I did not come to yoga until I was 65 years old and starting to look at retiring (2011). I suffered a traumatic injury…
VYP supports veteran recovery and resilience though yoga. Listen as our founder Dan Libby and veteran Mike Mills share how VYP is empowering veterans to elevate their leadership in local communities and beyond.
My name is Darcie and I’m an OIF II vet. I’m 37 and have been a middle school English teacher for the past eleven years. This last year teaching, however, was my most challenging. I’d never had a workload like this before and I allowed it to greatly affect my physical and mental health. As soon as the school year ended, I developed a pretty powerful bout of restless leg syndrome. Any time I tried to rest or sleep, my legs would start twitching. Badly. A week after this began, I spent a week at a Buddhist monastery - the most peaceful place I have ever been to - where there was no contact with the chaos of the outside world, where we meditated throughout each day, and shared our experiences with a loving community. And still, the RLS worsened. I assumed it was from some vitamin deficiency and learned that calcium or magnesium could help. And they did, at the beginning.
I went to the VA to have blood work done while I continued to take more and more calcium, magnesium, gabba; I tried smoking marijuana (not a fan, but thought it might help), then realized the only things that somewhat quelled these damned spasms were alcohol or benzos, both of which were clearly not healthy options. Then I received the results from my blood work: all negative. Nothing out of the ordinary. My incredulity quickly led to dismay as I accepted that this was all in my head?
That Friday, I drove down to Palo Alto for a weekend course in Mindful Resilience with the Veterans Yoga Project. I had just finished a week of summer camp with a group of 5 year-olds and I was proper exhausted. So when Dan Libby, one of the trainers for the VYP program said we’d be doing a yoga nidra (a guided meditation) at the end of the session, I was grateful. Until I laid down into a comfortable position and almost immediately my legs started twitching again. “Come on!” I said to myself, so damn frustrated. I was so sick of my body not listening to my pleas. All these peaceful places and courses, the meditations, the vitamins—when is this going to stop?
Dan began a body scan meditation where we focus awareness on each part of the body. I tried to settle in and just listened. “Focus your awareness on your right thumb, your right index finger, your right middle finger . . . “ and by the time we reached our right shoulder I was crying. And I didn’t understand why. It was as if each body part I gave awareness to was suddenly being reconnected with my mind, my heart, and I was holding it, giving it space, acknowledging its existence, giving it —myself— the love it hadn’t been receiving in what, a year? As we moved through the body, my tears subsided and a great calm came over me. My nerves relaxed, released, and everything felt warm, like my body was humming in perfect harmony with the peace my mind was experiencing, like everything had finally been reconnected, like I was a whole being again.
Let me tell you, I didn’t need any more meds after that. No magnesium. No sleeping pills. Nothing. Every now and then a little twitch will pop up and I breathe awareness into my legs and it stops. And I’ve been doing that ever since. The ability to heal ourselves through yoga and meditation was made apparent that evening, and I’d been doing yoga for over a decade. The Veterans Yoga Project helped me help myself naturally, and I could not be more grateful.
Nobody teaches you how to process your buddy’s suicide.
So I shoved all the emotions in. I buried them down. I just numbed it all. There is no time to come to grips. Continue mission. Just keep going as if these things never happened. With time, all things heal, right? Wrong.
Command made general announcements that chaplain services and mental health appointments were available. But where do you get the time? Can officers actually go without judgment? But, quite frankly, I didn’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to forget it. But I can’t. I had to learn to process it. But how?
I frequently think about my friend, Garrett, in particular. Garrett was an Army Ranger who served in combat with the 75thRanger Regiment. Rangers lead the way. Garrett was the toughest dude that I knew, and he cared about the people around him. He set the example. He took care the lowly new guys like me.
