September 7, 2012 Service Women's Action Network & Anu Bhagwati /Huffington Post
Former Marine Captain Anu Bhagwati writes: "In 2008, I founded Yoga for Vets NYC. Yoga helped me tremendously in my own journey recovering from emotional wounds and physical injuries from military service. Quite simply, yoga changed my life -- and I knew it could do the same for other veterans who were struggling."
ACTION ALERT: Help Us Bring Yoga to Vets! Service Women's Action Network
NEW YORK (September 5, 2012) -- In 2008, I founded Yoga for Vets NYC. Yoga helped me tremendously in my own journey recovering from emotional wounds and physical injuries from military service. Quite simply, yoga changed my life -- and I knew it could do the same for other veterans who were struggling.
I shared my story and the success of our weekly class in the Huffington Post and was featured on NY1 as their New Yorker of the Week. [See story below.]
Our program's motto is, "Taught By Veterans, For Veterans." Our instructors share a unique understanding of the challenges faced by the military population, and the toll that service can take on our bodies and minds. Our classes have helped veterans with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and numerous medical conditions.
Over the years, demand for our yoga classes has increased, leading SWAN to create a scholarship fund to help veterans become trained yoga instructors. I feel very grateful to know Sarah Wolf, an Army veteran who received a SWAN scholarship and has been teaching classes in our program for over a year. Sarah told me that her experience of becoming a yoga teacher was life-changing.
SWAN recently provided Iraq war veteran Stephen Chan with a scholarship to study Therapeutic Yoga Teacher Training at Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco. Now, back in New York City, he will teach a new Restorative Yoga class Thursday nights from 6:45 to 8:15 pm. This class is specially designed for veterans who are injured, disabled, or just want to focus on relaxation and stress management.
Stephen says it best - "Service members are so concerned about taking care of others, and their country, that they can often neglect to take care of themselves. Yoga provides that space."
SWAN now needs your help in expanding our scholarship program so that more veterans can benefit by teaching yoga to other veterans. With your help, SWAN will be able to send four veterans through teacher training that will directly benefit over 150 additional veterans each year in NYC. To do this, we need to raise $12,400.
We are calling on you to consider a gift in support of our Yoga for Vets NYC Scholarship Program. Take a look for yourself at what our scholarship program has accomplished so far - meet Sarah and Stephen, and see some of our students in action in the video (above).
We hope you join us in bringing healing, life-affirming yoga to veterans throughout New York City.
Executive Director, Service Women's Action Network
Former Marine Corps Captain
Support Yoga for Vets NYC!
Please consider making a gift to support the expansion of our Yoga for Vets NYC program! Make a donation and write "Yoga for Vets" in the section that asks to designate your donation to a specific program or fund.
P.S. Donations can be made via the link below and also can be sent to 220 East 23rd Street, Suite 509, New York, NY 10010. Please make checks out to "Fund for the City of New York" (SWAN's fiscal sponsor) with Yoga for Vets in the memo line. Integral Yoga Institute (IYI)
227 W 13th ST
between 7th and 8th Ave
New York, NY 10011
If you have any questions, call SWAN at 212-683-0015, ext 324
About Us SWAN is a civil rights organization founded and led by women veterans. SWAN's vision is to transform military culture by securing equal opportunity and the freedom to serve in uniform without threat of harassment, discrimination, intimidation or assault.
SWAN also seeks to reform veterans' services on a national scale to guarantee equal access to quality health care, benefits and resources for women veterans and their families. You can find Service Women's Action Network on our homepage, on Twitter or on Facebook.
(September 5, 2011) -- After leaving the Marine Corps in 2004, I was emotionally wounded and physically broken from multiple injuries. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, I didn't think I had anything left in me. Practicing and teaching yoga to veterans helped save my life.
After fighting conventional pill-popping treatments, I felt that I had nothing to lose by trying things my own way. When I hit rock bottom, I threw myself into a yoga teacher training program. I had not imagined that my combination of injuries, emotional pain and hardheadedness would be such a challenge. Yoga taught me many new things about myself. It turned out that in order to move beyond my pain, I had to change old habits that had been deeply ingrained by military service.
Multiple knee and shoulder injuries meant I simply could not do things normal people could. I could no longer muscle my way forward, come hell or high water, because my body simply wouldn't allow it. In being denied the physical control I had been so used to as a Marine, other softer sides of me exposed themselves. The vulnerable parts that the Marine Corps did its best to squeeze out of me were the parts I least wanted to explore -- the parts that were preventing me from healing.
I remember sitting bolt upright and storming out of a class while doing a guided relaxation in savasana, the restful pose that normally ends a traditional yoga class. My mind simply could not tolerate lying down and being still. It felt like someone was suffocating me, while anxiety, fear and chaos swirled around in my head. On another day, my back pain was so excruciating that I could not sit up. I had to learn to meditate lying down.
Being forced to let go of the Marine way of doing things was a humbling experience, and one that I fought every step of the way. Before yoga, sitting still or enjoying a quiet moment was my idea of torture. Physical movement was my way of processing stress.
As a Marine, if I saw a mountain, I had to run to the top. Objects were meant to be lifted, and open space was meant to be conquered, and fast.
Now, yoga can literally make me feel blissful. I smile more, I allow myself to have fun, and I walk taller. Three years ago, I started teaching yoga to veterans. I started a free yoga class for veterans because I wanted to reconnect on healthier terms with a community I felt like I'd been torn away from. I wanted to give back and help others with the alienating and painful process of recovering from experiences no one at home could understand.
It's a special class. There is no pretense or attempt to impress. You'll find raggedy sweatpants, old t-shirts, and the occasional high and tight haircut. There's a sense of solidarity and level of comfort and familiarity in the room.
Some of my most endearing students are the ones who have faced mind-blowing challenges from military service; some have faced near death in war; some have lost limbs; many have lost friends overseas or spouses back home; some are recovering from substance abuse; some were traumatized under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Regular students introduce themselves to newcomers and help them set up their mats and props. Many students end up chatting after class -- about VA appointments, new discoveries they've made about treating a variety of health conditions, the challenges of school, employment, or family tragedies.
Despite this feeling of community, the class is distinctly non-military. I don't encourage competition, even with oneself. In fact, it's precisely because veterans have learned to fight so hard against everything that I try to encourage an environment where veterans can allow themselves not to fight so hard against themselves.
Many students are surprised to find that muscling into poses does not, in fact, make the poses any easier to do. Balancing poses are the most surprising for many newcomers. The hard work of adjusting an attitude towards a physical posture, or easing one's body into it, instead of forcing, can lead to small epiphanies.
Learning yoga as a trauma survivor is often times especially grueling. Yoga can cause those emotions and memories we bury and control in order to survive to resurface. One returning Iraq veteran quietly asked me after class why his emotions were rising up while he was doing a restorative pose that allows the chest and hips to relax.
Many other students are challenged by poses in which their bodies are particularly vulnerable, especially in a group setting. During a guided deep relaxation, another veteran simply could not relax because the sound of the ceiling fan reminded him of the helicopters that had rescued him after a firefight in Vietnam.
For veterans who simply long for a moment's peace of mind, the less physical aspects of yoga can be a saving grace. In class, we combine physical poses with a combination of breathing techniques and meditation. This way, veterans can begin to get some relief from the practice of quieting their thoughts and deepening their breath, even if they can't yet find their way comfortably around some of the physical poses.
Finding calm in the midst of mental chaos -- experiencing peace of mind without fighting and forcing one's will upon a situation -- was and still is my biggest challenge, and ultimately it has helped me with my teaching.
My favorite part of the week is the feeling I get at the end of teaching a class of veterans, when I watch students leave the classroom looking rested, hopeful and 10 years younger.
Anu Bhagwati is the founder of Yoga for Vets NYC. A former Marine Corps Captain, she is also the Executive Director of Service Women's Action Network, a non-profit advocacy organization for women veterans.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.