Two years after I separated from the Marine Corps, I was lost in practically every aspect of my life. My marriage had fallen apart, I despised my meaningless job in business, and I was in debt up to my neck. Too frequently, I sought false refuge by drinking with Baltimore City cops who were also self-medicating PTSD and anxiety. Having seen death and destruction of war, nowhere felt quite safe anymore, except when I boozed, it took the edge off. Then a game changer, I found yoga and meditation, it found me. Being this big battle-tested tough guy Marine, I found myself a bit conflicted and confronted a series of lingering questions. Should I stick with the story that tough guys shouldn’t do things like yoga, and let others judge or criticize me unfavorably? More deeply, should I allow past traumas and fear of failure, rejection and lack of control to keep me from fulfilling my potential? Or, could I have the backbone to do what I knew was right and good for my wellness and for my future. To live free and feel connected with a sense of purpose and meaning again. Ultimately, could I have the courage to shift the course of my life from a downward spiral of self-sabotaging and self-destructive patterns, to an upward path toward balance and ease.
Based on my experiences as a Marine, yogi and occupational therapist, the following synopsis outlines why I think every military member and veteran should be stepping out onto a mat to move toward the healthy and fulfilling life which every honorable service member has earned.
An Organic Vehicle for Change
A purposeful, regular yoga practice offered in a safe space with positive intention will shift any human being from a state of rigidity to flexibility, from over-stressed, hyper-stimulated and hyper-aroused, toward increased feelings of stability and equanimity. This is because each time we practice physical postures we are invited to breathe intentionally and to turn our awareness toward sensations that arise in the body and observe thoughts that flow through the mind. We are encouraged to connect with them and hold space for them without judgement, instead of reactively tensing or avoiding things we may find uncomfortable. In this way, we gradually notice, then gain insight into various physical and mental response patterns that may arise. The next critical experience in the process is where the magic happens. We learn that we while we cannot change what’s happened in the past, nor can we literally live in and change the future, we are very much empowered to choose how we respond to what is happening in this present moment. For those of us with PTS-D, depression or anxiety, that mechanism and ability to break the cycle is gold. Where we once felt no control and rigid in our ways, we are now empowered with a tangible and effective tool to become un-stuck and more flexible. Where there was over-reactivity and suffering rooted in disconnection, there is now less judgement and more compassion.
With regularity and repetition, we use this awareness of breath and sensation, along with grounding, positive intentions like gratitude and resilience, to shift from maladaptive responses to more appropriate and proportionate ones. This simple invaluable skill is broadly applicable and functional off the mat, and while yes, there are real physical threats in the world that require rapid, life saving reaction, we can choose to be at ease and confident that we will respond skillfully and mindfully if a real threat arises. By returning to this most simple and vital physiological function, which has the power to calm the mind and relax the body, we gain more clear insight on how we can better move forward in a way that is in line with our values and supports our well being.
Yoga gives us the tools to gain insight into, then have the courage to let go of maladaptive, negative thought patterns, and acquire ones that promote our health and wellness.
There are signs all over that there is something very different about yoga, and veterans should take notice. It seems we have a new studio popping up in every town, every couple months. Online and mobile resources are plentiful, and yoga for veterans non-profits are making it more accessible than ever to participate in yoga for veterans classes and training events at reduced, sometimes free rates. The once dominant feminine stigma is fading rapidly as more and more men are willing to try yoga, and this should give us great hope. There are also tremendous social benefits of connecting through yoga that cannot be overlooked. I often see new students enter the studio feeling nervous and vulnerable, then they hear the sound of their fellow veterans breathing, see them falling over, laughing it off and moving on. I then see them leave the studio with light in their eyes, smiling, forging new, real friendships and bonds as they stuff their faces with post-practice tacos. Here, mindful communities are born and a new tribe begins to emerge where we safely express our experiences of disconnection and suffering, then share how we found the courage to adapt and re-construct new identities. The practice allows us to share a new space of acceptance and belonging.
