January – Our Custom
Since the spring of 2oo7, I have had the privilege to instruct the great way of yoga at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) in Washington, DC. Every Tuesday and Thursday at noon I can be found in the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC) where veterans from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq receive physical rehabilitation. It is here where I teach yoga to the physical & occupational therapists, Red Cross Volunteers, friends, family and the veterans themselves.
The MATC is actually a two story building that from the outside almost looks like a temporary addition, unassuming and utilitarian, such as the type found along the side of an old high school. Inside is a different story, it contains some of the most sophisticated computerized machinery involved in therapeutic practices. In the midst of all this are the many therapists working with the combat veterans mostly who are amputees and some who also have traumatic brain injury.
I teach yoga on the ground floor. I come in early and move some tables, chairs, a fusbol game and sometimes a big furry dog. It’s beautiful to see how the unconditional love of a smiling doggie can move the very heart of a hardened soldier. Although, those dogs get so much attention that some of them act like they are celebrities! Sometimes there’s a robotic prosthetic on a table top attached to an extension chord that is plugged into the wall to charge its battery. Weights, books, pamphlets and other instruments are strewn on other tables as well.
We practice in a large, open space on the other side of the rock climbing walls, and a 25 foot long hydraulic staircase/incline ramp, that all reach up to the ceiling. We are wedged in from the other side by unique apparatus, fitted with flat-screens, that hum with electrical vibrations. The second floor has a wrap around balcony where the veterans practice learning to walk again, some with a body harness tethered to a rope-line connected to a ceiling rail, while testing out their aluminum and plastic legs with a brand new sneakers at the ‘feet.’
We sit on the ground floor in the midst of all of this. We move the spine in it’s seven directions to warm up and as always, we chat. It’s a lovely group of yogis, some former military, some civilians, musicians, combat veterans and volunteers all on the floor reaching for the sky while letting their hair down, telling jokes, and laughing out loud. This is our custom, we practice being ourselves first and foremost. Then we investigate the stream of the breath and it’s correlation to movement and our relationship to the space we are in and the time that we spend with each other.
February – A Soldier’s Stillness
One day in the spring of 2008, while teaching at the MATC at the WRAMC I noticed something quite out of the ordinary. There by some bar bell weights and exercise benches beside a mirrored wall and upon a rubber padded floor sat a soldier. Now, in the MATC it is usual to see an amputee veteran on the floor, practicing getting in and out of a wheelchair, but what was unusual was that this man was seated on the floor perfectly still – in meditation.
Over the past half year, I had noticed this veteran’s rehabilitation regimen, diligent on the cardio vascular equipment and resistance training with weights. His momentum seemed to flow in a smooth line, not erratic or aggressive but very steady, as he not only worked out but tuned in by practicing stillness. We acknowledged each other by just waving hello for over a month or so and then one day we spoke. His name was Xavier and I asked him if he would like to join our yoga class, he happily accepted, and we then opened up a conversation that developed into a broad spectrum on esoteric subjects.
We talked about the chakras, their colors and corresponding elemental characteristics plus auras, breathing and cultivating the life essence known as prana. We also discussed sacred geometry, ancient civilizations and their search to develop higher consciousness. The little I know about alternative education in the military was revealed to me by a student in Massachusetts who was a retired Special Operations US Marine. This Marine stated that (if at all) it is most likely to find individuals familiar with metaphysics and other arcane interests in the elite segments of the armed forces.
Xavier was not a Green Beret, he was an administrator who was stationed in the highly secured Green Zone in Bagdad, Iraq. What an unusual soldier I thought, how did he come to study these topics? His life completely changed when a rocket propelled grenade, launched from far outside the Green Zone, plummeted from the sky, crashed through the roof of his office and exploded underneath his feet.
