Yoga’s Key to Alleviating Stress in the Legal Profession
Utilising the techniques, philosophy and ethics of yoga to bring permanent and fundamental changes for the better, by Monica Bond, 2017
- The legal profession has some of the highest rates of depression, stress, mental illness and suicide of all the professions. This Elective explores the reasons for this and highlights the many ways in which yoga can make a very real difference to the lives of those who are anxious and stressed.
- It sets out the ways in which a regular yoga practice has the potential to radically alter a person’s life for the better, bringing measurable improvements to a person’s mental and physical wellbeing and to their levels of emotional resilience.
- In particular, the aim of the writer is to provide highly practical guidance, written with the largely unavoidable constraints imposed by the nature of the profession itself in mind, e.g. the fact that it often involves largely sedentary work, frequently hunched over a desk for long hours, and within a highly competitive environment etc.
- It is written from the perspective of over 40 years and 30 years practice of yoga and law respectively and draws on personal experience, the experience of colleagues, empirical evidence and such medical research as is accessible to the writer as a layperson in such matters.
The writer wishes to warmly acknowledge the contribution of her colleagues in Bond Solicitors in relation to the practical research undertaken in the preparation of this Elective, with very special thanks to Adrian Bond MSc; ACA, Ralph Bond BA, and Teresa Johnston LLB.
(I) The Context (i): the Environment:
The LawCare chief executive Elizabeth Rimmer has said: ‘There is something about the culture of law, legal education and professional practice that can make lawyers vulnerable. The culture is one known for poor work-life balance, long hours and a competitive environment. The legal profession also tends to attract perfectionist personalities, and this combination of factors can take its toll on wellbeing.’
In 2013, The Law Society interviewed 2,226 solicitors about stress at work and more than 95% said that their stress was extreme or severe. Even more worryingly, more recent research has indicated that it is particularly amongst younger lawyers that there are higher levels of stress being reported, and higher numbers being affected. Of the factors contributing to these higher levels of stress, one of the greatest was stated to be an overwhelming sense of lack of control, especially in the face of an ever-increasing workload. (See, for example: “Resilience and Wellbeing Survey Report: Junior Lawyers Division April 2017).
(I) The Context (ii): Inherent Personality Traits:
Resilience is a person’s capacity for stress-related growth, and lawyer personality research reveals that lawyers as a population tend to be quite low in the trait. In fact, many lawyers score in the 30th percentile or lower, revealing thin-skinned tendencies, taking criticism personally, and being overly defensive and resistant to feedback. According to Dr. Larry Richard, a leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behaviour, the reason for these low scores is that the two main building blocks that build resilience, namely: (1) thinking flexibly about challenges and framing adversity in an accurate way; and (2) developing high-quality connections with others, are frustrated by lawyers’ exceedingly high levels of sceptism (measured in the 90th percentile) and exceedingly low levels of sociability (measured in the 12th percentile), as shown by these charts comparing lawyers with the general public:
Sceptism, in particular, is a two-edged sword: it is a professional skill which lawyers hone to a fine edge in order to fight injustice on behalf of their clients and to more readily detect irregularities, fraud and lies in their adversaries. However, one must be constantly aware of this trait and temper it in situations which call for a more trusting and collaborative approach.
Finally, there is a rather curious trait which seems to afflict a number of lawyers and that is to think everything they do is urgent, and that life must be taken at break neck speed, notwithstanding that any objective assessment of the matter in hand would indicate otherwise.
Dr. Richard states: “A high score on Urgency is characterised by impatience, a sense of immediacy…The excellent lawyers in our study scored roughly twenty % higher on this trait than the general public. Urgent people charge around like they are on their way to a fire. There is an intensity to their behavioural style, since they are results-orientated. [However] urgency can have a negative side as well…The potential downside of this trait emerges most significantly in interpersonal relationships. Urgent lawyers who try to be “efficient at relationships” may eventually realise what an oxymoron this idea is”.
Taken to the extreme, and combined with the pressures of the ever-increasing, highly competitive environment described above, these personality traits can, if unchecked, become deeply damaging to the individuals’ psyche, physical and mental health and well-being. In essence, Yoga addresses all of these issues.
Yoga is multi-faceted and works to address each of these issues in its uniquely holistic and synergistic way, as described in more detail below. In essence, it is holistic because it observes and nurtures the symbiotic relationship between all parts of the body and the mind. A few simple examples of this may suffice e.g. a postural misalignment will frequently generate pain or physical damage in a completely different part of the body. That pain then, depending on its level of severity, will have an immediate negative impact on that person’s mood, general demeanour, willingness to engage in physical activity and, quite possibly, a negative impact on those around them – all of which inevitably contribute to a vicious cycle of further problems. Another simple example is
the release of endorphins on the conclusion of one’s Asana practice. “Consistent yoga practice improves depression and can lead to significant increases in serotonin levels coupled with decreases in the levels of monamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters and cortisol.”
