If you are reading this issue of GPSolo, then either you already have awareness on some level that life is a bit better when you take care of yourself, or you are intrigued by the possibility that things could be better if you invoke a little self-care. The following series of short articles explore how several lawyers have found their own way to weave a little self-care into their lives.
Whether it is simply taking a moment to deliberately slow down the breath, getting out of your office and exploring nature, bringing the practice of yoga or pets into your workday, or perhaps experiencing music and dance, find your own way to step away from the hectic pace of life, slow down, even for a moment, and bring a little clarity and calm to your world. So, take a moment and explore— what brings you joy? What stokes your passion? What brings you back to center? And as these authors have done, incorporate a little of it into your life, even if only for a few moments each day.
By Cedric Ashley
We often hear the phrase “just breathe” when someone is emotional or upset or hyper-anxious. It is offered as a gentle command to help control breathing. We often underestimate the power of breathing. Breathing happens every second of our lives without any effort on our part, even while we are asleep.
But we also have control over our breathing. We hold our breath underwater. As kids we held contests to see who could hold their breath the longest. Control of our breathing can be essential to becoming more mindful, more balanced, and reducing stress. Trust me, if a basic guy like me can become more deliberate about using the power of breathing, then so can you.
About 18 months ago I became more intentional about leveraging the power of breathing into my everyday life. To the extent that I am not always consistent about doing it every day, I know the skills that can be deployed when I need it on an urgent basis. Admittedly, I’m not one who’s very much into yoga or deep meditation. But I found my place in the breathing space by using a smartphone app. No endorsement here, but I use Headspace. The app has both a free version and a paid subscription version. A quick Google search or app store search will yield a wide array of apps to suit your needs.
So, how do I incorporate breathing and this app into my life? A couple ways. First, I try—note the word try—to use this app (or another tech wonder that I will tell you about later) every day to begin my day. You would not believe how two to five minutes of focused deliberate breathing can jump-start your day. I’m not going to teach you how to intentionally breathe (as a meditative or mindfulness practice) here, but you will find that deliberately inhaling through the nostrils with long, deep breaths that fill the lungs, and slowly exhaling through a small opening of the mouth, and repeating this at least seven to nine times per minute will work wonders for your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress level. Just one minute of this type of breathing will bring about instant calm.
In addition to beginning my day in this manner, I also use the practice as an intervention for events of the day that will induce stress. For example, if I am headed to a court appearance that I know will be very intense, I will complete a quick breathing session with my app before I get out of my car. Conversely, deliberate breathing can be a great de-stressor after a particularly combative court session. It is as simple as going to the restroom a flight above or below your courtroom floor to have a breathing session (obviously you may choose not to use the app if it has audio to guide you along).
Earlier I mentioned another tech wonder that can assist you in developing and maintaining a deliberate breathing practice. Again, no endorsement here, but the Apple Watch is amazing! There is a simple watchOS app called Breathe. You can set the app to the number of minutes or breaths you want to complete in a session and just start the app. You don’t have to worry about audio, so you can complete a session anywhere. The watch also has haptic feedback (a light physical sensory feeling) so you can literally feel when you should inhale and exhale. The app will also provide reminders throughout the day to take a moment to breathe. It could not get any simpler.
Let me provide a little example of how smart this watch is. At the end of a particularly heated court hearing, my watch signaled me with a haptic pulse and the screen read: “we have noticed an increased heart rate after a period of inactivity.” Yes, as the court was delivering its ruling—that clearly was not going my way—the watch detected a change in my heart rate. That digital notice gave me the opportunity after the court session to use my breathing app to begin to calm myself. Without doubt, the benefits are enormous, and the time and effort required are minimal. So just do it—breathe!
Walking in Nature
By Kathleen Balthrop Havener
With my eight siblings, I grew up in (then) pristine northwest Florida on a bluff overlooking the shores of Santa Rosa Sound, a body of water that connects Pensacola Bay and Choctawhatchee Bay. Seldom did a day go by when I did not find some time alone, even as young as six or seven, to descend the 56 steps to the wharf, then five more to the beach, to walk the sugar white sands about one-third of a mile to “the Point,” where the Sound and the Bay meet. From Town Point one could see two beautiful bays, the town of Pensacola across the water, and the aircraft carriers (first the USS Antietam and then “Lady Lex”—the USS Lexington) that were then the flight training vessels for all naval and Marine Corps aviators at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. I would climb onto the rocks of the jetty that was the Point and listen to the wind and the waves. In fair weather or foul, in blazing sun or torrential rain, I learned very early that there was my comfort.
