Picture a lawyer and you might imagine a stiff-backed, suit-wearing, briefcase-toting powerhouse—not the easygoing, elastic pants-wearing hippie we usually associate with yoga. But according to Arthur Fama, assistant dean for student affairs at the NYU School of Law, it is precisely the yin-and-yang relationship of yoga and law that makes for such a powerful combination. Not only does yoga help you to deal with the stress of studying or practicing law—but it can also help develop your professional skills, he says.

Every Monday at 12.30, Fama runs yoga classes at the law school. “There are usually about 20 students in attendance; if we had a bigger room there would probably be more,” he said. “When the students arrive, I try to maintain a calm atmosphere. So rather than letting them get too involved in their own talking, which is their tendency, I ask that they just sit quietly for a few minutes.”

The classes start with some deep breathing before moving on to cyclical sequences of physical postures, followed by 10 minutes of guided meditation at the end. “I use various techniques in what is sometimes called yoga sleep,” Fama explains. “The student lies there and I will lead a body scan, gradually bringing their awareness to different individual parts of their body.”

But how can yoga make you a better lawyer? Let Dean Fama count the ways:

Photo: Dean Fama

Yoga helps you to listen mindfully.
“Yoga is ultimately a mindfulness practice,” says Fama. “What we’re doing on the yoga mat is staying in the moment and focused. So it’s helpful not only for students’ wellbeing, but also for how they interact with clients, judges or co-workers. The tendency for lawyers is to race ahead and think of the next thing to say instead of really listening to what’s being said. But if you’re able to stay in the moment it really helps you to understand what the client ultimately is looking for.”

Yoga creates a balance between the right and left sides of your brain.
“Because of the type of training we undergo as lawyers—the focus on analytical structures and problem-solving—adding the mindfulness of yoga is like a booster,” said Fama. “It allows you to engage in the analytical part with a more creative openness.”

Yoga can help you to understand your client.
Sometimes understanding your client requires reading between the lines, Fama says, and yoga can help develop the sensitivity needed to do this. “If you have a client who is communicating from a very emotional place instead of just laying out the facts, you’re a much more effective lawyer if you’re able to pick up on their needs.”

Yoga slows everything down.
“It creates a bit of space when you’re approaching a problem. Instead of just tackling it, you are sitting with it for a bit longer.”

Yoga helps you to filter out thoughts that don’t need your attention.
“Thoughts come constantly,” says Fama, “but by practicing yoga you can become aware of the thoughts without becoming so preoccupied by them.”

Fama has been running these classes since he became assistant dean almost three years ago, and has been practicing yoga for about 15 years. “I realized early on that I needed, for my own sense of wellbeing, to find that balance. So I meditated and did yoga for many years while I was practicing law,” he recalls. He did his teacher training in New Jersey, and has since remained close with his own instructor, occasionally running retreats with him in New Jersey and Miami.

Fama also refers students to The Mindfulness Project, the group that hosts yoga and meditation sessions at NYU’s Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. “I keep this postcard of theirs on hand to give to students,” he says. “It says ‘Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.’ They take it and put it on their fridge as a reminder to breathe. It’s a good reminder for all of us.”

—Anneke Rautenbach