The profound wisdom, and the highly practical and accessible techniques, of yoga – which were first taught millennia ago – remain as vital and as relevant to the challenges of modern life, as they ever did, arguably far more so.
“By restoring the body, yoga frees the mind from the negative feelings caused by the fast pace of modern life. The practice of yoga fills up the reservoirs of hope and optimism within you. It is a rebirth.”
(II) How is the Body Restored, and the Mind Freed, by Yoga?
Yoga techniques are designed to enable a person to maintain a state of optimal physical and mental health, emotional resilience and overall wellbeing. “Yoga exercises discourage violent movements and retrain your muscles to let go of tension. Breathing exercises can help control your mood swings while developing your ability to stay calm in the most stressful situations.” (“Yoga” by Swami Saradananda).
Asanas (physical poses) and pranayama (breathing exercises) are the two main techniques of Hatha Yoga. The benefits of yoga practice can be experienced from the very first Hatha Yoga class you attend but they will especially accrue with regular practice. Daily practice is the ideal and is easier to fit into a busy life than one might think. The following are a few suggestions as to how busy lawyers can fit yoga into their daily lives:
Allocate time and space when you will be undisturbed. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali gives instructions on how to meditate: the second sutra in the first chapter states that yoga (or union) happens when the mind becomes quiet. This mental stillness is created by bringing the body, mind and senses into balance which, in turn, relaxes the nervous system.
As with any new practice, it is best to take small steps to start with. A newcomer to yoga may find Mindfulness an easier entry-point initially to lengthier meditation sessions in due course (whilst this is not, in any way, to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, mindfulness is a form of meditation).
The essence of mindfulness could not be better expressed than by quoting from William Blake’s poem: Auguries of Innocence. The poem begins with a quatrain which captures how the beauty of nature and the universe can be easily experienced in the small everyday details:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.”
Similarly, “He who kisses the Joy as it flies/Lives in Eternity’s Sunrise”.
Mindfulness can easily be practised when you take a walk at lunchtime, sit in a park, perform some ordinary daily task or – and especially – as you practice your Asanas, either in a yoga class or as part of your self-practice. “Mindfulness is a deceptively simple skill that facilitates an individual’s non-judgmental focus on the present through awareness of cognitive and somatic states” (Salmon, Hanneman, & Harwood, 2010). 
- Asanas during the day and after work
Yoga reinforces the vital message that sufficient, frequent movement is essential to our overall health. Take every appropriate moment you can, for example, to stand in your discussions with colleagues, to stretch, to roll your ankles and wrists and to gently roll your shoulders to avoid the tension which can accumulate around your neck from prolonged hunching over your desk. Such simple but highly effective exercises are also part of the range of Body Awakening poses in relation to which you will be guided by the yoga teacher at the start of a typical Hatha Yoga class.
The physical benefits of regular yoga practice are manifest, and include increased flexibility, strength, stamina/endurance, improved cardiovascular health, lung capacity and ease of breathing problems, as well as helping in the prevention or alleviation of various ailments. The extent to which such benefits are experienced will depend on one’s personal practice and variables such as frequency, quality and nature of practice. There are many yoga paths (“margas”), and as your interest develops you will work out which is the right path for you; however, each discipline complements the other.
- Internal and External Purification.
One of the Eight Limbs of Hatha Yoga set out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is internal and external purification. These include:
- Yamas – your ethical relationship with society; the five Yamas listed by Patanjali include moral imperatives such as nonviolence/non-harming other living beings (Ahimsa) and truthfulness (Satya); and
- Niyamas – your moral relationship with yourself; these set out the good habits we should all adopt and the bad habits we should avoid. These include endeavouring to have purity in mind, speech and body.
A modern day translation of aspects of the Niyamas would, for example, proscribe the taking of all toxins/injurious products into the body, such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugary drinks and products.
Whilst some of Patanjali’s prescripts may seem like impossible ideals at the outset of our yoga journey, every small step represents progress. Patanjali shows that, with practice and discipline, our bad habits are increasingly replaced by good, to the overall improvement of both personal well-being and that of society. One of the most important principles of yoga is compassion, and this includes non-judgmental encouragement and kindness towards oneself: it is a practice and philosophy which especially rewards patience and tenacity.
- Pranayama (breathing exercises).
Pranayama is the Fourth of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. A golden theme which runs through much of yoga theory and practice is the importance of consciousness of one’s breathing and the practical application of various breathing exercises to improve physical and mental wellbeing.
