Breathe In, Breathe Out

It comes as no surprise that legal professionals in Hong Kong handle a great deal of stress.  The nature of our work demands it.  In one day, we review and draft legal documents that require an acute attention to detail, we negotiate with parties that are as stubborn as we are, we give presentations to update our teams or our clients on the latest paradigm-changing cases, we attend Court to make our case before many a furrowed brow of a Master or Judge, and go back to our homes late at night only to deal with the barrage of emails that have come in from the US or Europe. It is a wonder how so many of us manage to get up in the morning and do it all again the next day.

No one ever said legal work would be easy. However, I do believe there are certain things that can make it easier. Too much stress can lead to work inefficiency. Thus, and rather counter-intuitively, taking time away from work (in order to work better) is key.  This is why it is important to have your own hobbies, as well as your own space and time to relieve stress. 

Personally, I have discovered that in the one hour of free time that I can manage (on some days), I can nip off to a yoga class and have the soothing voice of an instructor tell me to breathe in and out and achieve what appears at first blush to be very simple tasks, such as touching my toes, straightening my back, or just being still.  As someone who takes particular joy in checking things off lists, I find being able to achieve small physical demands such as these (and being able to call it a “work out”) is ideal. Simple as it may seem, yoga is actually structured as a series of manageable movements which, depending on the intensity of the pose (the “asana”) or the duration for which you hold it, turns into the ultimate “me time” dedicated to a communion with yourself. It is the sport of physical movement (which can be as wonderfully slow or as active as you would like it to be, depending on what class you choose to take), it is stretching your poor crumpled posture from hours at a desk, and it is a meditative state where you can just be.  I am no instructor or yogini, but even with my moderate physical prowess (or lack thereof) I am perfectly capable of a vaguely triangular adho mukha śvānāsana (also known as “downward facing dog”) which not only strengthens your shoulders and arms, but also allows you to practice stabilising your core and gives you the best calf stretch of all time.  After about two years into yoga practice now, I have found that it is essential to my everyday well-being and peace of mind, and contributes significantly to how I take on and manage the stresses of my work.  And I’m not the only one either. My friends, many of whom will tell you I got them into yoga, have experienced the same.

The meditative element of yoga sets it apart from other regular, more aerobic work outs. The origins of yoga can be traced back to the 5th and 6th centuries BC in ancient India, where it was much less a physical exercise but more of a way of mentally and spiritually preparing Hindu monks for prayer. It was thought that the movement would slow and focus the mind and prepare the body for a spiritual connection or communion with the self and God, which is why you will hear instructors say that certain poses may elicit an emotional response rather than a physical one (I have been informed more than once that we carry a lot of dark negative energy around our hips so it is important to stretch your hips for a happy mind/body balance). In fact, the word “yoga” is thought to be derived from “yuj” which means “to unite” or “to join” – because the intention of yoga is not merely physical movement but a mental exercise to be still and calm from within. The spiritual, meditative element of yoga is still found in its practice today (after it has evolved into a commercially mass-marketed physical exercise, which has risen in popularity since the 1970s) – you start and end a practice by saying “Namaste”, which has been translated as “I bow to the divine in you” or “My soul greets your soul”.

When I first got into yoga about two years ago, the first class I attended was a candle-lit yin class, which is a class where poses are held for minutes at a time, in order to apply moderate stress to the connective tissues of the body (tendons, fascia, ligaments) with the aim of increasing circulation in the joints and cultivates awareness of stillness, inner silence, and connection between the mind and body. The instructor began by telling us all to sit still and scan our bodies, to take gentle note of how tight our neck feels, how hard our back is, how tense the muscles in our legs are. The poses and the stretches were uncomfortable at first but we were encouraged to breathe through it, by deeply inhaling we sent breath to the source of discomfort and let it go when we exhaled. When I returned home, I felt so calm and relaxed, and was breathing in full deep breaths (rather than my usual short sips of air). I probably slept the best sleep of my life as a result of that class. The next morning I felt so rejuvenated – I was productive at work, and even though handling much the same workload as the day before, did not feel overwhelmed by stress or anxiety. Afterwards, I started going to yoga more regularly, and took a variety of classes, including yang classes which are more active and vigorous, transitioning from one pose to another (not unlike the Chinese Tai Chi) and engaging in more strengthening rather than stretching exercises. I even joined a studio that specialises in yoga classes, a kind of “yoga school” with easily accessible facilities close to work that can get me from desk to mat in less than 15 minutes.

As legal professionals, we need to clear our heads and hit a mental reset button in order to re-review a draft, revise a submission or conduct further research.  We need clarity in our work and in our lives.  I think the ever growing popularity of yoga (with new studios opening constantly) speaks for itself in relation to the massive benefits it brings to its practitioners.  It is easy to do (the idea that you require elastic ligaments is a myth), does not require fancy equipment other than a mat and maybe a block, allows you to meditate and reflect, and lets you work up a physical sweat without the sore knee joints / twisted ankles that may come with more vigorous exercise. So why not give it a try? If anything, you will learn something new, and at the very least get to call lying on a mat for five minutes after every class in savasana (affectionately known as corpse pose) a work out.  It will help you de-stress, become more rested, and ergo more efficient at what you do. Keep well all, and remember to take care not only of your work but yourselves. Namaste.

Jurisdictions: 

Hogan Lovells, Associate

Ms. Tsui is a newly-qualified associate in the commercial litigation team at Hogan Lovells. She graduated from the Bachelor of Laws and PCLL program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong with distinction, and went on to obtain a Master of Law degree from the University of Cambridge, Newnham College. Her current practice includes insolvency litigation, various advisory work for major financial institutions, employment and other general commercial litigation.