Fight, Flight or Yoga
"The war zone, it's not for most people. When military come home it's the hardest part."
Like many new recruits, Justin Blazejewski was 18 years old when he joined the Marines.
After serving for five years, he became a contractor traveling to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The effects of the war began taking their toll on him. The physical, mental and emotional burdens were exceedingly heavy.
The fight or flight reflex is a combat mindset taught to military personnel as a way of reacting proactively to danger. The struggle for self-preservation is an enormously taxing effort. For some who return home, it feels impossible to remove oneself from such a hyper arousal state.
Some veterans find a way to release those energies through positive physical activity, like running, boxing, or lifting weights.
"I was in active war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I saw a lot of things. It took its toll on me."
When Justin returned home, he realized the physical injuries he sustained from his service prevented him from doing the only positive mechanism he knew—running. Instead, he turned to yoga.
“I quickly physically felt great. It was helping my rehab. My mobility was coming back quickly. And my doctors were happy. They were wondering what I was doing, and they didn’t believe me when I said yoga,” says Justin.
Through yoga, Justin soon felt something he hadn’t felt for years: peace. He became passionate about the idea of sharing this method with other members of the military community.
“I immediately knew other people needed it, but who was I to tell other people to do it? I was a Marine. So I kept it to myself and did it personally for months,” says Justin.
Justin pursued yoga teacher training partly to educate himself and mostly to muster the confidence to share his new outlet without being fearful of the military community’s reaction.
When he stopped his war zone travel, Justin made a defining decision to create a formal vehicle to share yoga with the military community. He poured himself into the practice and created a method of yoga, which was approved by the Yoga Alliance, a credentialing agency widely respected by the yoga community.
Vetoga was born—a non-profit organization offering yoga to veterans, their families, the military and the community.
In the Dark Place
We hover in the lobby of a small rowhouse-turned-studio in Old Town Alexandria, the room adorned with trinkets, ferns, and the slow drip of a therapeutic tabletop waterfall.
Manny Salazar sits on a dark futon, his hat turned backwards. He hunches over his knees, removes his shoes, and reveals the callouses on his feet. He looks up and gives me a gentle nod.
Other guests walk in and drop their bags at the row of cubbies lining the wall. American Flag patches and battalion insignia decorate a few gym bags. These are the only clues as to the identities of the community gathered here in this space.
Yoga, some assume, is a delicate sport. It attracts women or millennials, or insert any other number of stereotypes: the minimalist, the young, the lithe, the spiritual, the vegetarian.
But Manny Salazar is a former Marine. And this evening, he gathers with other guests—each of them a veteran, active duty military, or family members or caregivers of someone in the military—for yoga class.
The chatter rises to a friendly level as the group says their hellos and files into a bright and airy studio and took their places on the mats.
I am no stranger to the military community. I went to nine different schools between kindergarten and senior year, and I spent most of my life running around aircraft hangars that smelled like oil and peaty scotch. I was accustomed to the rhythm of deployments – training, ship out, away, homecoming. Or the rhythm of new assignments – receive orders, move to a new base, wait two years, repeat.
As class begins in this Old Town yoga studio, the military community is in a gentle rhythm too—left foot back, right foot back. Plank pose, knees to chest, cobra.
Manny has a calm disposition, and when you look in his eyes, you see there is a story there.
“I was in charge the day the suicide bomber hit our camp,” Manny tells me. “We lost five guys that day, and thirteen children. We had one guy who survived, but he succumbed to his injuries afterwards. We held all our hopes on him, he had a kid like I had.
In the aftermath of the attack, Manny’s leadership role within his unit required him to work with Criminal Investigation Command agents and the Joint Combat Casualty Team to review and analyze the events leading up to and during the attack. He watched video of the attack hundreds of times, parsing through frame-by-frame looking for any clues or information that could help the investigation. He siphoned through his deceased comrades’ gear. He interviewed the parents of the children who died that day.
“When you get a front row seat to that kind of violence, you come home in a difference place,” says Manny. “Suddenly getting on the train isn’t normal. Going to the movies isn’t normal. Before you know it, it puts you in a whirlpool of thoughts.”
Manny is 44 years old, and his accomplished career shines on paper. He performed undercover work on MS-13 gang activity for the Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia and volunteered for the 9/11 recovery effort in New York City. As a Marine, he served on the Presidential guard and spent time in war zones, including the southern helm of Afghanistan and Iraq. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration.
His career was built around chaos. “I thrived in that environment,” Manny says. “I was a planner. I was a detective. But if I made mistakes, people died.”
The pressure of those responsibilities and the chaos eventually prevented him from sleeping at night. He was diagnosed with heart conditions and PTSD.
“The emotional psychological tension we carry—we’re taught to suck it up. Especially as a Marine in the field I was in. Embrace it and figure it out later,” says Manny.
“I was a planner. I was a detective. But if I made mistakes, people died.”
"The biggest thing for many vets is not admitting they may be experiencing PTSD. There’s always some other comrade who has it worse," explains Manny. “Many times I walked by the mental health clinic at the VA, and I knew I needed to go in,” he continues. “But I didn’t.”
Manny was introduced to yoga when Justin led restorative exercises at a U.S. Military Endurance Sports program. For someone who struggled with PTSD and sleep deprivation, yoga quickly became a place for Manny to rest. He is a now graduate of the Vetoga teacher training course.
“Yoga is the only place where I can sit and not think about what’s happening tomorrow. I don’t think about what I could have done differently in the past.”
Manny sees his role as a Vetoga teacher as a way of honoring the legacy of the men and women who didn’t make it home. “With Vetoga, I suddenly have a task. I have a mission again,” says Manny. “I relate to [the people in my class]. I’m authentic. I tell them I went through hell, and I’m here, and I’m not 100% right. I’m working on it, just like you’re going to work on it. It’s going to be a lifetime of you figuring out who the new you is. But I’m here. I’m in the hole with you. I’m in this dark place with you. And when you’re ready for my help, I’m here.”
Tearing Down Walls
As intense as Manny’s story is, it is one that is all too common among military veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs says up to 20 out of 100 veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have some form of PTSD. A 2014 study showed that 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Some individuals believe that number may be higher, as it doesn’t account for other forms of accidental deaths that may be a result of PTSD, such as drinking and driving.
If it’s not PTSD, then other physical or emotional effects burden members of the military.
Gabby Quatse, a West Point graduate, an Army officer and Blackhawk helicopter pilot, recounts the directive she received from her physician after sustaining physical injuries on the job: “He told me I couldn’t do all the physical things I had trained my whole career to do—lift weights, do Crossfit. I was only 25.”
When military men and women receive this kind of news, it can be a jolt to their physical endurance and their emotional strength.
“If you trace how suicidal vets get to that spot, it comes back to break in community. They lose their safety bubble. From a veteran’s perspective, you walk into many yoga classes, and the yoga teacher wearing $150 yoga pants and she’s talking about life being tough sometimes,” says Justin. “As a veteran, you’re thinking she doesn’t know what the hell tough is.”
“[When I attended those classes] I wanted to open up 100% and let go, but that person leading the class wasn’t like me. Therefore, there was a subconscious wall that wouldn’t go down.”
Today, when Justin starts a new yoga class he begins by offering what he calls his "street cred," telling participants of the tours he did in Afghanistan. He tells them that he’s been to some of the worst places in the world. “It starts tearing down walls,” Justin explains.
After watching these veterans do yoga together, you start to realize that this is just as much about community as it is the physical benefit.
Angelica Escalona is a neuropsychologist who works with veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI). One of the treatments includes yoga, which Angelica has been practicing for nine years. She was looking for a teacher training program she could use to train and bring back to the military community, and she found Vetoga.
“There are a lot of adjustments for a military person who suffers brain injury and gets medically discharged. There is fear that they are going to lose their military community,” says Angelica.
With Vetoga, instead of recovery in civilian community, veterans with TBI can recover in a community that they are familiar with.
“It helps the stillness piece. For some folks it’s not easy for them to sit still,” explains Angelica.
Back in Justin’s class, the yoga techniques seem similar to what you would find in a traditional yoga class.
He talks to the class in a calm, near-whisper.
Left foot back, right foot back. Plank pose. Knees to chest. Cobra.
The sound of breath—prana—filled the room.
"Finding a community like Vetoga, you have other vets who have had similar experiences—It’s a unifying force.”
But in between poses Justin jokes, “For all you Army, Navy, and Air Force people this is tough stuff, but for Marines we do this all day.”
Chuckles spread throughout the room and a couple of vets struggle to hold their balance under the weight of the long-running joke of their military community.
“The military has its own lingo and language. When you’re in for 11 years, you’re so used to it,” says Angelica. “Especially folks who have retired. Finding a community like Vetoga, you have other vets who have had similar experiences—It’s a unifying force.
In the back of the studio, a young family stands in a line, their mats side-by-side. A young boy, maybe five or six years old, practices the poses, looking up at his mom and over to his dad. He imitates, stretching his hands up to the ceiling. At one point, another class member motions to the boy, demonstrating how to do the twist stretch. He smiles.
After the class, I hurry over to the young family. They remind me of my own childhood. I learn their names. Justin is active duty Army, and his wife Ashley is involved in military spouse groups. C.J. is a military kid who has moved several times in his five years on Earth.
Ashley has completed Vetoga teacher training, and she leads a USO workshop for children whose parents are stationed at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. The nomadic life of a military family can bring a lot of stress to children, but Ashely helps them cope through yoga techniques. She hands out pinwheels and feathers to the children to help them learn how to control their breathing and heart rate.
“We tell them when your mom or dad is gone, you can remember your pinwheel or feather and breathe,” said Ashley.
For Vets, By Vets
Vetoga meets the unique needs of veterans with free monthly yoga classes to members of the military community. Operating off of a community-based model, Vetoga partners with other yoga studios within the community to share studio space instead of running its own studio. Other members of the community may join too for a small donation.
But Vetoga really shines in its 200-hour teacher training program. Two hundred hours is the minimum number of hours required to receive what the yoga community considers to be a “bachelors degree” in yoga and meditation. The average yoga teacher training program costs anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. Vetoga's mission is to fully fund yoga teacher training for active duty and veteran men and women. Once these individuals have their yoga certifications, Vetoga empowers them to go back to their communities, partner with local stores and studios on their own to offer yoga to the military community.
By offering yoga classes taught by veterans for veterans, Vetoga creates a sense of camaraderie that veterans may not find in a traditional yoga class.
Word about Vetoga is spreading rapidly.
Founded in 2015, Vetoga has already graduated over 20 people from its teacher training program, and another 20 people are scheduled for a training course this summer.
Vetoga started in Washington, D.C. in 2015 and already it has expanded to have Vetoga programs offered in Louisville, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Seattle, Baltimore, and Charlottesville. Justin led a reconnaissance trip to Hawaii this year to lay the groundwork for teacher training with individuals from Hawaii, where there is a significant military community.
Those who have completed the teacher training program, like Gabby, are now bringing yoga to their own communities. Gabby offers a yoga class once a week to her unit during physical training (PT). The class is optional, but she’s seeing that the response is growing.
“A lot of soldiers will say ‘yeah, yoga’s not for me. I can’t touch my toes,’” says Gabby. “But when they finish the class, they realize they can also connect with their inner self and relax.”
“I’m only one person, my perspective of community is only one thing,” admits Justin. “But if I can connect more people who are looking for that beacon of light, we can get to that dark area.”
And this is where everyone can make a difference. Become a part of the Vetoga community. Attend a class. Help sponsor a teacher training. Offer support and encouragement. Pursue understanding.
As Justin explains, "The community is a huge part. Even if you're not a veteran or you're not military, showing your love, your kindness, just being there and showing that you want to help means more to us than anything."
This story is for veterans and their families, the larger military community, but also, for people like me.
When I first learned about VETOGA, I thought it sounded like a great concept—yoga for military veterans. The physical, mental and emotional benefits of yoga are well-documented, and veterans are uniquely positioned to experience these benefits.
But the real value of VETOGA's work goes far deeper. More than an outlet for stress or physical activity, VETOGA is a safe space—one that offers community, empathy and understanding.
So thank you, Justin, for your valuable and meaningful work. Thank you, Manny, Angelica, Gabby and Ashley for sharing so courageously and openly about your own personal journeys. And thank you, Jessica, Angela and Whitney for your creativity and dedication to capturing the grace and strength behind this powerful and compelling story.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly