Written by Alisaundre van Ammers, yoga teacher and senior solicitor at MinterEllisonRuddWatts, with thanks to Madison Edilson, solicitor

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How developing a yoga practice now can help reduce stress, increase well-being and prepare you for life after law school

Like many things worth doing, getting a law degree is not without its challenges. The intellectually demanding nature of the subject matter, the heavy workloads and the pressure (whether real or perceived) to perform and compete can make law school feel overwhelming. At the same time, many law students are away from home for the first time, working to support themselves and in the process of forming new social networks and adjusting to the university environment.

It is not surprising, then, that most of us either have or will experience stress and anxiety while at law school. Some signs you might be affected include difficulty sleeping, feeling stiff and tense, changes in appetite, shortness of breath, having trouble unwinding (without alcohol), constant worrying and decreased ability to enjoy things that previously brought happiness.

While we are encouraged to talk with fellow law students and other friends about how much we have to do and how busy we are, it can be more difficult to acknowledge that we might be struggling as a result. Society tends to perpetuate the idea that being busy is a sign of competence and productivity and that constant striving is essential to success. There’s no doubt that in some situations stress is a healthy reaction and that pressure can motivate us to achieve our best. However, my own experience has taught me that there is a point at which stress becomes counterproductive and detrimental to one’s mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Given that exposure to stressors is unavoidable (especially if you are actively engaged in your degree and intend to go on to practice law), it’s important to start to think about how you are going to manage stress and take care of yourself. Any healthy habits you develop as a student will be invaluable as you transition into working life.

Of course, there are myriad options out there for stress management and we all need to find what works for us. For me, practising yoga has been essential to managing my stress levels and allows me to function at my best and genuinely enjoy my role as a commercial lawyer. I feel so passionately about it that I trained as a yoga teacher in India so that I can make yoga more accessible to others. To that end I currently run lunch time classes for my colleagues and teach private classes for other lawyers and professionals.

Benefits of yoga

Yoga is unique in that it focuses on both the physical body and the mind, allowing us to develop and strengthen both:

  • Yoga requires us to slow down and turn our focus inwards, primarily by encouraging us to pay conscious attention to our breathing. This helps us to tune into our physical bodies and become more grounded, which is especially important after long periods of intellectual work which causes us to identify strongly with the mind. It also helps us to be more in touch with ourselves and better able to gauge what we need and when.
  • Unlike other forms of physical exercise, a well-designed yoga sequence targets the entire body, building strength and lengthening muscles while increasing flexibility. Law students and lawyers spend many hours a day sitting. We therefore need to ensure we take time to look after our spines and to move our bodies to mitigate the negative impacts of long periods of stillness in unnatural positions. A strong, flexible body means less discomfort when studying or in the work environment.
  • A lot of stress and emotion is stored in the physical body as muscular tension. The stretching aspect of yoga helps us to release this tension, which in turn helps the mind to relax.
  • Yoga is a practice and a journey, not a competition. With yoga, there are no end goals, there is no perfection and no need to compare yourself with others. Embracing a personal practice and learning to acknowledge and accept your personal strengths and limitations on the mat translates into the rest of your life. I have found it makes me more gentle on myself and more willing to keep trying when I don’t get things right the first time.
  • Yoga asks you to make time for yourself. Whether it’s just 20 minutes to follow a YouTube video in your bedroom after class, or 2 hours to make it to a class in town, the point is that you are making space in your life to stop and focus on your own well-being. We all need that.
  • Anyone can do yoga, regardless of physical fitness and sporting prowess. We all start at different points and develop at different paces. There is a yoga style and class for everyone.

Getting started

Lastly, some tips for getting started:

  • See if a friend wants to get involved – it’s always easier to stay motivated when you’re in it together.
  • If you are a beginner, accept that and embrace it. Be excited to learn. Try not to have any expectations about how it should go or how you should be at it. Trust the process. It will make more and more sense over time.
  • Check out whether your uni offers classes for students – they are likely to be cheap and conveniently located.
  • Have a look on YouTube for beginner videos where you can follow along with an instructor. I like Lesley Fightmaster’s YouTube channel.
  • You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get into yoga. Don’t worry about what you’re wearing – you just need to be comfortable. A $20 yoga mat is fine. If you can’t afford that, the floor is good too! Maybe you can start to invest more in yoga equipment if you find you are really passionate about the practice.
  • The benefits of yoga really only come with regular practice and over time. I would suggest 20 minutes 4 – 5 times a week over 1 hour 2 times a week. Consistency is the key! Even if pressed for time, just so something.
  • Experiment – go to different classes, check out different teachers online. There are lots of styles and ways of approaching yoga and it may take some time to find the one that truly resonates with you.
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