Asking A Former Marine About Yoga & The Military
If you’re familiar with yoga for men in the media, you know that there’s a good chance that whenever an article comes out on the subject that there’s a good chance that yoga for victims of PTSD is mentioned.
I’ve always been curious about the subject myself, and aside from making a few assumptions about the benefits of controlling stress levels through breathing, meditation, and focusing on the present, I’m not qualified to write about the subject.
That’s why I reached out to CJ Keller, the co-founder and Yoga Director of Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness. This week’s blog post is from him. Enjoy!
What Makes CJ Qualified to Speak About Yoga for Military Personnel?
I can readily self-identify with belonging to several very different and sometimes opposing “tribes”. Guys, I’m sure you can relate. I hold rank in the hyper-masculine Marine Corps as a former Captain, but also as a teacher in the easy-going, peace-loving yoga communities.
These two populations are often content with keeping a safe distance from one another and seldom intermingle. I suspect this is because we tend to take very different approaches to supporting and empowering our members, and have seemingly mismatched values, goals, and ways we go about reaching them.
I feel this contrast and is a good thing and offers a great opportunity for each group to learn yoga from each other, to complement and evolve. Affiliating proudly with both tribes, I am one of a growing number of liaisons, translating and trading acronyms for Sanskrit and bullets for breath, with some degree of success.
Military Vs Yoga: Coping & Support Systems
Let’s briefly explore how each tribe views and moves through fear and discomforting experiences. I find this to be at the crux of understanding how a combat fatigued military, active and veteran, can and should benefit from yogic practices.
The Military & The Coping Mindset
For better or worse, the military indoctrinates us to facilitate a reflexive, sympathetic-like response to a stressful environment, either routing our fears into the violence of action, to locate, close with and destroy an enemy, or to numb our senses by encouraging avoidance responses, to habitually “suck it up” and “soldier on.” We are also often cautioned not to make “comfort-based” decisions as they tend to put lives at risk.
Yes, this response functional and absolutely necessary for the acute periods of combat, but are ultimately incomplete, short-sighted and counter-productive in the long run. We know it doesn’t take much time at all for our underlying, unaddressed emotions to manifest with mental health issues.
Too often, our returning men and women engage in maladaptive behavior patterns interlaced with substance abuse. We simply don’t know how to adjust, we don’t have the tools. False refuge in alcohol and/or narcotics are such easy and accessible ways to find temporary relief from the past and stave off anxiety of the future.
For too many, this is what leads us to spiral out into severe depression, hopelessness, and even suicide. In case you haven’t heard, we lose 22 veterans a day this way. One is too many, 22 is utterly unacceptable.
In these cases, I feel it is ironic and sad that if our affiliation with the hyper-masculine, ego-saturated tribe hasn’t literally killed us in combat, it wreaks havoc and corrodes our chances for positive, meaningful connections with ourselves and others. Is this sacrifice inherently necessary for patriotic duty and service? I don’t believe it is, so I suggest an alternative, to evolve our approach toward training the mind and body for the demands of modern life and modern combat. Let’s employ new effective tools for these old problems and bridge the gap from 22 to zero.
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Yoga & The Coping Mindset
The yoga and mindfulness tribe offers another possible response to unpleasantries of military service. It serves to de-construct the ego, hone our focus on the felt experience of the present moment, and awaken our senses to new spaces and alternative perspectives. With skilled guidance and dedicated practice, the yoga practice encourages contrasting parasympathetic-like responses that tend to be more appropriate and healing for coping with discomfort and stress.
Through this, practicing yogis consistently benefit from a sense of returning to a “home” state of restful balance to ease our mind and body. Many veterans and family members will tell you, they still feel like a part of them hasn’t returned home from war. For me, yoga was the way, and the bridge back home.
On a more personal note, part of my drive to unite these polar communities comes out of my sense of not neatly fitting in either tribe. There is plenty about each one that I truly love and value, enough to confidently say, “I’m a Marine, and I always will be,” or “I’m a yogi at heart”, but both have parts that don’t always sit well. I’m too much of a damn Jarhead to completely identify with the stereotypical fluffy Caucasian cover of Yoga Journal folk.
Same goes for my beloved Marine Corps, there are way too many examples of terrible things us military members have seen or done at home and abroad that I deeply struggle with. On a fundamental level, I disagree with much of how the military is deployed and used for political power and financial gain. My tribes are far from perfect, but this exactly is why both may begin to see the benefits of each other’s ways and perspectives.
Bridging the Gap Between The Two Tribes: Yoga & The Military
So, it is both a selfish and self-less desire to weave a new fabric, attempting a connection between the two opposing tribes with common threads of self-less service, courage, self-acceptance, commitment, and love. While hardcore hyper-masculine tribesmen prefer to view the yogis as soft hippie pacifists, which is no doubt true in some cases, they must begin to see that is a naive and shallow generalization, and continuing to think this way absolutely leads us back the what we have now, 22 a day. Thankfully, through education and tangible results of basic yogic practices, this belief is shifting in our culture as a whole especially among forward-thinking military circles including SEAL’s and Operators.
We can do much better, and therefore we should. Help me bring the power and strength of connected, mindful movement to heal and improve our overall quality of life, and finally come home!
The goal of Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness is to provide holistic, and integrative health and wellness training and education to Wounded, Ill, and Injured service members and their caregivers within the active, reserve, and veteran components. You can contact CJ or find more about Semper Fidelis at [email protected].
About the author, Dean Pohlman, Founder & CEO of Man Flow Yoga, Author of Yoga Fitness for Men, Expert on Yoga Fitness for Men.
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