This is the seventh interview in an ongoing series called “At Attention, At Peace”; a conversation among teachers, students and officials about the role of yoga in addressing mental health in the military. Click here to read parts one, two, three, four five and six. To subscribe to this series, email ‘subscribe’ to [email protected] to stay updated on new interviews.
Full Interview with Judy Weaver
Lilly– What would you say is the most important thing you are offering veterans in your work with connected warriors?
Judy– We’re finding that it’s not even about the yoga, it’s about giving them the opportunity to connect. To connect with their families, their friends, any part of themselves the left here, to reintegrate into the community, and most importantly, to each other.For example, when we first started this program veterans would come in, wearing their Army shirt, their Marine shirt, their Navy shirt, whatever. They would all huddle with their groups like it was high school. Once we started giving away our connected warrior shirts, it was no longer that way.
Lilly– Your mission statement talks about connecting yoga with other kinds of professionals, like case workers and therapists. Would you say that there is increased openness to yoga as a therapeutic tool since you’ve started this program? Do you sense a shift in receptivity in the mainstream?
Judy– The shift we are seeing from the therapist or counselor perspective is radical. We started out with one therapist who thought it was a good idea, and she was a yoga teacher, by the way. So, we were in Pensacola and Biloxi recently, and a counselor recently started offering classes. This has spread. This is in the south. This represents a huge shift.
The typical thought of yoga as “woo-woo” or what I call “happy crap” is gone. The yoga concept is being accepted in a broader sense. Even if it is still thought of as happy crap, veterans are sleeping.
This is a consistent benefit that therapists and veterans can see. If we can get just a little more momentum behind us, the effect will be huge in spreading this. We’re in the Miami VA hospital, we’re in the Vet Center, we’re in the Palm Beach hospital, the Palm Beach Vet Center, and the Jupiter Center.
So, we’re seeing that it is becoming more and more accepted. The hardest part is still to get the vets to come.
Lilly– What are some of the ways that have been most successful in getting them to come?
The typical thought of yoga as “woo-woo” or what I call “happy crap” is gone. Yoga is being accepted in a broader sense. Even if it is still thought of as happy crap, veterans are sleeping.
Judy– Going to them. Whether it be the VFW, going to participate at the Vet Centers and doing demos in their groups. The other approach is through the family members. That is more successful than going to the vets directly.
But, you get one vet to go to group, he sees the benefits, feels the benefits, he’ll bring another vet. You get two, you get three, the next thing you know I’ve got 20 in my class.
One of my objectives this year is to put together a 200-hour Yoga Alliance teacher training certification, specifically for veterans, free for veterans. My focus, my energy, my passion is propelling this work. I can’t get this going fast enough. The suicide rates and the spousal abuse rates are skyrocketing.
Lilly– What are some of your ideas about what could happen in the next 10-20 years to form a more cohesive force in this work?
Judy– I’ve been looking out there for a while. Each organization has a slightly different vision. I would love to see an advisory group, or something of that nature, manage these organizations so that veterans could visit one place and get the information they need about all of what’s out there. The other side of it is a collective organization of all of us who are offering services to veterans, whether it be in the yoga world or the alternative modalities. It would be a huge political base.
My focus, my energy, my passion is propelling this work. I can’t get this going fast enough. The suicide rates and the spousal abuse rates are skyrocketing.
It would be phenomenal if we could collaborate as a unit. As a collective group, we’d have so much more credibility and power going forward. It’s the energy of our mission that really bring that to people’s hearts and they want to participate in some way. I believe there would be a lot of power if we could get together and move forward as one group.
Lilly– So what are the remaining challenges, other than money, in moving this forward, outreaching and accessing populations unfamiliar with yoga?
Judy– The challenge I see is to overcome preconceived thoughts about what yoga is. We’re dealing with a military population where there is always a unit and a mission and the effort to do whatever it takes to achieve that mission. You come back to an asana practice, and it’s very similar. You’re asking the mind to do, and be, and feel, and create all of the different awarenesses in order to achieve your objective.