As I got older, and poetry became another refuge, I began to appreciate what I had always had. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a favorite when I was a girl. One of the first poems I memorized was “Exiled,” in which she declares herself “Sick of the city, wanting the sea.” She concludes, “I have need of water near.” Me, too. When I can hear the wind and the waves, my heart rate slows. My thinking clears. I am more myself than at any other time.
When, in the words of poet William Wordsworth, “The world is too much with us,” I know of no better way of restoring our hearts than to walk away from the never-ending, rapid-fire nature of our lives, the everyday demands that are crying for our attention, and venture into the outside world. I do not mean the world outside our offices, although that might sometimes suffice. I mean entirely away, to move through space into a part of the world, large or small, where we can hear songbirds call, insects hum, wind sighing or whipping, the quiet of a still night, the easy lapping or cymbals crashing of the sea. Walking and listening are the keys for me. But what joy to be surprised by sights that leave me breathless: a butterfly, a rainbow, a porpoise surfacing, the sun streaming in visible rays, a thundercloud so angry and black I expect it to crash atop my head.
When we take the time to listen and observe, we cannot help but be grateful. And gratitude enriches us. So much has been said about extracting oneself from the clamor of the workaday world and filling oneself with the richness of nature that it could begin to sound trite. Except it isn’t. From the early naturalist and conservationist John Muir came the advice, “break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” All of them were right. Nothing can make you think more clearly, breathe more easily, or appreciate beauty more than removing yourself from the task(s) that confront you and seeking refuge—even for an hour—in the outdoors. Emerson’s comment is especially apt to me. Seeing and hearing nature slows me down. And I desperately need to slow down.
As a young mother visiting my childhood home, I would take any chance I might find to slip away with my three little daughters, inevitably carrying one, on the same walk down the beach to the Point. The girls would splash when it was warm, watch the shallows for minnows and crabs, comb the beach for shells, sometimes chattering, more often quiet and watchful. One of my most vivid memories is of my youngest, at about three, tiptoeing wide-eyed into the shallow water, cupping her hands and calling breathlessly, “Mother! Look!” In her little hands was the tiniest seahorse I had ever seen, no more than an inch high. It was one of those moments of wonder that never fades.
My young daughter taught me a separate lesson. One cannot see if one isn’t watching. One cannot hear when one isn’t listening. Our lives, our desks, our homes, our families are so noisy and cluttered and demanding. Moving our bodies through the outdoors to watch and listen is a balm to our sometimes-battered spirits. It’s an exercise in gratitude to the earth. Bessie Rayner Parkes, early feminist and mother of Hilaire Belloc, wrote:
All natural things both live and move
In natural peace that is their own.
We humans are natural things. We live and move. Paying a visit to nature helps you to live and move in your own natural peace.
By Christine Duignan
We attorneys often call what we do the “practice of law.” Yoga, too, is a practice. By integrating these two complementary practices, lawyers can achieve greater relaxation and increased energy, along with an overall improved sense of well-being.
The meaning of yoga. Yoga refers to a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices that originated in India. The term “yoga” means “yoke” or “union.” This definition refers to the mind-body connection that is the essence of the yoga practice. The most familiar elements of yoga are asana (poses), pranayama (breath), and savasana (relaxation). The reason we do yoga poses and breath work is to prepare us for the ultimate purpose of the practice, which is sustained relaxation.
Why practice yoga? There is a growing body of scientific consensus supporting yoga’s benefits. The scientific community has concluded that yoga can help reduce stress, relieve tension, and calm the mind. Dr. Mithu Storoni, a medical doctor, neuroscientist, and yoga teacher, explains the fundamental principles of the science behind yoga as follows: yoga activates our parasympathetic nervous system by boosting levels of “happy” brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. The elevation in these brain chemicals promotes relaxation.
Integrating yoga into your law practice. One of the beauties of yoga is its inherent simplicity. Yoga does not require special equipment, nor, contrary to popular belief, does it require flexibility. All you need is a willingness to try.
Yoga is available to all of us, in virtually any situation. For example, at the office we spend hours sitting in chairs, staring at computers. This creates stress in our bodies and our minds. To alleviate this tension, we can do simple yoga poses at our desks. Here is an example you can do now: Start by standing, sweep your arms out wide and overhead, lean back gently, and slowly release your arms by your sides. As you repeat the series, contemplate moving with more awareness and less effort. When you have completed a few rounds, pause and notice how you feel. When we move consciously, our sense of vitality is reawakened as tension melts away.
