E: When you came back from Vietnam and Okinawa did you have problems reintegrating with your family and friends and US society? Did you have symptoms of PTS?
R: When I came back I was still in the military, and of course the returnees were shunned. I did not personally experience that. But I was in uniform, and there was no one there to greet me or welcome me like you hear of today. I was still part of the military culture and just went on about my military career.
As for PTS, I did not personally experience the violence and stress of direct ground combat. I knew it was happening, I was fired upon. The RF4 is unarmed; all we had aboard the aircraft were cameras, so I never fired a shot in anger – although I have to admit I wanted to on a few occasions. I mean, someone’s shooting at you, you want to fire back, right? But I never did have the experience of dropping bombs on anybody, so that’s why, to my mind, I’ve never had any serious psychological issues related to combat.
E: How did you discover yoga?
R: In 1999, at the age of 55, I was experiencing severe, chronic back spasms and tried a couple of options to deal with it. My wife suggested we go and see about yoga, and I was very skeptical. I said, “Oh man, what are we talking about here?” But she wanted to do it, so I went to yoga. The most interesting part is that from the very first class I took, I never had another back spasm again. I’ve stayed with it over the course of the last, I guess 15 or 16 years now, and am very flexible, balance is good, I’m healthy. I can really attribute that to yoga.
E: Which yoga and meditation practices have you discovered work best for you?
R: I’m trained in Ashtanga, and I enjoy the Ashtanga modified series, although I teach flow. As far as practices that benefit me, pranayama exercises, alternate nostril breathing, and three-part breath are very relaxing for me. Short meditations: I’m not a thirty minute meditator. I settle and center, maybe 3-5 minutes, and I do that whenever I need to. I just push the chair back, get a soft focus, breathe, and count or whatever form of meditation I want to employ at the time.
E: So right now you’re teaching yoga. Are you teaching specifically to veterans, or do you work with a mixed population?
R: I teach veterans in treatment for PTS at the Charlotte VA Health Care Clinic and work with a mixed population at Sally’s YMCA here [in Denver, NC]. I also teach a program at Unity Presbyterian Church here in Denver. That program is also through the YMCA. I teach anywhere from teenagers, all the way up to – last week I had two ladies in their 80s. I have a studio that I teach at twice a week, and that is established for people with PTS, whether they’re military or not.
I do have one veteran that is of particular note, that I’ve been working with for the last four months. She was a truck driver in Iraq, and did experience an IED. We have managed to make tremendous progress using mindfulness.
E: What advice would you give to someone who wants to work with veterans or other populations known for high rates of PTS?
R: My advice would be to be patient. You’ve got to work really hard to even get the male veterans to pay attention, to want to try it. Beyond that, my advice would be to work slowly and carefully. Gain confidence, build trust, build the relationship. Progress is going to come and it’s going to go. There will be times when they’ll lose track, and then you’ve got to start, not over, but figure out where to begin again and build them back.
E: “Don’t take it personally” sounds like a really important thing to remember.
E: When you think of a highlight in your teaching, what moment comes to mind?
R: The moment that this lady and her husband both came up to me to tell me what progress she had made and how much better she was doing.
E: What’s been one of your largest obstacles in helping other veterans develop mindfulness?
R: Funding and responsiveness. One university told me, “Yes, the program sounds great! But we don’t have the money to fund it.” Another told me, “Yes, we’d love to have your program!” But when I call and email back, they don’t respond.
E: What is your teaching style, and do you have a different approach for your veterans versus civilian students?
R: I teach from the mat and I don’t ask questions. You don’t know the community, you don’t know who out there is a victim. I let them volunteer what they chose to share with me. My general teaching style is to always begin with pranayama. Almost every class I’ll have a short 30 second to a minute meditation (for veterans classes this is a five minute practice), and then into the asana. I don’t hands-on adjust; modifications and props are routinely provided.
Rick’s teaching schedule is:
Saturday,10:30 am - Charlotte VA Health Care Center, 3506 W Tyvola Rd, Charlotte, NC 28208, by referral only
Monday and Wednesday, 6:30 pm – Veterans Yoga of Lake Norman Studio at 1236-G Hwy 16N, Denver, NC
Tuesday, 4:30 pm – Sally’s YMCA in Denver, NC
Tuesday, 10:00 am – Unity Presbyterian Church in Denver, NC. (This program is through the YMCA of Greater Charlotte community outreach program.)