I tell a story in training about the Navy SEALs who fought the Somalian pirates who had kidnapped people. What they did, in the way they did it, was mind-boggling. It was yoga. Single point of focus, concentration, and pranayama. The ability to maintain their breath. Because if you take two moving boats, everything is moving and it’s dark, everything they’ve achieved is yoga.
If we could convince people in the military of this, that it’s simply a matter of switching their military tools of focus in order to achieve a new mission, we can use the new tools for life, for reintegration.
My side project is the ROTC program. These are our future soldiers. I want to provide yoga in high school and college ROTC. If they have these techniques and practices, they’ll be better soldiers. They’ll have more focus, more space between their thoughts, and be able to make better decisions.
My favorite book is the Bhagavad Gita, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a war, it’s a battle, it’s moral and ethical decisions and choices, how you feel about it, what do you do about it, the whole monkey-chatter mind, it’s all that. How do resolve yourself to do this? These young men and women are asked to do things they would never otherwise do, and they come back, and are never going to be the same.
If we could convince people in the military that it’s simply a matter of switching their military tools of focus in order to achieve a new mission, then they can use the tools of yoga for life, for reintegration.
Lilly– In your bio, you tell a story of a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease who learned the asanas, pranayama. You write: ‘yoga allowed him to control his thoughts and mind using his breath, even as the insidious disease attacked his physical body.’ What can yoga offer people whose physical bodies are compromised?
Judy– I’m a huge believer that our nervous system controls everything. The nervous system is controlled by the mind. That’s why meditation is more difficult than the craziest asana position you could ever do. My thought on yoga is that it’s really just how you live your life, with whatever you’re given, whatever your circumstance is.
So, Beaux was a student of mine who had ALS. He had a lot of choices and a lot of paths he could have gone down. For whatever reason, the doctor at the Miami Va told him to go find yoga, go find a teacher who can teach you how to breathe and teach you how to stretch. He did it. He walked into the studio. My husband asked if I knew what I was getting into, and I thought about it for a day and I thought that if I could bring this man any awareness at all, any connection to whatever he has going forward, I’m compelled to do that.
So, for me, the mental side is huge. Creating physical space with asana, creating control, getting your physiology in order by breathing properly, all of this contributes to creating space in the mind, which allows veterans, especially those with a trigger, to take that split second to reconnect themselves to the present moment.
Lilly– What would you say that Beaux taught you about yoga?
Judy– That it’s not about the poses. Here’s a person that was not able to do the asana practice, yet he was, for me, probably the greatest yogi I have ever been around. It’s how he showed up, every single day, every single moment.
Lilly– What is your favorite memory of him?
Judy– There was a day when he was no longer able to move his fingers on his right hand or his right side. We were just working to make that connection, whatever it was. Then, suddenly, he actually moved his finger, and then, he smiled– and that was it. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Lilly– What did his smile say?
Judy– I think he was in awe. Overcoming the inability–the way the chemicals in his brain were disconnecting from the muscles- to overcome that, it was just complete awe and happiness.
Lilly– What is the most rewarding memory or moment since you started this work?
Judy– There are a lot. One was to watch our 93 year old WWII veteran Louis practice.
Here’s a person that was not able to do the asana practice, yet he was, for me, probably the greatest yogi I have ever been around. It’s how he showed up, every single day, every single moment.
Lilly– What did his practice look like?
Judy– He would do everything, believe it or not. There are a lot of different perspectives out there on what the class should be or look like or consist of.
I’m a believer that change occurs when you take it to your edge. That can simply mean standing with your feet three inches apart when they were one inch apart yesterday.
Lilly– Something that has been coming up a lot in previous interviews is the concept of gaining control through yoga. It’s interesting to think about having a sense of control being a kind of freedom, when usually, there’s an association with freedom of not having to deal with any responsibilities. But because that’s some of the horror of PTSD, as I understand it– not feeling connected to the moment– not feeling connected to the body, getting a sense of control as a means to getting free is a flip of logic to me.
So, what, for you, does freedom mean in the yoga practice?
