Com­bat­ing years of wartime trauma with a di≠er­ent sort of war­rior pose

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY TARA BAHRAMPOUR

In a quiet room in Old Town Alexan­dria, the stu­dents sit qui­etly on mats, fac­ing an al­tar with mala beads and a med­i­ta­tion singing bowl. For the next 11 days, they will spend most of their wak­ing hours to­gether, bond­ing as they go through rig­or­ous train­ing to be­come yoga teach­ers.

It might be any teacher-train­ing pro­gram in this yoga-ob­sessed metropoli­tan area, but look at the stu­dents snap to when the teacher says, “Eyes front.” See how the guest lec­turer’s “Morn­ing, ev­ery­one,” elic­its a re­flex­ive, syn­chro­nized “Morn­ing, sir!” And what about those dogs sit­ting along the pe­riph­ery, one start­ing to whine as she senses el­e­vated cor­ti­sol lev­els in her owner?

Wel­come to VEToga, a pro­gram that in­structs mil­i­tary vet­er­ans from around the coun­try on how to be­come yoga teach­ers and, in turn, teach other vet­er­ans how to salute the sun.

The pro­gram was de­vel­oped by Justin Blaze­jew­ski, 38, who has spent most of his adult life in com­bat zones, first as a Marine and then as a civil­ian gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor. Af­ter more than 40 trips to Afghanistan and Iraq, he was hob­bled by in­juries and liv­ing in per­pet­ual fight-or-flight mode.

“My parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem, the one that al­lows you to rest and relax, wasn’t in ac­tion since 1998,” he said. Then, in 2008, he took a yoga class. “I phys­i­cally felt my body let go for the first time. I didn’t re­al­ize I was hold­ing that tension un­til I did yoga. My brain turned off and the rest of my body started let­ting go.” Af­ter­ward, he said, “I want more of this.”

As he con­tin­ued to go over­seas, where thou­sands of troops lived in the con­stant tension of war zones, he re­al­ized that they needed release as much as he did — some­times more. Even once they were home, many strug­gled with phys­i­cal and emo­tional scars, in­clud­ing post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) and trau­matic brain in­jury (TBI). To Blaze­jew­ski, dis­cov­er­ing yoga had been a gift, and he wanted to share it.

So he be­gan to do so, start­ing with an ini­tial train­ing course in Novem­ber. Twelve mem­bers of the first class teach yoga to vet­er­ans in eight states. The cur­rent class has 25 stu­dents. Un­like some teacher-train­ing pro­grams that lose stu­dents part­way through be­cause of the rig­or­ous sched­ule, the stu­dents here are used to 16 hours a day of boot camp; by con­trast, the 131/2 hours a day at VEToga may seem gen­tle.

The course, taught by yo­gis from di­verse back­grounds, in­cludes lessons in med­i­ta­tion, anatomy, the his­tory of yoga and var­i­ous styles of prac­tice, as well as in­struc­tion on teach­ing to vet­er­ans. Although it in­cludes the ba­sics for yoga teach­ers, it does not in­clude a 10-hour seg­ment, which can be taken sep­a­rately, for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in teach­ing peo­ple with trauma, PTSD and TBI.

But be­ing vet­er­ans gives the teach­ers in train­ing a level of em­pa­thy and ca­ma­raderie that can be elu­sive in the civil­ian world.

“It’s the power of com­mu­nity,” Blaze­jew­ski said, not­ing that more than 22 vet­er­ans com­mit sui­cide ev­ery day. De­spite be­ing of­fered coun­sel­ing, job train­ing and other ser­vices, “at some point they have a dis­con­nect from so­ci­ety and com­mu­nity. We’re hop­ing this com­mu­nity of peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from civil­ians . . . can pro­vide a venue for them to reach peo­ple that can’t be reached by civil­ians. When they’re around civil­ians, they don’t open up about any­thing. When they’re here, they open up.”

A cou­ple of hours into the first day re­cently, the par­tic­i­pants went around the room and in­tro­duced them­selves.

Keith Toy, a mus­cu­lar 38-year-old, said he had suf­fered from bur­si­tis in his hip. “My doc­tor sug­gested yoga and my re­ac­tion was, ‘Yoga? That’s for girls and stay-at-home moms.’ I’d al­ways been an ath­lete grow­ing up; I played four or five sports.” But af­ter he tried yoga, “my bur­si­tis went away with­out any med­i­cal help, drugs or any­thing. And I thought, truly, if you can help bring that light to some­one, you should do it.”

Rick Wo­j­ciechowski, 53, stroked his brindle pit bull, Har­ley, as he spoke. A Marine Corps vet­eran, he had seen com­bat in Iraq, Gre­nada and Le­banon, and was in Beirut in 1983 when the Marine bar­racks there were blown up, killing 241 U.S. peace­keep­ers.

By his 40s, “I was closed off, house­bound, an­gry, about to go to jail,” he said, adding that learn­ing yoga and tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion had brought him back into so­ci­ety.

One vet­eran with trau­matic brain in­jury was tak­ing the class with his sis­ter, who is mar­ried to a Marine Corps cap­tain. An­other said yoga had helped her not only with her own phys­i­cal is­sues but also con­nect with her fa­ther, a Viet­nam vet­eran who suf­fered from flash­backs and the ef­fects of Agent Orange.

Sev­eral teared up as they spoke, in­clud­ing one who said 13 vet­er­ans from his com­bat unit had killed them­selves.

Blaze­jew­ski was not sur­prised to see so much open­ness so soon. When troops are with other troops, he said, “those lay­ers peel back. Those trau­mas, those stored mem­o­ries all are ex­plored.”

VEToga, which pro­vides free train­ing, meals and lodg­ing for out-of-town­ers, is funded through do­na­tions; Blaze­jew­ski said he is hop­ing to get some money through the G.I. Bill. The pro­gram also helps con­nect grad­u­ates with mil­i­tary bases, VA hos­pi­tals and other vet­er­ans’ or­ga­ni­za­tions.

To be el­i­gi­ble, par­tic­i­pants must be ac­tive-duty mem­bers, vet­er­ans or their rel­a­tives, and must have been prac­tic­ing yoga for at least six months. The cur­rent class in­cludes 10 ac­tive-duty mem­bers, 10 vet­er­ans, and five moth­ers, spouses or sib­lings. For the next course, which will start in Novem­ber, 50 peo­ple have signed up, which means there will be a wait­ing list or a sec­ond train­ing.

For many, the key ben­e­fit of the train­ing is the idea of pay­ing it for­ward.

“Yoga’s done so much for me, I want to kind of give back,” Wo­j­ciechowski said. “You’ve led peo­ple in prob­a­bly the most stress­ful en­vi­ron­ment there is. It kind of gives you con­fi­dence that way, that you can stand up in front of a class . . . . I just don’t want to see an­other vet­eran go 10 years like I did, when I can try and reach some­one through my ex­pe­ri­ence, be­cause we have that com­mon bond through the mil­i­tary. If I can suc­ceed in short­en­ing their trauma by one day, then I can suc­ceed in pass­ing on what was given to me.”

PHO­TOS BY JA­SON AN­DREW FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Above, Rick Wo­j­ciechowski, a Marine Corps vet­eran, par­tic­i­pates in a VEToga teacher-train­ing class on May 25 in Alexan­dria, Va. Yoga and med­i­ta­tion helped bring him back into so­ci­ety, he says. At top, Duane Perez, a for­mer Marine and Per­sian Gulf War vet­eran, stretches dur­ing the train­ing while his ser­vice dog does his own ver­sion of down dog.

PHO­TOS BY JA­SON AN­DREW FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: VEToga stu­dents — in­clud­ing ac­tive-duty mil­i­tary mem­bers, vet­er­ans and their rel­a­tives — relax in savasana, or fi­nal rest­ing pose, af­ter a teacher-train­ing class on May 25 in Alexan­dria. AT TOP: The stu­dents do a twisting pose. The course in­cludes lessons in med­i­ta­tion, anatomy, the his­tory of yoga and var­i­ous styles of prac­tice, as well as in­struc­tion on teach­ing to vet­er­ans.

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