The bomb shred his body, destroyed one of his legs, fragmented his intestines, broke the bones in one arm and cracked open his face which annihilated an eye. When he told me his story he did so with no complaints or sorrow and in a very matter of fact manner even joking a bit. Amazing. He now lives with a prosthetic leg, a colostomy bag, a restructured arm with metal and screws inserted inside the bones and a glass eye – and within the middle of all this, he has found stillness…
March – Everybody Has Value
The cafeteria in the hospital of the WRAMC is a humongous space and easily seats two hundred dining doctors, nurses, staff, veterans, their families, other military personnel, maintenance crew, contractors and an occasional yogi. It’s busyness is accentuated with four giant flat screen televisions always flashing the fancy 24 hour cable news infotainment and luckily they’re usually muted with sub-captions. One lunch I invited the veteran Xavier to join me and it was there where we engaged further into insightful conversation.
After rummaging the mess hall for some type of food that appeared safe and somewhat comprised of natural ingredients we purchased our meal and found a free table to chow down. The conversation that lunch began around nutrition, as I was eating a vegetarian meal and Xavier had a few different types of meat on his plate. Since he had a colostomy bag I asked him if it was okay to consume all those dead critters! He assured me that it was alright and that he was going to have yet another surgery and why not just enjoy what he can while having to continue to endure the intensity of numerous medical procedures. I picked up my hot tea and cheered his canned soda saying, ‘Amen to that.’
That comment lead to the topic of saying of grace before eating and why is it that many people who practice yoga are vegetarian. Xavier asked if I was a vegetarian and I said that I was a mountain yogi and there aren’t many vegetables that grow up in higher altitudes, thus I eat dead critters too! I mentioned that I was cleaning out my gut due to some ‘thing’ that I brought back from my trip to the Himalayas thus the plate of grains, legumes and salad. I mentioned that only recently have I been ‘blessing’ my own food, most basically giving thanks for having aliment as well as acknowledging the goodness I was to consume.
We talked about prayer. We talked about witches. We talked about space people! I thought to myself how out of the ordinary to rap about such matters in the middle of a military installation. Xavier said that he studied all sorts of belief systems due to interest as well as to also be able to hold his own with the fanatics out there. It seemed that he might of had a few family members who were unable to see beyond their self imposed veil of conformist thought that implored the systematic practice of trying to convince the whole world of what is the ‘right’ way to look at things. ‘Ugh.’ I said, ‘How inconsiderate and arrogant.’
Xavier said, ‘Yes, because everybody has value. No matter what your religion, where you come from, how much money you have or what you have been through, we all have the right to live and be and see how we want to see without ridicule, belittlement or harassment. Be polite, be nice, and respect one another because we can learn from each other, everybody has value.’ I lifted my tea, clinked his soda and said, ‘Amen to that.’
April – Union
The Tuesday Noon Yoga Classs at the MATC has grown popular with students from all different compartments of the WRAMC. Some are therapists, there is a doctor or two, a wheelchair mechanic, technicians and engineers from the ‘gait lab’ (where the combat veteran amputees practice refinement of their steps and strides) and lately there have been three vets from the US Army. One vet named Roberto has two amputated limbs one below a knee and one above the other knee, another vet named Malcom has two amputations both above his knees and a third vet named Lexington has an amputated hand below his right elbow. Class begins late but no one complains because we usually start late. I encourage them to come to any portion of the hour, and say that it is unnecessary to rush over here in order to relax, and I suggest to them to save punctuality for other parts of their day.
It is okay to be tardy, I say, ‘I don’t mind if you don’t mind.’ This logic perhaps is illogical in the tactical framework of the armed forces and even in the time crunching world of corporate or metropolis culture. Yet, sometimes the pace of life can be very time consuming and I feel that if an individual can only make it to a portion of class then let it be so, for it will be a good addition to their day. It sets a mood different from a quantitative aim and places the perspective on a qualitative quest for experience. After all, practicing the ancient art of yoga in a modern city structure with a very mixed student population is quite and experience in and of itself and it cannot be measured so easily.
So, I observe who is present for today’s class and see that of the dozen students here there are three combat veteran amputees and this is the benchmark that sets the rhythm of today’s practice. My intention is the same with any of the classes that I offer around the globe – it is to give care to the whole group and to let go of any notion of the need to get it right. The only thing right is that we are all here, and the only thing wrong is to think that we can’t get it right. I remind them that this is their class, I am their guide and they can do whatever they want. Ricardo laughs and usually refers to me in just as a ‘smokin’ hippy,’ so I sarcastically agree (with my palm slapping my shaved scalp, saying that I am a bald hippy!