Shallow, fast breathing – so often associated with stressful events and anxiety – is self-perpetuating. Rapid breathing makes the body think it is stressed, thereby triggering a “fight or flee” response, leading to both immediate and potentially long term effects of elevated cortisol levels and high blood pressure. Conversely, deep breaths stimulate the opposing parasympathetic reaction, which brings about an almost instantaneous calming effect throughout the body and mind and vital long term physiological benefits. Given that the feeling of lack of control features so heavily in all the studies of stress amongst lawyers, this is an important area to focus on. Whilst we cannot always easily control our thoughts, we can normally control our breath patterns. By consciously focusing on our breath, and breathing more deeply and slowly, even over the space of a few minutes, we invariably calm our minds and bodies.
“To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”
“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self”
The Bhagavid Gita
From the early steps of that journey, you will discover that Yoga – in a myriad of ways – will provide you with the key to unlocking a calmer, less stressful and much healthier way of living.
 Scientific research into the measurable and independently verifiable effects of yoga on mind and body has only developed relatively recently, in the last few decades, but is growing rapidly. The research sumamrised in this Elective, with citations set out in the attached Bibliography, draws on the research conducted by leading academics, scientists, medical practitioners and authoritative bodies such as the NHS and NICE.
 Aristotle captured the essence of holism in his Metaphysics when he stated ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’. Holism has increasingly become an important part of modern-day healthcare, as a reaction against biomedical reductionism, where the focus is placed on parts of the body in isolation and patients are too often viewed as collection of diseases rather than as individuals.
 Anyone doubting these all pervasive effects need only watch Dr. Gill Hedley’s presentation “The Fuzz Speech” on the accumulation of fascial fibrosis or “fuzz” and the damaging, accumulative effects of lack of movement and of stretching, for example, in an area of nagging pain. As Dr. Hedley states, one can witness the passage of time in the accumulation of “fuzz” within fascia and the body’s interconnective tissues. pain.
 Timothy McCall, MD, author of “Yoga As Medicine” (2007)
 The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are 196 Indian aphorisms compiled prior to 400 CE by the Sage Patanjali drawing on literature about yoga from older traditions.
 Research has established that the leading English Romantic Poet, William Blake (1757-1827) knew the Bhagavad Gita in its first English translation by Sir Charles Wilkins (1785). Blake believed fundamentally “All Religions are One” (1788) and held that “The philosophy of the east taught the first principles of human perception”.
 There extensive case studies on the benefits of mindfulness in business and these are referred to in the Appendix.
 The growing body of scientific research is set out on the websites of the NHS, NICE, Mind and the World Health Organisation, as summarised in the Appendix, as indeed within the research findings of many authoritative bodies worldwide.
 B.K.S. Iyengar: Illustrated Light on Yoga p. 5
 See, for example, Dr. Andrew Weil: “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”
Sources and scientific evidence in support of the conclusions set out above.
As stated at the outset, many of the benefits of Yoga are objectively measureable and there is an ever increasing body of scientific evidence in support of these conclusions. Given the space constraints of this Elective, what follows is simply a short selection of some of the most interesting of relevant recent studies and which have been referred to above, together with all other citations:
Resilience and Wellbeing Survey Report: Junior Lawyers Division April 2017: http://communities.lawsociety.org.uk/Uploads/g/x/g/jld-resilience-and-wellbeing-survey-report-2017.pdf
Report to Legal Management: the Lawyer Personality Revealed. Article by Dr. Larry Richard, published August 2002: http://www.managingpartnerforum.org/tasks/sites/mpf/assets/image/MPF%20-%20WEBSITE%20-%20ARTICLE%20-%20Herding%20Cats%20-%20Richards1.pdf
Dr. Gill Hedley, Ph.D. “The Fuzz Speech” YouTube
Swami Saradananda: “Yoga” Edition 2012
Timothy McCall, MD “Yoga as Medicine” (2007)
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Iyengar BKS. Light on yoga. New York: Shocken Books; 1976. Revised ed.
Salmon, Hanneman and Harwood: “The Sport Psychologist” (2010)
The Mindfulness Institute: “Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace” (2016):
William Blake “Auguries of Innocence” Poems p.18: http://www.consciouslivingfoundation.org/ebooks/new7/william_blake_Poems-2004_9.pdf
Kathleen Raine: “Blake and the New Age” published by Routledge Revivals 2012
Research published and evaluated by the NHS: https://www.evidence.nhs.uk/search?q=yoga+and+wellbeing
Guidance published by the NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Pages/yoga.aspx
The World Health Organisation: http://www.searo.who.int/mediacentre/features/2017/international-yoga-day-2017/en/
Andrew Weil, M.D., Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, where he also holds the Lovell-Jones Endowed Chair in Integrative Rheumatology and is Clinical Professor of Medicine and Professor of Public Health; publication (audio): “Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing”.
POWER POINT PRESENTATION: