Empowering Veterans Through (Hot) Yoga

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Video: Team RWB Yoga Camp

As I was walking into the airport last night, I was quickly reminded of a special event from just a few weeks earlier. I was on my way to NYC for a camp that I had been planning for months, with individuals whom I had never met before, and in a location I had never been. We had all come together for one goal: to bring the experience of (Bikram) yoga to a group of veterans. What came out of that weekend surpassed our wildest expectations, and I can safely say was a life changing experience for me personally.

This camp was sponsored by Team Red, White & Blue, an organization that Rule29 has had the wonderful opportunity to not only work alongside over the past few years, but also give back to. (In fact we just launched their new site!) We’re huge supporters of Team RWB’s mission – to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. The camp was a prime example of their efforts to further this mission. It took place between Sept 22nd–24th with over 30 veterans and civilians attending from 10 states – one even coming as far as Germany. For some this was their first experience with yoga and/or Bikram yoga, which was the foundational style of the camp. During this 3-day camp, attendees participated in workshops, classes and a variety of social activities with fellow veteran and local community members. We had over a dozen instructors including renowned Rajashree Choudhury, the Founder and President of USA Yoga, who assisted her husband, Bikram Choudhury, in creating the highly successful Teacher Training Program.

The most amazing part of this experience was the collection of stories that were told throughout the weekend. In fact, the story of the camp’s origin is quite interesting in and of itself, but one for another time. Barry Peterson (a Bikram yoga instructor, West Point grad, and veteran), the amazing Jane and Jake Kartsch (owners of Bikram Yoga Bronx), and I had been going back and forth for months working on how we can create an impactful event. That Friday evening, we all met each other for the first time. Barry had flown in from Reno. Nikki (another Bikram yoga instructor), JJ Star (filmmaker) and I flew in from Chicago. Soon, camp attendees started to trickle in, followed by lots of hugging. That’s when it really hit me. This weekend wasn’t just about yoga, it was about bringing people together. A few observations stood out to me as I watched this group of veterans meet and interact for the first time. One, I realized how easy it is to pass a veteran on the street, yet have no understanding of what they’ve done for our country. Two, it’s obvious that veterans come from a strong community of brothers and sisters who have served together.

For some, this loss of community is one of the more difficult aspects of civilian life to cope with. For example, Kathy (LTC, Retired) had lost her sight back in 2008 due to an explosion. On her way to the camp she was asked why she joined the Army as opposed to staying stateside to raise a family. She, along with so many other vets that weekend, had to explain her story to those who just can’t understand why they would give up so much and put themselves into very difficult environments. She joined because she loved her country—she longed to serve and give back. Because of this, she jumps at any opportunity to be among like-minded individuals.

In the yoga room, we had siblings and friends, civilians and vets, new and experienced yogis all coming together to take a step toward a healthier lifestyle. One of the beautiful things about Bikram yoga is the consistency it provides. You can go to any Bikram studio in the world and it’s the same 26 postures done in the same order. The class is silent except for the steady dialogue of the teacher. It provides a sense of unity with everyone in the room and at the same time allows for an internal focus as you practice. That internal focus can be one of the hardest parts especially for someone who might have PTSD. The camp created an environment that was accommodating to attendees overcoming this type of internal struggle. Veterans could pull from the support of those around them, knowing that they were not alone in dealing with symptoms of PTSD. Once you overcome one class, you know that you can go back and do it again.

Since the camp was an introduction to Bikram yoga, the first class was quite an eye-opener. With thirty people filling an already heated room, the experience is bound to be intense. Bikram yoga is about pushing yourself both mentally and physically while listening to your body. You don’t modify from the practice, you do what your body can do and slowly push yourself to improve. On the second day, there were concerns about attending class again. I remember Barry saying how the camp was a special opportunity—a safe place. When everyone returns home, exceptions won’t be made for these veterans. The camp and its staff were there to provide an opportunity to allow its attendees to overcome personal obstacles. The choice to continue or not was one’s own.  The staff was not going to force anyone, but rather provide an opportunity.

Everyone stayed and took the class that evening. When it was over, words could not describe the sense of happiness and accomplishment that carried through the rest of the camp. I can’t wait until the next camp. That weekend was proof that this was just a small step in the right direction and I feel so honored that Team RWB was able to provide this opportunity for me to be a part of it. Many lives were changed, including my own.