim Bennitt.

Twenty years ago this fall, I stepped on a yoga mat for the first time. Let me set the scene.

It was my second year of law school and the rumor of the overwhelming 2L year had started to become my reality. It all felt like too much and law school wasn’t what I thought it would be.

Then yoga entered my life. Little did I know that it would be one of the reasons I stayed in law school and would enable me to sustain a legal career.

September is National Yoga Month. The Department of Health and Human Services made this designation in 2008 to provide more awareness and education about the health benefits of yoga. While National Yoga Month began as a movement in the U.S., it has expanded internationally.

In honor of this month and all that yoga has given me, I would like to share how a regular yoga practice makes me a better attorney.

Discovering yoga in law school

Typical yoga sequence
A typical yoga sequence.

In 1999, the year before I began law school, I served as an AmeriCorps volunteer assisting women and children at a transitional housing facility obtain health insurance and primary care doctors. I saw firsthand the injustices of the healthcare system and thought the law would be a good way to drive systemic change.

However, after taking the required first-year law school courses, it didn’t seem like law school was focused on social justice issues at all. I tried to chalk this up to introductory courses and hoped things would change. But when my 2L year started to look similar, I began to worry that I had made a mistake in pursuing law school.

During that 2L year, my law school clinic partner suggested we go to a yoga class for a break. I initially shrugged it off because I was in over my head with school and not great at taking breaks. However, for whatever reason, I went to the yoga class.

I knew nothing about yoga. It was 2001 and yoga was not as popular as it is today. After the class, I remember thinking it was hard and kind of “out there,” but I also felt better than I had earlier in the day.

After yoga, we returned to the law school clinic and I felt more focused and a little calmer. And I remember being able to complete work faster than normal.

Now, you may be expecting me to say that from that day on, I did yoga every day and have never stopped. Not exactly. We rarely make it that easy on ourselves, right?

Instead, I went to yoga occasionally during law school and dedicated the vast majority of my time to schoolwork. However, when I did make it to yoga class, I noticed that I felt better physically and mentally, that I enjoyed it, and that it reminded me of the bigger picture.

My bigger picture at that time was becoming a public interest attorney. I was already working in legal aid and represented community organizations through my law school clinic. Remembering this “why” was critical for me as I slogged through courses liked Secured Transactions and Business Organizations.

So, yoga didn’t only provide stress relief, it helped me re-focus on my goal.

Yoga and my legal career

Stephanie and a yoga teacher
Stephanie and R. Sharath Jois, a well-known yoga teacher from Mysore, India.

Once I graduated from law school I had more free time, so I dived deeper into yoga. In so doing, the benefits of a yoga practice became clearer. Yoga made me a better attorney, particularly in my legal aid work.

As you know, those first few years of law practice come with a lot of anxiety, unknowns, and thoughts like: “Sure, the International Shoe and Palsgraf cases were interesting, but why weren’t we taught practical things in law school like how to walk into a courthouse and file a case?”

Through yoga, I learned how taking deep breaths can provide peace during uncertain and challenging moments, like arguing my first motion in court. It also taught me how to manage overwhelming feelings, which is critical when working in high-pressure situations, like with clients who are being evicted or experiencing abuse.

As my public interest legal career continued, my yoga practice helped me better navigate the challenges of a high caseload and confront the limits of the law. And, after years of reaping the benefits of yoga, I even decided to get certified to teach and now have two yoga teacher certifications.

As I become a more experienced and knowledgeable yoga practitioner, I realize that there’s always more to learn. No matter how many times I do a downward dog pose, it’s never the same; there are always aspects to refine and more advanced poses to learn.

In this way, yoga is like practicing law. Sure, you see some similar legal issues, but there are nuances in every case and changes to the law that you must consider.

Purposeful practice

Stephanie practicing yoga at home
Practicing yoga in a pandemic.

Throughout my legal career, yoga has and continues to ground me in my purpose. Even after 20 years, my mind regularly wanders during yoga practice, but I now notice that it’s easier to return to the present moment.

In so doing, as an attorney, I focus less on what might happen or dwell on mistakes made. This frees up thoughts to focus on other things like reminding myself of my “why” and making sure I don’t lose sight of that. Yoga is like a compass for me and that’s why it makes me a better attorney.

I have waxed on about how yoga has made me a better attorney. However, my goal here isn’t to get you to do yoga if it’s not your thing.

Instead, I encourage you to find your yoga. What’s something you enjoy that takes your mind off of legal practice? What reminds you of your “why” when you lose sight of it? What makes you a better attorney?

There is no such thing as too many attorneys working to better themselves. So, take some time to reflect on what makes you a better attorney and do it. Happy National Yoga Month and Happy Whatever Makes You a Better Attorney Month.

 

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