Integrating yoga into your law practice is about more than just movement. A fundamental component of the yoga practice is ensuring that we breathe consciously. Set your phone for a convenient time to check in with yourself every day. When the timer goes off, pause and notice. How is your breathing? Is it shallow or constricted? Place a hand on your abdomen and a hand on your chest, take a deep breath in and sigh it out. Repeat this process several times until you feel a sense of release in your body. When we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and we often end up breathing shallowly without even realizing it, which increases both physical and mental pressure. Setting a time to reconnect with our breath creates an occasion for us to make sure that our breath is flowing freely. We feel more vibrant, while at the same time more grounded.
For busy lawyers, there are many unrecognized opportunities for yoga throughout our day. Yoga is available to us while we wait in court, drive to a client meeting, or review documents. When we wait, we can do so with purpose, standing tall with our shoulders back and our chest open. We can drive in silence, attuned to that singular experience. As we review documents, we can concentrate with focus and deliberation. With such attention and mindfulness to even the most mundane tasks, we can transform our routine experiences with fresh perspectives.
Explore the yoga community. Practicing law can sometimes be a solitary pursuit. Yoga classes allow us to discover the benefits of a shared experience, being among like-minded practitioners. Some law firms incorporate yoga into their wellness programs, bringing classes right to the office. Many bar associations now offer yoga and mindfulness seminars for CLE credit; there are also webinars for lawyers on yoga and mindfulness practices. Virtually every community offers a range of yoga classes; online opportunities also abound, with multitudes of yoga classes offered on YouTube and other platforms. So be curious about the wealth of opportunities for yoga in your community.
The boundless practice. As attorneys, we continuously develop our practice because the law is always evolving. So it is with yoga. The nature of both practices is one of limitless growth. As yoga allows us to move through our days with enhanced attention and purpose, we cultivate mindfulness. This heightened awareness connects us more deeply with our bodies and our minds, allowing us to live with greater ease and equanimity.
Pets in the Office
By Beth C. Manes
For most law firms, the knee-jerk reaction to allowing pets in the office is, “No, absolutely not! They will distract from the work environment.” For Manes & Weinberg, my New Jersey law firm specializing in special-needs law, it was a natural evolution that occurred without much discussion. My family and I raise puppies for The Seeing Eye® in Morristown, New Jersey, and my partner Jessica Weinberg and her family are involved in dog rescue.
As The Seeing Eye® puppies are service animals in training, I am allowed to take them almost everywhere. The puppies have long been a presence in our office, and I know our clients love having them around. I take them to court so often that when I arrive without a trainee, court officers, clerks, and even judges ask where the dog is. A few years ago, I started bringing the puppies with me to Child Study Team meetings in schools as well. I quickly realized that the presence of the dog in the meeting room reduced the tension level not just for clients, but for opposing parties as well, therefore making it easier for everyone to negotiate.
Since the Manes & Weinberg practice focuses on helping families with special-needs children, we do not need to maintain a stuffy corporate atmosphere. In fact, our clients prefer the comfort of a casual office—with dogs. Therefore, when Jessica and I were looking for new office space, finding a building that would allow non-service animals was top priority.
Having a friendly pet in the office adds a sense of calm and comfort to anyone working or visiting. Although a personable receptionist is important, no one makes a person feel more welcome than a dog wagging a tail, begging to be petted. The dogs do not just make the clients feel better, they boost the morale of employees as well. A lawyer facing writer’s block or an assistant who had a tough phone call with a difficult adversary will often wander into an office with a dog in it just to sit and play with the dog for a little while until the stress subsides a bit.
The dogs also add forced breaks that all lawyers need during the day. It is easy to get so caught up in the work that has to be done that a lawyer never leaves the office and even works through lunch. However, a dog will drop a ball at your feet, or whine to go out, reminding you that it is time to take a step back, clear your head, and get some exercise. At Manes & Weinberg, these dog-walking breaks are sometimes used for uninterrupted strategy sessions.
Jessica’s eight-year-old Shih Tzu, though only allowed to work in the office, also does his share to keep the clients happy. Occasionally, he will even sit in a client’s lap during a meeting. Initial consults often take a few hours, so he might doze off, but his snoring certainly adds comic relief to the meetings.
Though any office could benefit from a “pets always” policy, lawyers must be mindful of certain issues that will arise, for example, clients or visitors who are afraid of or allergic to dogs. Also, some clients might arrive at your office with service or emotional support animals of their own, which may not be permitted to socialize with your office pets. Finally, as lawyers, we must always be aware of potential liability of having a dog in the office: Does your lease permit animals? Is there an additional security deposit? What if your animal harms someone? It is important to look into all these questions. And if you choose to have pets in your office, it is crucial that they be well-trained, socialized, and comfortable in an office environment. It is also important that your staff knows the rules for your office pets. Everyone needs to follow the same guidelines so the pets maintain their training and do not fall into poor habits, such as begging or other distracting or disruptive behaviors.
Overall, I have found that having dogs in the office not only helps with client relations and stress management in and out of the office, but just as important it keeps up morale, and even improves office productivity. Having a pet in the office may not be for everyone, but with the proper office training, the right pet could be a game changer for your practice, just as it has been for Manes & Weinberg.
By Lesly Longa Vaillancourt
I wasn’t always a flamenco dancer. Eleven years ago, I quit my job in Washington, D.C., and moved to my hometown of Tampa, Florida, after 14 years away for school and work. I decided to start my own practice, and, as I began to build my client base, I found myself with a little free time. I had always loved dance and grew up surrounded by Spanish and Latin music, so the rhythmic artistry of flamenco appealed to me. I initially thought that flamenco dance class would just be a good workout in nail-soled heels, but I found so much more. For that hour, I gained a bit of peace and a break from life, work, bills, and clients. While I was dancing, nothing else mattered apart from what I could make my body do in those 60 minutes.
Flamenco is an artistic tradition of storytelling that originated from people who were on the outskirts of society (Christians, Jews, and Romanies in Spain under Arab rule) and that was later influenced by Cubans and Latin Americans. At its essence, flamenco is about the expression of emotion, grace, and pride.
As class begins, you stand in front of the mirror, look at yourself, extend your arms above your head, and stretch all the way out to the tips of your fingers. Then rotate your hands clockwise and counterclockwise circling your body, starting with the right and then adding the left hand. The flamenco dancer stands straight and tall with grace and pride, as if a string extends from the top of your neck, past your shoulder blades, and down to the center of your lower back. Tighten that string at your shoulder blades and drag it down. Elongate your body with your shoulders back. If it hurts, then you are probably doing it right. The flamenco dancer emits fire and elegance from the tips of his fingers down through the soles of his feet. This elegant form is nothing without meaningful movements that pay meticulous attention to the emotion and beauty inspired by the flamenco song.
Flamenco can evoke feelings of happiness, anger, romance, jealousy, mourning, and celebration, depending on the performers and the music. The task for the flamenco dancer is to determine how to make beautiful movements inspired by these emotions. That is the great power, beauty, and culture of flamenco. The music, song, and dance all partake in the storytelling.
As my teacher would say, “la música lo pide.” Do what the music asks. The feet are the percussionists and can make any sounds through a variety of footwork combinations, the zapateo, as long as those sounds stay within the compás, the rhythmic pattern of the particular musical style. The arms and hands are the accompaniment, along with a fan or an embroidered shawl, a mantón, on occasion. Add emotion to the movements and give good face: con carácter. Then there are the castanets, a hand percussion tool of flamenco, adding another rhythmic accompaniment to the dancing. The flamenco dancer must focus on sound with body and mind, dancing through mindfulness in motion.
I know it sounds a bit intimidating, and if you have seen any real flamenco, then rest assured great dancers make it look easy to achieve the correct form, sound, and speed. There are so many elements to consider, I have never been on auto-pilot during a class or practice, and I have always found it incredibly stress relieving. Studies have found that dancing does make you happier. In some cities, there are classes now focused on dancing for mindfulness. I know dancing makes me feel better after a long workday.
Even after babies and illnesses, I keep coming back to flamenco. At eight months pregnant, dancing and twirling, I appeared to defy the law of gravity. At one point I was dancing flamenco as often as five hours a week. I even spent a month in Sevilla studying dance—my kind of a “wellness retreat” that included dessert and wine daily. But a couple of years ago I was in a horrible car accident, and my neck and back injury led me to give up flamenco for quite some time. I thought my injury and the chronic pain I suffer prevented me from dancing. When I found out that my first flamenco teacher, the incomparable Curra Alba, was retiring, I dragged myself to a class and found that I had been missing so much.
When done correctly, flamenco dancing offers the opportunity to think of only dancing with good form while focusing on emotion, sound, and the sequence of movements. Flamenco dancing allows you to put away your to-do list and discard thoughts of “oh, my belly looks big; this is too difficult; will the judge grant that motion?” A flamenco dancer focuses solely on what the body must be doing and what sounds the feet are making.
I love flamenco. Flamenco makes me happy. And when any of my fellow flamencos need an attorney, guess who they call?