During the week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tina Cundari strides across the stone floors of the federal courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina, her mind constantly active with arguments and strategy. But for an hour on Saturday mornings, she’s gliding barefoot across a cork floor, helping students find physical and mental peace on their yoga mats.
Cundari begins her day practicing yoga, including meditation, which she said prepares her for the challenges at the workplace as chief of the U.S. Attorney’s office’s civil division.
“I think because I’ve been practicing it so long now and I’ve developed that habit of doing it in the morning before a big event, I can go into big things so much more peacefully than I used to,” she said. “And I don’t even really need to do anything right beforehand because I think I’m so set up well from the morning, that it helps me during the day.”
Jennifer Venable, general counsel at Capitol Broadcasting Company in Raleigh, said her yoga practice has been a mainstay of her sanity for the last 20 years. When an attorney’s mind is constantly rushing from one thought to the next, an hour on the yoga mat can help focus the mind on the present, and slow down those thoughts and the physical reactions they can cause.
“There’s so much value in finding an activity that allows you to do that when your job is to think about the future, think about the potential risks, play out scenarios. That’s what we do all day long. And I find it a huge respite to not have to think through those things,” she said.
Bridge over troubled waters
Yoga is a form of philosophy, not a religion. It is an ancient practice that combines the collective use of the body, mind, and spirit for the benefit of the individual and the individual’s contribution society, and medical research suggests that it can have significant benefits for mental and physical health.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a U.S. government agency that studies complementary and alternative medicine, reviewed 17 medical studies involving more than 1,000 participants, 12 of which showed improvements in physical or psychological stress management through the use of yoga. Another review, investigating the effects of yoga on positive aspects of mental health, looked at 14 studies involving nearly 1,100 participants, and 10 of them found evidence of benefits from practicing yoga, such as general mental well-being or improvements in resilience.
The NCCIH determined there was not enough research to connect yoga to improvement in common mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. But a national survey from 2012 found that 94 percent of adults who practice yoga said they did so for wellness-related reasons: 86 percent reported practicing yoga reduced stress, and 67 percent of those surveyed said practicing yoga improved their emotional lives.
Within the legal profession, stress relief and improvement in emotional wellbeing would be especially welcome. A 2016 study conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation of nearly 13,000 licensed attorneys found that 46 percent reported experiencing depression at some point in their careers and 61 percent reported concerns with anxiety. And at some point in their careers, 11.5 percent reported experiencing suicidal thoughts.
A posing counsel
Yoga classes typically cater to students with a wide diversity of experience levels and physical abilities. Mariana Godwin’s paralegal noticed her stress level one day three years ago and “dragged” Godwin to the yoga class she takes regularly at lunchtime. The two have been attending together ever since then. She said she found it was one of the best ways to settle down her active mind.
“Finding this and being able to do this on a regular basis has saved my mental life, if not just me in general,” said Godwin, of Barefoot Family Law in Raleigh. “I was just a ball of stress and living under that kind of pressure all day and every day is not good for your body.”
Both Venable and Cundari said occasionally when they feel their shoulders getting tight or their mind racing, they’ll take some deep cleansing breaths and stretch.
“Getting a chance to elongate my spine instead of cramped over the keyboard, sort of open up,” Venable said. “And that helps. That leads to a better breath.”
Amy Gaffney, of GaffneyLewis in Charleston, South Carolina, and a civil court mediator, became a yoga instructor three years ago. Gaffney said she’s been able to use the wisdom gained through her yoga practice in her professional practice. It helps her deal with the conflicts she faces every day at the office.
“For so many of us lawyers who, all the time are in our heads thinking about the next challenge, thinking about how we’re going to work out somebody’s conflict, thinking about how we’re going to try a case or approach a mediation, it really helps calm that whole orchestra down for a period of time,” Gaffney said. “And I think, once you still your mind, it refreshes you and you can approach situations, challenges, conflicts, with a more fresh outlook.”
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