Ricardo has been practicing yoga for a while and is smiling, taking full breaths, twisting into his favorite moves and usually states to any newcomers that ‘yoga is good for your soul.’ The physical & occupational therapists begin swaying side to side making jokes to each other, some of the technicians are folded over stretching and while we are all chatting a doctor walks in, sits down between Lexington and the wheel chair mechanic, and then lies down. Lexington is here for the first time and earlier he was lifting a 30 pound dumb bell, that was clamped with a special device on the end of his prosthetic forearm. He has never before practiced yoga and by the end of the class successfully shaped himself upside down in a tripod headstand.
Malcolm has been to class twice before and this time he brought his wife. She also has never practiced before and finds herself bending into new formations with her body and at time would reach out to link fingers with her husband. Malcolm enters deep states of concentration with his yoga but is aware and reaches right over to connect his hand with his spouse’s. On the second floor, other veterans watch from a mezzanine, they look curious about what we are doing but are most likely keen on the young female administrators who are practicing. The whole MATC becomes quieter in this Noon hour, while many go to eat, as we get down to embrace the floor with this ancient art. My explanations of the therapeutic movements and the silence that fills the spaces in between them, has the group starting to unwind. Some take my suggestions and add on their preferred variation, all take their time to move at their own pace, some pause to be still and all display the great power of their very own yoga – which is union.
May – Anything More Opposite
Throughout my career as a yoga educator I have taught active and retired elite military and conversed with them as well about the distinctions between the armed forces and yoga. Ahimsa (non-violence) comes to mind especially since a reality of the armed forces is warfare in contrast to the yogic lifestyle where inner peace is a main focus. I cannot think of anything more opposite.
There once was a student named George, who was a retired career U.S. Marine, that worked for the Department of Homeland Security. He was diligent with his yoga practice and often expressed how it enhanced other aspects of his life. One spring, while I was leading a retreat in Costa Rica, I was sitting next to George during lunch when he told me that I should teach yoga to the Special Forces.
He mentioned the hardship that the elite squadrons endure while out on assignment and gave this example. The scenario was that of a Marine sniper who might be literally holed up for a prolonged period of time, even days, remaining still and camouflaged in a particular confined space. He brought up the fact that through yoga, snipers could tend their selves while in the jungle, desert or bombed out building. He said the asanas and pranayamas could assist in maintaining mental focus along with taking care of one’s physical body while out in the field.
I agreed with this but added that a strong aim of the yogic path is on introspection that fosters individual thinking in order to awaken to one’s uniqueness. Plus, I thought that within the military there is more of a mindset towards conformity and ‘group think’ and how crucial this must be for the survival of a unit. George agreed with the aspect of ‘being on the same page’ as everyone but responded with how today’s military has changed with the times and that they need to be able to adapt.
Days after, I pondered the idea of training an expert marksman on how to cultivate his breath to keep him cool – while he looked down the barrel of his rifle through the scope’s crosshairs towards the intended recipient of a shot? I imagined instructing a group of warriors various yogic sequences that would maintain their joints and agility – only to assist them in an arduous approach to a perimeter of a small town to then attack it? Then I thought differently… and the possibility came to mind of planting seeds of calm and well being in any students practice. I wondered how they experienced the rejuvenating intelligent force of prana, that is inherent in all sentient beings, and how this is accessed through yoga. Here, I then knew that anyone who practices this ancient art of being will be able to observe a change in themselves, be them lover or fighter, and that this alone could be a good thing…
June – The Delicate and the Intense
One day at the WRAMC, a physical therapist arrived at class with two veterans who were both single leg amputees, one below the knee (BK) and the other with his entire right leg gone all the way up to his pelvis (hip disarticulation). These vets were huge dudes, easily over 200 pounds each, and I’m sure on the battlefield they wielded an awful lot of force on the enemy. Now, forever changed, they sat in front of me on the floor looking to give yoga a shot and perhaps searching for a subtle way into a new sense of being.
