Mindfulness in the Legal Profession

How yoga and meditation transformed the life and career of Edmonton lawyer Alex Yiu

Brea Elford - 13 April 2018

Among the yogic community, groundedness is the practice of connecting to and feeling supported by the ground beneath you.

It's a state of mindfulness, embraced by individuals around the globe for hundreds of years.

For Alex Yiu, a senior associate at Ackroyd LLP, it's a state of mind that changed his life.

About six years into his practice as a lawyer, Yiu had a job at a large firm in the city and logged exorbitant hours, relentless to prove himself to partners and colleagues. But one late night working at home, among the mountains of paperwork and clients files, he felt off, and knew something wasn't right.

He underwent a series of tests that week and saw two cardiologists who both told him the same thing: Yiu was diagnosed with arrhythmia.

An arrhythmia is an abnormal heartbeat, sometimes so brief it's undetectable, but often manifesting in shortness of breath, dizziness and in the most severe of cases, cardiac arrest.

While Yiu was told part of his heart condition is genetic - he was born with a irregular heartbeat - he also learned that the symptoms he first felt late that night had been exacerbated by stress. To Yiu, it was clear: his job, the job he had worked for his whole adult life, was making things worse.

"One one hand, I was told I needed to really strike a balance and focus on regaining my health. But on the other hand, you're doing your best to please the partners and the firm which you love. Eventually I recognized the most important thing was to reclaim my health," said Yiu.

Within four months of his diagnosis, he shut down his private practice to start a position at the Alberta Court of Appeal. During that time, he discovered yoga and the practice of mindfulness meditation.

According to The Mindfulness Institute, mindfulness, a state of being fully present in the moment, has been proven to reduce stress and increase awareness to one's environment, something Yiu struggled to embrace prior to his diagnosis. But it only took one yoga class for him to realize the benefits of slowing down.

"I struggled in my first class. But when that class ended and I was the last one to leave, I remember asking myself why I felt so good. I was so hooked that I decided to dedicate myself to seeing where that path led me," said Yiu.

After two years at the Alberta Court of Appeal, Yiu returned to private practice as a senior associate lawyer at Ackroyd LLP, practicing in civil litigation and Aboriginal law, regulatory law and general litigation, a decision made possible because of the skills Yiu developed through yoga to deal with adversity and challenges.

Today, Yiu offers weekly public yoga classes as a certified Registered Yoga Teacher. He's particularly proud of the fact that some of his regulars are practicing lawyers in Edmonton.

"Often other lawyers don't have a place of calm they can turn to when they don't know how to deal with unexpected periods of uncertainty that come about in this field. Yoga teaches you how to get through those periods with grace and compassion," said Yiu.

Yiu has worked in the law profession since he graduated from UAlberta law in 2006. Now, he's trying to pass on some of what he's learned to his students as a sessional instructor with the Faculty.

In his professional responsibility class, he guides students through the practice of mindfulness meditation, exposing them to the benefits of a mind-body practice that, according to Yiu, "can help reduce the tremendous stress they experience already in the day-to-day grind of law school.

He is a board member of the Alumni and Friends Association, and also an advocate for AssistFit, a program that endorses mindfulness among the legal community as a way to increase wellness and productivity. By offering more yoga classes and workshops, he's hoping more lawyers prioritize their mental wellness.

Although Yiu recognizes there are some lawyers reluctant to change their practice, there are other lawyers and students who see the benefits of meditation and yoga in law. For him, it took a health scare to realize the mark of a successful lawyer isn't how many hours you bill or how little sleep you get.

"Mindfulness is a lifestyle," said Yiu. "And it's life changing."

Mindfulness in Law Retreat

On May 5, join us for a Mindfulness in Law Retreat from 8:00 am - 4:30 pm.

Our guest speakers include Alex Yiu, mindfulness meditation teacher Kat Boehm, and Glen Hickerson, senior partner at Wilson Laycraft Calgary and enthusiastic ASSIST volunteer. Tickets are $15.75 for students and $36.75 for alumni. Lunch is included.