Sun Salutations, Sandbags, and Trust: The Beauty of Teaching Yoga to Veterans
It was the dead of winter… and when I say dead of winter I mean DEAD of winter. As in, smack dab in the middle of January in Colorado. As in every inch of exposed skin was so cold it was numb. My fingers struggled to grip the 25 pound sandbag draped over my shoulders. My ears ached, my eyes watered and my lungs burned. I put one foot in front of the other with nothing but the light of the moon and the sound of the footsteps falling next to mine to guide me. As we rounded the corner of the frozen dirt road my running companion slowed his pace to a walk and told me he wanted to tell me a story about the scariest thing that happened to him while he was stationed in Afghanistan…
When I first started teaching yoga I had a very concrete idea of what I thought it would be like. Beautiful dimly lit yoga studios, rows and rows of beautiful students with beautiful practices, beautiful candles, beautiful sequences, beautiful yoga clothes and beautiful mats and props. It was all very generically beautiful… In my head.
Never did I imagine that my teaching journey would lead me to late night sandbag runs in subfreezing temperatures with combat veterans who happily remind me that “pain is weakness leaving the body” and that this is “cold weather training.” I never imagined that I would make more successful and sincere connections on the dusty floor of a CrossFit gym than in a gorgeous yoga studio. But I also never imagined that I would teach yoga to veterans.
We’ve talked about strippers during class before. “Open your heart” has become a cliche. And I’ve been known as the “stretch nazi.” We’ve shared tears, laughter, blood, sweat, and our practice. I’ve watched countless veterans battle addiction and trauma and come out on the other side with some of the most honest yoga practices I’ve ever known. Despite having taught under a variety of circumstances I have never met students more willing to commit themselves to a daily asana and meditation practice… something that still pleasantly surprises me daily.
And it’s all because I took the time to do what I love most: building friendships and trust through yoga. I took the time to share a piece of myself in the theme of all of my classes. I took the time to be honest. I took the time to “stop taking this yoga shit so seriously.” I took the time to connect. I took the time to care. And it’s as simple as that. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for those who have served and have always been looking for a way to give back. Like Brene Brown, researcher and author of inspiring works like Daring Greatly writes in regards to veterans, “
I want to do something to say, ‘You’re not alone. Your struggle is my struggle. Your trauma is my trauma. Your healing is my healing.’”… and I found a way to say that with yoga. Which gradually transformed into deep soul searching conversations off the mat, painful CrossFit Hero Workouts, and countless Obstacle Course Races.
I entered that gym on my first day with a tentative desire to bring yoga to this unique population but with no expectations of having much success. All I wanted to do was to read them a quote, lead them through some poses, and maybe make them think a little before returning to my comfort zone aka that beautifully dimly lit yoga studio. I never expected to discover a whole different kind of beautiful. The kind of beautiful that is raw, painful, powerful, and real. The kind of beautiful that is surprised, a little frightened by, but in desperate need of love and connection. The kind of beautiful that still floors me every single day. Whether we are moving through sun salutation B amidst jokes and spontaneous dancing or scaling walls and climbing under barbed wire during a Tough Mudder race that honest feeling of love and trust is always present.
I am convinced that I have learned so much more about myself, the world, and yoga from these men and women than I could ever hope to teach them. I owe them my life, and not just because of the time that they spent serving this great nation but because of the time they’ve spent with me on the mat and in the mud.
So, to all of the veterans that I have had the pleasure to meet, and teach, through Veterans Overcoming Obstacles….The light in me sees, blesses and unconditionally loves the light in each and every one of you. My awe and love for the connections and trust we have built through yoga cannot be put into words. I am so incredibly honored to be your yoga instructor, coach, sandbag running partner, cheesy quote guru, and friend. Namaste and GET SOME, you crazy humans!