To sustain this practice takes individual effort and gumption, no doubt, but it’s upkeep also requires us to have the courage to reach out to others when we need help. None of us can do this alone, trust me I’ve tried too many times and failed miserably. True heroes face and conquer their own demons, the wise ones know they can’t do it alone. Practice long enough and you’ll certainly learn that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
An enduring, community-based yoga practice fosters the courage to come out of the shadows, spark a flame with positive intention, then light the way back home for ourselves and our fellow tribesmen.
Recovery and Resilience
As the saying goes, if you do what you did, you get what you got. For trauma or addiction, this statement sums up the profound experience that we will inevitably continue to suffer if we don’t see, hope for, or aren't willing to change. Many believe that addiction is the result of unresolved trauma and response to the associated pain. This would, at least in part, explain why we see such high rates of comorbidity with PTS-D and addiction. The combination of of these factors has proven to be quite a destructive and lethal formula. We don’t need to look much further than the tragic rate of veteran suicides estimated at 22 per day, in case you haven't heard. Where addiction is characterized by separation and dishonesty, yoga is connection to self and what is true in the present moment. The physical, emotional and social benefits yoga regularly offer a healthy substitute and sturdy line of defense against anxiety, depression, isolation and relapse.
This transformative process allows us to fill a well of strength within, to slay the dragon of self-medication, false refuge and disconnection, to live free again. Mindfulness practice gives us the space to see clearly what is true, then the courage to be honest, to let go of trying to control everything, and humbly admit that this way of living will do longer do. As an organic vehicle for change, yoga empowers us to find the courage to let go of pill or booze bottles and put the sustainable tools of healing in our own hands.
Starved for Authentic Experience
Two years separated from the Marine tribe, I still polished my medals of valor with a pride-filled false ego and wore invisible armor that hid unseen scars. This only served to isolate me at a time when I was still stuck in the blood, mud and shit filled streets of Iraq. What happened for me over the last five years has been nothing short of a personal revolution. I can confidently look back and see two major lessons: one, that our experiences of pain and suffering hinge upon our chosen beliefs and destructive habits of mind. If we can deconstruct and unlearn these maladaptive beliefs, we can alter the presence or severity of our suffering. Two, that with a regular yoga and meditation practice, we can build the power and courage required to be brutally honest with ourselves, understand our flawed nature through a clear, compassionate lens, then choose to be present and make better choices for ourselves.
If you’re struggling with post traumatic stress, or finding your way home post-military service, I invite you to try yoga, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Know that there is strength in your surrender, and surrender in your strength. If you’re a unit leader, honorably serving on the front lines or preparing for battle, this practice will save the lives of your brothers and sisters in harms way. If you’re a clinician, and have the ability to integrate and offer yoga as an evidence-based compliment traditional treatment options, do it, your veterans will thank your it, I promise!
"The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation." George Washington
With the state of our union increasingly disconnected by divisive and often phony political rhetoric, incomplete mental health solutions, it’s no surprise that we have such an alarming rate of addiction and suicide. Our nations veterans have a tremendous opportunity to rise up to lead the charge and set a positive example for creating connection through authenticity, healing and and uniting our national tribe again. Fortunately, we’ve had the solution for thousands of years and as it turns out, it’s been hiding right under our nose this entire time. We don’t need to some fancy new, high-speed treatment to find post-traumatic growth. Rather, we should slow down, embrace a process that promotes individual and collective courage to unite by combining leadership tools we acquired in the military with authentic and mindful values revealed through an authentic yoga practice.
Semper Fidelis and Namaste,
~ CJ is currently living in South Jersey as an occupational therapist, finishing his 500 hour yoga teacher training under the guidance of Rolf Gates, and serves as a Regional Director for Veterans Yoga Project. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or take his weekly Vinyasa for Vets class at Shine Power Yoga every Saturday at 1:30pm in Maple Shade, NJ ~