I arrived at the Feathered Pipe Ranch and was greeted by a warm and welcoming staff. In addition to Feathered Pipe Ranch staff, the retreat staff included two psychologists, two civilian yoga teachers, two Vietnam veteran yoga teachers, one OIF veteran yoga teacher, and an acupuncturist. There were a total of 15 participants including three spouses and myself. Two of the participants were Vietnam veterans and the rest were Iraq or Afghanistan veterans.
The other veterans started showing up Friday afternoon and the Veterans Yoga Project staff worked to greet them and get them checked in. Our accommodations ranged from a private room and bathroom in the great lodge to well-appointed and comfortable yurts staggered throughout the spacious grounds. Veterans who attended with spouses were given the double occupancy cabins or yurts which were tucked into the trees spread around the ranch grounds, but still close to the bath house and hot tub.
Once we were all checked in we had a fantastic dinner and then gathered for orientation in the great hall. The orientation started out the weekend right with a nice meditation and talk about the purpose of the weekend; to help us re-learn how to breathe and hopefully find a way to be back in our bodies with less pain.
The retreat schedule included meditation every morning, scheduled yoga classes at various points throughout the day, shared meals provided buffet style, and free time when we could participate in acupuncture, reiki, or guided hikes. I was amazed at how many participants were not only open to trying reiki and acupuncture, but also eager.
The yoga classes were each taught by one of the seven instructors and were as unique as the individuals who taught them. The veteran yoga teachers taught yoga in a way that I had never experienced before. Their classes were more relaxed in nature, much less serious than what I had experienced in the past, one even cracking a fart joke to help people loosen up. They went out of their way to discuss injuries and limitations, and reminded us multiple times to be patient and forgiving with our bodies. One of these two teachers spent a large majority of his class discussing modified poses that can be used if you have specific injuries. This was very beneficial for me and was a pivotal point in my relationship with yoga, as I was able to do the pose of "downward dog" for the first time without a painful grimace on my face. Many of the participants expressed their gratitude for these particular teachers; their presence and teaching style, seen as a beacon of hope for the younger generations who are struggling with many of the same issues that they, as veterans, were able to overcome.
The witnessing of each other's struggles, wounds, and healing was one of the most impactful aspects of the retreat. We spent hours together telling stories of different experiences in the field, grieving over brothers-in-arms that were lost, and sharing the challenges experienced upon coming home. As a veteran who has spent a good amount of my time avoiding other veterans due to fears of triggering, I have to admit that this was the most comfortable I had felt in a very long time. It reminded me that I am a warrior, and that this is my tribe. It was nice to be home.
At the end of the retreat there was a gratitude circle where everyone expressed their feelings about the weekend. To hear the heartfelt appreciation from all the veterans for the support and guidance given over the weekend, and the outpouring of gratitude from the support staff who were so grateful just to have the opportunity to help, was remarkable. Several of the veterans expressed that this retreat had come at exactly the right time, providing them not only the relief they needed, either through unexpected pain relief or much needed sleep, but also gave them a renewed sense of hope. With the extremely high rate of veteran suicide I think this sense of hope is possibly one of the best gifts that could have been given.
This retreat helped me find my way home to the breath, to the body, to my tribe. It has inspired me to get certified as a yoga instructor and share this gift with others. I honestly never expected for something as simple as mindful breathing and movement to have such an impact.
Thank you Veterans Yoga Project, I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.