As I work with the wounded I imagine what these troops must go through in the midst of a firefight, ambush or an all out onslaught in the theater of war. The high performance of maintaining ground, keeping the cohesiveness of the unit and applying a hyper-awareness within a multitude of pressures must be one of the epitomes of intensity. I do not know what it is like to gingerly set a bomb in place, positioning it precisely as needed, for it to be effectual. Nor do I know what it is like to enter a building armed to the teeth, stepping so softly with utmost intention to be a silent as possible, so as to be the one to surprise and to not be the one surprised. The say that ‘overwhelming fire power’ is a major staple of warfare although there is also strategy, timing, endurance, adaptation and believe it or not – there is sensitivity.
I write from speculation, for in my life I have been in very few confrontations and have never been in the military, yet one place where I do experience a facet of a warrior archetype is in the practice of traditional rock climbing. The intensity of climbing is obvious when scaling a cliff hundreds of feet above the trees with birds flying below me. There is also a delicateness that happens in the nimbleness needed to ascend the rock face, in the dexterity of gear placement inside the cracks, managing the rope, tying knots and clipping carabiners. Obviously, it will never have the same profundity of avoiding heavy explosions and rounds of ammunition ripping through the air, but it does allow me to open up dialogues with the vets about complex athleticism and death defying situations. These paradigms both share the qualities of the delicate and the intense.
In addition to these scenarios, the full being (heart, mind & body) is always there and can be examined anew through the eyes of awareness. In this perspective, some will use their yoga as a tool to enter difficulties with an invisible touch that can deliver a certain clarity. This clarity sometimes comes through slowing down and tuning in, taking as much time needed to be of value, relative to each unique story and person. It means going inward to search, rather than outward or onward, and perhaps is where a fighter may find his very own gentleman.
July – Yoga of the Military Chaplain
A number of new people showed up in class one week, some were plain clothed, most wore lose fitting garb for movement and a few were dressed in contemporary camouflage. Within the group were two men who both had a distinct patch on the front of their uniforms. This patch bore the symbol of the cross and I realized that these gentlemen were military chaplains.
I asked every one for their names, if they have practiced before and then I introduced myself. From the chaplains I was expecting to hear ‘Father,’ ‘bishop’ or ‘friar’ and they both replied, not only with their first names, but by their nicknames. How unique that men of the cloth in the United States Army, who provide their services in this unique hospital, came to the Military Advanced Training Center to practice yoga.
We began the session on the floor in silence with our eyes closed. Sitting in stillness can be quite an attempt for some especially when done so on the floor. So, in any class there are those who are comfortable in their natural seat, there are some who get antsy, some who become a little sleepy and so on. In this session there were eighteen people and during the beginning the chaplains seemed to be especially motionless while at the same time quite placid.
In a contemplative perspective the asanas (postures) will serve as gateways to deeper insight of one’s self and the moment at hand. Each asana will affect the person personally, so what might be pleasurable for one could be agonizing for the other, what might be boring for one could be soothing for the other and so on. The importance in practicing asanas is to realize that although it is a physical shape that is being created, the direction to do so may come from the heart-mind that works in tandem with electromagnetic energy (prana) to perform and unite the entire experience. Thus yoga, which translates as ‘union.’
This union is felt by many people, like when an athlete enters what is commonly referred to as the ‘zone’ during a contest. It happens to an artist is in creative concentration and several hours go by, seeming like minutes. In this union a musician will get into a melodic groove and fully flow with his instrument. Any person, child or adult will unite with this blissfulness in the presence of very good company or in the midst of hilarious play. The mind, body and soul are wholly living this momentous state in all its grandness in a multitude of ways. So, during class that week every time we landed into an asana and relaxed into the pull of gravity, I couldn’t help but imagine that the chaplains would align with a clear connection straight up to the heavens…
August – The Chaplain and the Yogi
The cafeteria food in the army hospital is mass produced and questionably flavorful but the hunger pangs in my belly continue their announcements so off to lunch I go! Strolling along in a the dye t-shirt, shorts and flip flops with a day pack on my back and a security badge on my front, I move through hallways of veterans walking on prosthesis and rolling on wheel chairs while military brass observe and a few children run around. I reach the cafeteria where the food is cheap, choose a healthy platter and a cup of tea, pay the cashier who calls everyone ‘baby,’ then look for a place to sit when I see Nate the military chaplain waving me over to his table.
Although neither of us are medics, we both work within the medical field and each provide a unique service that addresses every individual individually. The clinic where I instruct class is called the Military Advanced Training Center which is an adjacent structure connected to the main hospital by a suspended walkway. Nate works in a chapel, that is located in the very center of the main hospital, where they hold spiritual services in a few of the world’s different belief systems.
Nate is new to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and as we sit in the mess hall he comments about the lighting in the room, the hospital’s overall design and the effects that these can have on a person. He speaks of nature, the connection to it and how there is none of that in this edifice. I respond with what he already knows, that this infirmary was built in the 1970’s style of anti-car bomb architecture. So, the main entryway is long with barriers that allow only foot traffic in, the windows are recessed to avoid blast debris, and there are shields of columns and cielings constructed above to protect the upper floors.
We spoke further about the soldiers pride in athleticism, their being ‘blown up’ to having limbs amputated, their life forever reshaped and how their mind state might be regarding all of this. We agree that for the wounded warrior in recuperation there is no ‘one way’ of healing, as some seek council from the chaplain and some seek serenity from the yogi. Others continue engaging their very own spirit in any way that makes sense to them. They partake in many endeavors including meditation or school, fly fishing, horseback riding, cycling hand cranked bikes in marathons, cooking, model making etc.
We ruminate and discuss further the quality of the human condition, especially for the war torn, and the process that we both use in our vocations of observing behavior. Nate emphasizes the essence of the of soul respectfully without restricting it to cult, church or creed – not even once does he mention Christianity or God. I recognize this in many spiritual people, that there is an evolution in perspective that does not define the divine by simplifying it to a singular religious strain. It turns out he is still in school and he tells me that he is including yogasana and relaxation practice as part of his thesis. I smile.
September – You Don’t Have Shoes On
The end of another class and I gather the remainder of props from the floor, a few foam blocks, a couple of mats and place them in the storage room next to several different types of walking canes, bottles of water and numerous prosthesis. I return to the practice space to shift some furniture back to their original place when I hear someone say something to me. I turn around to see across the room this gigantic young man hunched over in a small wheel chair who is staring at me. I answer, ‘What was that?’ He blurts out ‘You don’t have shoes on.’
I question, ‘What?’ His reply is short, ‘You don’t have shoes on. WHY don’t you have shoes on?’
‘I teach yoga.’
‘YO-gah . . What’s that?’ He says distrustingly.
His hands are folded together on his lap with his forearms on his thighs, his head is sunken into his shoulders and it looks like he barely fits in his chair, but his gaze is fixed on me like a sentinel in deep suspicion. I don’t notice any obvious deformity in his physical body although there might be wounds in his mental body like traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder or maybe he’s just seriously pissed off. I remind myself that some of these guys are fresh off the battle field, and not only are they adjusting to their impairment, but they are also dealing with fitting back into civilian American culture.
‘Yoga is a system that uses deliberate exercises to strengthen and heal the body and mind.’ I say while pointing to my heart. Maybe he was having a flashback of seeing men in Iraq running around barefoot..?
His face is expressionless, it might as well be made of stone, we maintain eye contact and he repeats in his southern draw, ‘Why don’t you have shoes on?’
‘Well, in class we practice getting in tune with the entire body all the way down to the feet, so we take the shoes off and even work the toes. We meet from noon to 1pm, you are welcome to join in if you’d like.’
The soldier’s mood shifts slightly. He determines that I am not a threat..? Then takes one last look at me, grunts something under his breath and perhaps returns to this present reality of being in an army medical hospital’s physical therapy ward. He swiftly swings his wheel chair around to leave, making a complete 180 degree circle, causing his pant legs to sway from the breeze of the turn and I see that he is missing one foot…
October – Any Place, Any Space
‘What is that?!’ I exclaim to myself as I walk into the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC) at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and see a new mechanical apparatus planted right around where we practice yoga. It is a big ol’ thing with cords and lights, holes for different attachments and it even produces a slight hum from an internal engine. There still is space for us to practice although some people will have to wedge themselves in between this therapeutic instrument and a table.
The next month, ‘Man, what is that for?!’ I see another new tool, a thin metal structure fitted with wheels attached to five legs with some type of gauge on a slanting rod that is connected to cords and a few velcro straps. It’s not that big and can be wheeled over to one of the walls and positioned parallel to a huge box of some sort. I do this and survey the floor to make sure there is an ample place for a student to move. There is.
Later that month, ‘Man, what is that and what is that for?!’ I think without saying a word and look at a stainless steel ‘cabinet’ with several drawers of various sizes and attached to it is an LED thermometer on the upper right corner with a faucet on the opposite side. The following week this cabinet was moved obtusely underneath the speed punching bag, next to the towel recycling bin and a spare lacrosse stick and all were surrounded with dumbbell weights. I move some tables beside this illuminant, slick unit to create a place with enough space for a student to practice yoga.
The MATC is constantly receiving new items and they are put just about anywhere there might be room. There is a monster weight lifting matrix that sprawls out like a mutant metal space spider but at least we can see each other through it because it is not that dense. It cannot be moved easily at all because it probably weighs the same as a small automobile. So, items come and items go but more items are coming than going so it’s a bit of a labyrinth in there.
Then one day (many months later) the whole entire floor that houses all these curious instruments, where we practice yoga, is completely rearranged! All the treadmills and elliptical cardio-vascular equipment are gone, the metal cable weight machine is nattily positioned in a corner with the fusbol game but the enormous revolving rock climbing wall – has been relocated smack dab in the middle of where we practiced yoga. When the students come in they look directly where we held class for the past year and a half and then turn and look at me. ‘Well, now we will have class on this side of the room.’ I go over to shift the same tables this time towards the glass walls by the main entrance and everyone helps. ‘That’s the good thing about yoga,’ I say, ‘we can practice in any space and in any place.’ Om…
November – Multifarious Students
Lexington is back since his very first class a year ago and now has a new prosthetic for where his right hand was. It is shaped liked a shallow bowl, with a stem in the middle that connects to a forearm sheath, and allows for greater pressure and range of motion. He’s a high energy Green Beret who drove up from North Carolina (at four thirty this morning) to help out with the Army Ten Miler in D. C. If yoga class included back flips he would be the first one at it.
Jeff is a career Marine and a new student who is married with five children and has a non-combat related injury. Due to negligence of a doctor particle debris was left inside Jeff’s spinal column after a surgery causing further complications. He now has nerve damage that radiates down the entire length of his leg, resulting in lack of sensation and decreased mobility, so his physical therapist suggested that he come to yoga class with her. Jeff like’s the leniency in my instruction and finds it altogether different from the other therapies he receives.
Sally is the physical therapist of Jeff and she is always asking for movements and postures for the quadratus lumborum (QL). ‘Got anything for the QL, Daniel?’ So, I deliver exploratory sequences to examine the QL, and it’s surrounding structure, and know when it hits the spot for Sally because she pauses right when she finds it. Her faces softens, her breath lengthens and it even seems like her hair relaxes. ‘That was fantastic,’ she says, ‘it’s also opening my spinae erectus and the anterior portion of the right side external obliques.’ Sally likes anatomy.
Chris is a young soldier who had his right leg blown off below the knee from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and he volunteered for a new type of reconstructive surgery. This entailed using either a portion of his rectus abdominus (belly) or latisimus dorsi (upper back) and sewing it on the end of his amputated limb. He chose to use a section of his back, and the muscle pack now cushions the end of what’s left of his tibia (shin bone), so he can have more comfort in movement. Chris is naturally flexible and takes readily to the exploration within yoga.
A most beautiful lady appears at the back of the room and gazes at me, I invite her to sit down and practice with us. She smiles and whispers, ‘This is a God send!’ and then makes her place on the floor with her majestic purple shawl still nestled around her shoulders and upper arms. I notice that during postures of stillness she enters a silence comparable to that of a person in deep prayer. Later, she tells me that she is a psychotherapist in the hospital and I give her the thumbs up.
Here comes Malcolm… my goodness, he’s walking! Malcolm is a double above the knee amputee and strolls in with two specialized leg prothesis and trekking poles for balance. He is truly an Army gentleman and his grace is mirrored in his movement descending to the floor to removing his stainless steel limbs and practicing his very own ingenious yoga. He is quick to listen and steady with his speech.
Ted is one of the physical therapists who always gives his time and effort without hesitation. His enthusiasm to try new things with the veterans leads him to participate in marathons on hand crank bicycles, field trips to sporting events and downtown dining at all the good restaurants. He fuses his wit with the cosmic jargon of yogic speak but does so tastefully and at all the right times during class. When practicing relaxation postures Ted will sometimes doze off into a much needed sleep. I encourage it.
Another lady watches as we all get into our tribal vibe of class which generally starts with a bit of joking around and chatting on current events. She is a Red Cross volunteer and I invite her to take class with us and she says, ‘Where?’ I say, ‘Here.’ She says, ‘Here?,’ and points to the floor which is encircled by all kinds of machines and furniture. I respond, ‘Yes, right here. We have mats and blankets so make a spot where ever you like.’ She says she hasn’t practiced yoga in about thirty years and I reply that it is still inside her and we’ll bring it back out. She smiles in relief and I find out that this is her very first day at the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC) and know it can be overwhelming.
Lilly is another physical therapist with a beautiful smile and a wonderful chuckle. She sets up her spot, sits down and gets right to it, warming up in the way she is supposed to, her way. It is lovely to see her listen to her body and make decisions as to how to respond to it using good control of her breath (pranayama) and her own deep seated knowledge of the human instrument. Lilly sometimes comes late and always leaves early, to make time for lunch, yet does so quietly.
Frank sometimes comes to class after a smoke and other times skips class and goes for a burger and fries instead. He is very laid back and so is his style of occupational therapy. It is this coolness of personality that makes him a sincere listener which is therapeutic in itself when he assists the afflicted.
Mike is a wheelchair mechanic who is ceaseless in his creativity in building custom made chairs. He works all over the MATC where ever he might bump into an amputee who needs a chair tune-up. One day I invited him to class and he has been hooked ever since, claiming how much better his back, legs and whole damn self feels from practicing. He is such an enthusiast that he invited me up to his house in Pennsylvania to teach yoga to all his friends, and during the middle of that class in the beautiful blueness of the dusk sky, we saw a U. F. O. among the stars – but that is another story.
December – Own Your Way
For about five years I instructed yoga at the Sports Club/L. A. gym in the Ritz Carlton in downtown Washington, D.C. and one of my classes that was on Saturday at noon I called ‘Yoga Basics.’ Averaging around 30 people, this was a popular class that some attended year after year as they liked the mellow pace, mindful instruction and freedom of choice provided. Because of the title, many felt that they were never going to ‘improve’ their practice from a ‘basic’ to an ‘advanced’ level because they couldn’t ‘do’ the postures of other aggressive classes (mind you this is a gym). In actuality, what we did in that class I never offered in my ‘advanced’ classes because the majority of the ‘advanced’ students entirely lacked the patience and maturity for it.
Well, one day a new person literally rolled into the Yoga Basics class on a motorized scooter, and I never found out if this was due to a genetic predisposition or from an accident. Both of her legs were in permanent crooked angles rendering her unable to stand. As I do with all students new to me I ask for their name, it was Alison, and I ask if they have practiced yoga before. Whether she had or not I didn’t hear because the only thing that was going through my mind at that moment was that I was going to teach her, and everyone else in there, a yoga class that was suitable for all.
From that first class Alison became my teacher, for I had never worked with an individual like her before, so every movement, posture and breath were absolute and curious experiments for the both of us. Alison came back again and again always to that noon time group class and not once did she ask for a private lesson. She would press the studio door open with the front wheel of her scooter and then park by the wall where I would meet and assist her to the floor. At the end of class I would carry her up onto to her chair, she would thank me, smile and then glide away with the electrical hum of her personal transport. She was not interested with how ‘advanced’ or ‘basic’ her yoga was, she was primarily concerned with maintaining her health – period. I learned from her every single time she showed up, and she would practice in her very own way.
Another year I was again teaching a noon time class this time on a Friday at a public setting in the U Street corridor of Washington, DC. Upon arriving to the space I noticed a student sitting on the floor outside the front door and next to her was a pair of crutches leaning on the wall. I introduced myself to this young lady, for I had not had her in class before, and she told me her name was Margaret. I then asked her the usual, if she was new to yoga, but also inquired if she had injured herself. She said no, that she had been practicing for a while and no, she didn’t injure herself, just that it had been some time since she had walked and she was trying out a new leg.
Responding to my puzzlement she swiftly popped off her prosthetic, that was attached to her right shin just below the knee, and laughed. The teacher had revealed herself. ‘Don’t worry about me Daniel, I’ll create my own modifications in class.’ ‘Cool,’ I said and I pondered what it would be like if everyone would take this same creative freedom with their yogic path? Margaret told me that she was unfortunately run over by a New York City bus in downtown Manhattan over a year and a half ago. The accident resulted in a necessary amputation of her lower leg and she adapted her yoga as part of the healing process. She seemed to be handling it quite well and every time she came to practice I learned multitudes watching her shift and modify in and out of asanas in her very own way.
Within this same year at this same place one evening walks in a man with one arm missing. Yet another teacher appears. He was a bit reserved so we ended up speaking to one another about a month later where upon he told me about his accident while water skiing. The tow line got caught up in the propeller of the boat motor and violently yanked him into the spinning metal blades that severed his arm from his torso. I don’t remember his name but I do remember how righteous his yoga practice was from the nobleness of his presence. He taught himself several unilateral arm balances and created variations of the classical asanas using homemade props. He taught me the deepness in aesthetic, even with a history of traumatic circumstance, evident in this man’s concentration and pranayama (control of breath), which he practiced in his very own way.
‘What is going on here?’ I ruminated… things happen in threes sometimes. It turned out that these three teachers were signs reflecting my future. That became apparent when early the following year a yogini and her student from Florida came to participate in a class of mine. That woman was Annie Okerlin of the Exalted Warrior Foundation and the pupil Retired Rear Admiral Tom Steffens, a S.E.A.L. of the United States Navy. The two of them had put together a ground breaking yoga program for the wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were providing their services at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa and were developing a similar course here in Washington, D. C. and were looking for a yogi to help them out. They chose me.
So since the spring of 2007 I have been offering my therapeutic yoga services to the veterans and their family members, the hospital staff and volunteers of the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC) at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC). It has been an uncommon yet powerful learning opportunity and I am grateful as well as quite altered from working and sharing in this environment.
Many of the veterans have been blasted, not shot by bullets, but literally blown up from improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and or by rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s). Many endure unimaginable situations from spinal cord injury (SCI), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All are Warriors. So when anyone says to me, ‘I’m bad at yoga.’ Or, ‘Tell me everything I am doing wrong.’ Or, ‘I’m not ever going to an advanced level.’ Or even, ‘What is the ‘right’ way to do this?’ I will say that it is impossible to practice yoga wrong, that no one is ‘bad’ at it and that levels are more a question of perspective. I explain that in the continuance on one’s path it is really rather a matter of style and creativity, that will allow one to learn via exploration, how to experience the body and the mind.
I might tell them the story of Alison, Margaret or the man with one arm. I might explain to them a story of one of the numbers of teachers who have been visiting me regularly since the spring of 2007, blown up by pounds of explosives, and that when they practice yoga – none of them are bad at it, doing it wrong or are concerned with it being expert or novice. They have all found their own way to practice yoga, and why don’t you?
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