I wonder if I can still call myself Garrett’s friend? He called me one day asking for a character reference. He said there was a mishap with the lab and he erroneously “popped hot” for drugs on the urinalysis. Why didn’t I see the red flags? Why didn’t I call him out? I wrote the character reference letter. We talked families, made some jokes, and I told him to keep me posted – typical “masculine” banter. He was fine. But did I actually think he was fine or is that what I told myself? I continued mission.
A year or so went by. I didn’t think too much about Garrett as is typical with Army friendships and all the moves. I was buried in my cases, wrapped up in my own stories, and consumed with my own life. I heard that Garrett had gotten out. I put texting him on the “list of things to eventually do.” We’ll eventually catch up, so I thought.
I got a call from a friend one day. It felt off. My friends, especially Army friends, don’t call to chat. Garrett killed himself. His mental wounds caught up with him. Why didn’t I do more? Why wasn’t I surprised? It was so obvious that he had to be hurting. Why did I convince myself otherwise? Was I ever really his friend? How can a friend put the potential discomfort of a hard conversation over a buddy’s life? Why didn’t I say, “Garrett, let’s get help. I’m struggling too!”? I feel like Garrett would have done that for me.
Here is my point to all of this …
I intended to write a general article about the human connection benefits of yoga. I wanted to simply share how yoga helps Veterans. I want to share the amazing benefits of a guided yoga practice offered by the Veterans Yoga Project.
Instead, I thought about Garrett. I thought about how my yoga practice created the space for me to acknowledge and grieve the loss of a friend. It helps me come to grips with my military service as well.
I practice yoga with others because I need to share the human connection, usually without talking. I teach yoga because I get to hold the space for others to do the same. I am a student/teacher/human. The individual yoga practice in the interconnected community space helps me.
Yoga creates an environment of awareness, patience, and compassion within us and in our community. The breath awareness, mindful movement, gratitude, and connection with others provides the space for healing. I never expected such a simple practice to have such meaningful benefits in my life.
I’m in a great space today because I can actually grieve. I can be with my feelings instead of shoving them all in and avoiding the discomfort. Something as simple as guided yoga planted the seeds for this growth.
Please don’t struggle alone is the ultimate lesson learned here.
I invite anyone to come practice with me. We can hold the space, have fun, and celebrate this human condition. I teach with the Veterans Yoga Project and at the Hennepin County Bar Association. Anyone is welcome.
Bio: Mike serves as the North Central Outreach Coordinator for the Veterans Yoga Project. Mike served on active duty in the Army from 2007-2015. Mike teaches yoga and wellness in military and criminal justice communities
By Abby Rosmarin, Volunteer Blogger for VYP
Veteran’s Gratitude Week Spotlight: Mark Ballinger
In 2011, everything in Mark’s life changed. A helicopter crash would affect him in profound and irreversible ways – but also get him on the path to yoga, both as a student and as a teacher.
Before the crash – before he even enlisted as a Marine – Mark Ballinger was a child of the 60s, having full run of the neighborhood, playing pickup football, baseball, and war games.
“One year I had my mother make me a civil war uniform,” said Mark. “The kids in the neighborhood divided up into different sides and we would attack each other.”
Mark’s father was an Army serviceman and a veteran of the Korean War. During World War 2, his maternal grandfather was in the Illinois militia. While his paternal grandfather couldn’t serve due to losing an eye as a child, he served as a long-haul trucker, delivering supplies during the second World War. Mark also had an uncle in the Marines, although his uncle never talked about it.
Originally, Mark wanted to be a Navy frogman. Mark graduated from high school in 1973, right after the draft ended. While he qualified for scholarship to Illinois State University, they didn’t have the program he wanted, and eventually he dropped out of college to enlist.
It was luck that Mark would become a Marine: while Mark was still hoping to become a frogman, the Navy recruiter wasn’t in the day that he came to the recruitment station – but the Marine recruiter was. And thus would begin a long and fruitful career, where he would eventually get his BS in Aviation Technology, as well as his FAA Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics license, and eventually his FAA Private Pilot’s License. He would retire in 1995, after 21 years of service.
After retiring, Mark became a contract drone pilot before being hired by the Raytheon Company – first as a systems engineer and eventually as an unmanned aircraft systems engineer and unmanned aircraft pilot.
While his primary job was engineer, he would be called on to fly for company programs. It would be on one such flight that life would change forever.
One day, Mark was asked to fly a small helicopter as a target for a radar program. The engine failed, and the helicopter crashed into the trees.
“I have no memory from about twenty minutes before the accident to eight days later,” said Mark. “I can only tell you what I’ve been told or learned afterwards. I almost died that day. I broke my neck at the C2 vertebrae – also called the hangman’s break – and my back from L1 to L5 with an L1 burst fracture. I broke my sternum and a dozen or more ribs, and had two punctured lungs. I had a subdural hematoma and traumatic brain injury. I was a bruise from my head to toes.”
While Mark could still move some muscles in his legs, he couldn’t feel much from the waist down. He spent 25 days in intensive care before being transferred to a neurological hospital. Miraculously, within four weeks, he was walking with assistance.
“I started out in a wheel chair (the doctors said that would be a year), transitioned to a walker, and then to a cane,” said Mark. “I still use the cane on long days or on uneven ground. I have no feeling in the glutes, back of the legs, and half of each foot. It’s hard to breath.”
Yoga came into Mark’s life after he started physical therapy, occupational therapy, and pelvic floor therapy. Pain management became an issue, as he started having an adverse reaction to hydrocodone.
“Nothing but ibuprofen from then on,” he said. “That did not work well as there was still a lot of pain.”
In December 2013, two years after the accident, his pelvic floor therapist recommended that he see her yoga therapist friend.
“I’m a retired Marine and yoga was not high on my list of things to do. I thought I would give it a try, as I like to say, ‘can’t hurt, might help.’ Well it did hurt, a lot, but I was not going to let a yoga teacher get the best of me.”
Together with the yoga therapist – who is also a Doctor of Physical Therapy – Mark began to find strength in areas of weakness and release in areas of limited flexibility.
“While the therapy process hurt, I felt better afterwards and the pain lessened. I became a believer. I learned yoga asanas. I still attend physical therapy with my yoga teacher, plus various other body therapies.”
Three years later – in the fall of 2016 – Mark was inspired to become a teacher.
“I was reading the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) magazine and happened to see an article about yoga for veterans,” said Mark. “The article talked about troops coming home from the war with post traumatic stress and other physical injuries and how yoga was helping them. I figured, if yoga could help me, then maybe I could help my brothers and sisters in uniform.”
He eventually got in contact with the author of the article, who got him in contact with Dr. Daniel Libby, the executive director and founder of Veterans Yoga Project. Mark first completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training in order to qualify for the VYP teacher training. He became a registered yoga teacher in June of 2017, attended his VYP training in September 2017, and led his first class during Veterans Gratitude Week in that same year.
Mark now teaches regularly for veterans and their families, free of charge. Most students are 65-80 year olds, Vietnam veterans and beginners to yoga. When it comes to the memorable moments as a yoga teacher, what sticks out to Mark isn’t any grand gesture, but the gentler moments.
“My oldest student is 81, and he came to class one day smiling and laughing. He was so excited, he was almost giddy. When class started he announced he had clipped his toenails for the first time in 15 years. Such a simple thing we take for granted. I almost cried,” said Mark. “It is the small things like a smile because someone finally balanced on one foot or touched a toe.”
Mark has also started teaching at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Tucson, AZ, where the student base is more diverse, but also dealing with more physical trauma.
Mark truly hopes that the attitude about yoga can change in the veteran community.
“‘It’s for sissies,’ or it’s too ‘woo woo’. It’s hard to get someone to even consider attending a class. But if you can just try it, maybe, just maybe, it might help. Look for a VYP class and attend a class with other veterans. It’s easier than going to a yoga flow class at the gym full of twentysomethings. There are other veterans’ programs out there too. And don’t forget the VA. Most VA hospitals are starting yoga programs.”
Likewise, Mark encourages any teacher who is hoping to work with anyone dealing with PTS or other traumatic injuries to invest in proper training.
“There are many things you can do to make a class more comfortable for veterans. Unfortunately, that might mean giving up some of your favorite teaching techniques. Set up a class for veterans. Once they learn the basics you can start to integrate them with your other yoga students. This is what happened with me. ‘It’s all therapy.’”
I’m not your “normal” yoga teacher. I’m a former Marine and retired Federal Agent. I drive a big muscle car, not a Prius. I hate kombucha tea and love great steaks, BBQ and margaritas. But that also makes me living proof you don’t have to be a tree-hugging hippie to practice yoga and meditation and live a life on a path to wellness
We could not be more proud of our teachers and the work that they do in support of their fellow veterans. Case in point is Brian Cooke. Lone Survivor Foundation penned a blog post highlighting Brian and the work that he does. Please click here to read the full article. This is a prime example of what your donations and grants can be and are being used for. Great Work Brian!
What is Compassion Fatigue and why you should know about it?
By Samantha Eddy
Compassion is a normal response many of us experience when we see another person suffering. This natural response is also vital to our survival. Studies suggest that compassion is crucial to the evolution of the human species (Seppala, 2016), and that helping behaviors can even help you live longer (Post, 2005)! But can you exhaust your supply of compassion?
The Origins of Compassion Fatigue
Registered nurse Carol Joinson first coined the term compassion fatigue in 1992, when she started to recognize helplessness and anger dominating her and her coworkers’ emotions. Since that time, dozens of studies have explored what compassion fatigue is and who it can affect. Compassion fatigue can affect anyone in the helping industry, including caregivers of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (Singh et al, 2018), hospice nurses (Barnett & Ruiz, 2018), health care workers bereaving patient death (Allie et al., 2018), mental health clinicians (Figley, 1995; Figley & Ludvick, 2017), spouses or family members of veterans (Figley & Ludvick, 2017), veterinarians, first responders, and even attorneys who work with traumatized individuals.
Compassion fatigue is conceptualized as a state of exhaustion and mental weariness resulting from the personal desire, as well as demand from helping professions, to be compassionate to other human beings. Burnout, secondary (vicarious) trauma and traumatic triggering all play a role in how an individual develops compassion fatigue. Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue can appear affectively (emotionally), cognitively, behaviorally, relationally, spiritually, and/or somatically (within the body).
Before we dive into how to understand signs of compassion fatigue in your own life, let’s first take a moment to understand a prerequisite of compassion fatigue and compassion satisfaction: empathy.
Understanding Empathy’s Role
Empathy is an innate, human trait that allows us to “enter the world of others” (Walker & Alligood, 2001). When we experience empathy, we first have an unconscious emotional or physical response to another person’s experience. When we see another person crying, we feel the urge to cry. We then become aware of that response, and are cognitively aware of our reaction in relation to the other person’s experience. We are aware of our urge to cry. We next “place ourselves in the shoes” of the other person, allowing us to take their perspective and try to understand why they feel the way they feel. We then make a decision consciously to respond to the other person’s pain.
This conscious empathetic experience is what allows us to thrive in relationships. However, like anything else, too much of one thing can become overwhelming. Our cup can overflow, and we can become fatigued and weary, thus disrupting the present-centered process of sitting with and being empathetic with another person. We become less able to be conscious and aware of our own reactions in relation to the other person’s experience. This disruption of consciousness in the processing of empathy is what leads to compassion fatigue.
Turning Compassion Fatigue into Compassion Satisfaction
The first step in reducing compassion fatigue is identifying your own signs and symptoms. Are you experiencing any of the following?
Feeling “keyed up” or on edge
Anger towards God
Loss of compassion
Worried you’re not doing enough for your client (s)
Nausea, headaches, dizziness, fainting spells
Dreaming about your client(s) traumatic experiences
Lateness and absenteeism
Loss of meaning and purpose
Shallow breathing and tense shoulders
Next is identifying the factors that might lead to compassion fatigue. Having a difficult client population, poor boundaries, lack of social support from superiors and colleagues, long hours with few resources and stress-exacerbating lifestyle choices are all factors that can lead to compassion fatigue. On the opposite side of that, studies have shown that having clinical supervision, emotional separation, increased years of experience, social support and self-care strategies are vital in maintaining or reaching Compassion Satisfaction (Rich, 1997; Chrestman, 1999; Follette, Polusny, & Millbeck, 1994; Badger et al., 2008; Cunningham; Schauben & Frazier, 1995; Craig & Sprang, 2010).
Compassion Satisfaction is the pleasure helping professionals derive from doing their work effectively (Stamm, 2010). Whether you think you are experiencing compassion fatigue or are experiencing Compassion Satisfaction, prevention and treatment are all part of thriving in your career. Some of the tools that research have found to be effective as self-care and as treatment for stress include loving-kindness meditation (Hoge et al.), gratitude practices (Lanham 2012), training on mindfulness (Brooker et al. 2013), and Yoga-based Stress Management (YBSM) (Riley et al. 2017), among others.
Veterans Yoga Project is offering a chance to explore these topics in much more depth as well as providing self-care tools in an upcoming webinar. As funded by the Dakota Foundation, the webinar will help individuals increase compassion satisfaction and manage compassion fatigue. The webinar will be available in 2018 and will be offered for CEUs. This webinar will not only offer education about the nature of compassion fatigue, but offer chances to identify specific stressors, and use self-regulatory tools so that those in the field of trauma can find compassion satisfaction in their work once more.
Bio: Samantha Eddy is a 200-Registered Yoga Teacher currently studying at Pacifica Graduate Institute earning her PhD. in Depth Psychology with Specialization in Somatic Studies and Military Trauma. Samantha has been a volunteer with VYP for over three years, working as research assistant within the Compassion Fatigue team and providing monthly program evaluation reports.
Imagine working for 60 hours straight.
Imagine being a yoga teacher and being part of something that goes on, without stopping, for 60 hours.
This is what Lara of 18th Element Yoga does, every year, for Veterans Gratitude Week supporting Veterans Yoga Project.
“We begin prior to sunrise on Friday and stay open teaching classes, running workshops and building a community until 30 minutes after sunset on Sunday,” said Lara. “It is the best way for me to remind myself of what someone with PTS(d) is going through. The inability to sleep soundly for days on end, the necessity to keep pushing through when your body is crying out for rest, the inability to stop because the world is still turning.”
Now in their third year doing Veterans Gratitude Week, 18th Element Yoga – as well as its owner Lara – have a fascinating and rich back story. Lara’s call to yoga (and utilizing yoga as a way to give back) indirectly started after getting into a severe car accident, which caused major injury to Lara and emotional trauma to her daughter.
“I fractured my knee, dislocated my sternum, and watched my baby suffer from her own form of trauma for about a year, every time I put her in a car seat,” said Lara.
It was because of this accident that Lara started reflecting on death – and the way one lives their life. She wanted to do more in the world than just have a nice, corporate job and a big house. When she started thinking about her life and what mattered, one thing stuck out the most: love.
“Love is the only thing that matters, what can I do to make a difference to others and extend that love outside of my family members,” said Lara.
Lara felt a calling to yoga, but originally went into her 200-hour teacher training without any intention of using yoga outside of the fitness world. However, it was during that training that she knew she wanted to be more than a fitness instructor. This solidified in 2015, when she met Dr. Libby.
“I met Dr. Libby and the oath began, which took me into a yoga world of building community, family, and faith in something more than just us.”
From the beginning, Lara wanted to make yoga accessible for everyone. This desire, plus her family’s history in the military, began to shape what would later become 18th Element Yoga.
“I remembered my grandfather as a faithful man who joined the marines. He fought in the Korean war and was a POW for 19 months. After reflecting, it is very clear that he had PTS(d), which led to his drinking and, at times, restless life,” said Lara. “My husband is a veteran with a cyst growing in his shoulder due to an injury when he was in Iraq. They all were let down by a system that took so much from them. I knew that my town, with all of the veterans and active duty, as well as 6 military bases (5 in a 25-mile radius), had a need for support, yet there were no studios that were focused on our heroes and their loved ones. So I was determined to create one.”
Since its inception, 18th Element Yoga has expanded to helping first responders, caregivers, social workers, health workers, and far more.
Eighteenth Element Yoga gets its name from a speech Archbishop Tuti gives in the movie I Am: the eighteenth element is argon, a noble gas. It makes up 0.94% of the Earth’s atmosphere, but it doesn’t react to any of the other elements. That means the argon you inhale is the same argon you exhale.
“I pass it to the next person and we pass it on to each other with something so subtle but something that, if we didn’t have, we would no longer be alive: our breath,” said Lara. “If you just take a moment and imagine those tiny specks of argon, inert in nature yet so powerful. Imagine whose argon you are taking in right now. When we feel weak, alone, isolated, worthless, depressed and we reflect on that breath. Think of everyone lifting you up on that inhale. Maybe you take in the same argon as Christ, the Dalai Lama, Achilles, Martin Luther King.... imagine them all inside you all supporting you, a community. You’re not alone and you have an inner warrior throughout the ages.”
Eighteenth Element Yoga is a safe haven for those who need yoga to build mind-body resilience and find a bit of community. They have even run their own 200-hour Trauma-Focused Teacher Training as a result of difficulties finding properly-trained teachers.
“Every one of these instructors at the studio are here for a reason and that reason is to make a change to those that have been turned away from other studios, told that yoga isn’t for them, told that they are past the point of saving from medical professionals, isolated without support. Unknowing victims of trauma and those trying one last time to see if all those lies are true.”
While keeping a studio afloat financially is a difficult task, Lara wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Money isn’t in abundance but the gratitude and feeling you get when someone calls you family is worth more in the long run,” she said.
Money collected during Veterans Gratitude Week goes towards supplies for their trauma programs, with the remainder of the money going to Veterans Yoga Project. However, money isn’t the only way to help support 18th Element Yoga.
“If you can donate financially, it is appreciated, but it isn’t just about finances. Come and spend some time with us; your donation of your time and companionship is donation enough for me. Lord knows I need it around 10:30 PM on Saturday night. Grab a bolster and a mat and stay with us for the full event. Make the tide change with us.”
If you live in the Colorado Springs area, consider coming by 18th Element Yoga during Gratitude Week – or drop in at any point in the year, to be welcomed by teachers who want everyone to know that yoga is for everybody and every body.
“One of my favorite quotes is ‘I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples,’ from Mother Teresa,” said Lara. “I started with a small speck of sand that started that small ripple with me – then a pebble to allow it to ripple to my family, a stone effecting those nearest me. With the help of EEY teachers, we have dropped a boulder causing a wave and we hope with the support of others like us we can cause a rippling effect that changes the tide.”
- Abby Rosmarin
This Veteran's Day, we at Veterans Yoga Project would like for you to consider participating in our 5th annual Veterans Gratitude Week.
Last year, our ongoing mindful resilience classes and annual healing retreat combined reached over 17,000 veterans. These programs are made possible because of compassionate people like YOU!
There are three ways in which to celebrate VGW with us!
Host a donation based yoga (or otherwise fitness) class during the week of Nov 2-12. Enter your class data and we will take care of the rest!
Attend a VGW class! Find a class nearest you, enjoy some yoga, and donate to the cause.
Donate. Don't teach yoga or can't make it to a class? We've got you covered! Please donate here .
Together, we can make a difference in the lives of veterans all around the world. Let's come together to support their recovery and resiliency.