Judy– It is liberating when you can control your response to a trigger. Completely liberating. PTSD is held in the cells of the body. It will never ever leave you. It doesn’t matter if it happened through a sexual trauma, whatever it is. One of the biggest elements they’re finding with PTSD is that it’s the lack of control of the circumstances that caused the PTSD, that causes the trauma. It’s your inability to protect your comrades, protect a loved one, or protect yourself. It is that lack of control that goes on, sustained for many months, that actually creates PTSD.
Therefore, if you can learn to control any aspect of your physiological, emotional, or mental bodies, that is liberation. That is what freedom ultimately is. They’re coming with PTSD, their bodies are their enemies. It becomes like a black hole that is getting bigger and bigger, and there’s no more space for them. There is only the trauma. The traditional therapies, the cognitive mode of therapies, all their doing is having them regurgitate the trauma. Now, the body still holds the trauma. Every time they regurgitate it, the body goes through it again and again. No wonder people aren’t moving forward! Their body hasn’t signed on yet! The body is way smarter than the mind.
If you can learn to control any aspect of your physiological, emotional, or mental bodies, that is liberation. That is what freedom ultimately is.
It’s when the mind gets involved that things get screwed up. So, if we can get to the body, and create these connections back, then, every time they relive the trigger or they relive the event, they actually have control of their body in the midst of the experience.
Lilly– The concept of the body being smarter than the mind is confusing to me when I consider the fight or flight mechanism. Because the fight or flight mechanism gets stunted when it isn’t able to have its natural response of running or overcoming a situation, it results in a bodily response over time that is actually damaging. If the body is smarter than we are, why does it hurt us when it isn’t able to do what it is designed to do?
Judy– So, the fight or flight is your sympathetic nervous system. In the animal kingdom, a gazelle is being chased by a lion. And immediately, that sympathetic nervous system kicks in and the gazelle runs like hell. All of the other supplementary systems shut down immediately. The gazelle doesn’t have to think about it, it happens automatically. SO, the gazelle is free now. It outran the lion, it’s safe. In the animal world, their system kicks back on. Automatically, no thought. We’re different. We don’t have that automatic light switch. It’s not how our bodies work.
We’re wired a little bit differently, and that is because the cognitive mind kind of gets in the way of that. If we didn’t have that cognitive ability, I think our bodies would be more like those in the animal world. I’m always one to say, your mind is gonna screw you up. Just let your body do its thing, because it’s way smarter than your mind. It’s all about breath, in the end. I tell my regular classes that too, because they just want to do the craziest poses. The breathing is most important. The asana is secondary. We’re just a chemistry set. That’s all we are. If the body creates the proper breath, it will set up the right chemistry balance in the blood, which will automatically send the signals to the brain, which will take the next breath. This keeps the whole thing rolling smoothly, easily, and properly. It’s when things get in the way of that, that doesn’t happen.
I’m always one to say, your mind is gonna screw you up. Just let your body do its thing, because it’s way smarter than your mind. It’s all about breath, in the end.The breathing is most important. The asana is secondary.
*Warriors At Ease: Trains yoga and meditation teachers to teach in military settings. http://warriorsatease.com/
*Wounded Warrior Project: An organization that seeks to raise public awareness, assist injured service members and provide programs to meet the needs of men and women returning home. http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/mission.aspx
*Healing Combat Trauma: Provides resources for and about healing combat trauma with a focus on providing medical, psychological and legal care for veterans and their families. http://www.healingcombattrauma.com/
*There and Back Again: Provides reintegration support services to veterans of all conflicts. http://thereandback-again.org/
*The Veterans Yoga Project: Brings together information and resources for anyone interested in the use of Yoga as a therapeutic practice for Veterans. http://www.veteransyogaproject.org/
*Connected Warriors: works to maintain and establish nationwide free yoga classes for service members, veterans, and their families. http://theconnectedwarriors.org/locations.html or [email protected]
*Yoga for Vets NYC- Offers Bi-weekly Yoga classes to Veterans at the Integral Yoga Institute http://yogaforvetsnyc.org/
*Yoga Basics: Provides free online support and information for those seeking to establish or maintain a yoga practice. http://www.yogabasics.com/
*Yogadownload.com: Offers online customized yoga classes for anyone seeking to establish or maintain a yoga practice. http://www.yogadownload.com/
*Yogis Anonymous: Provides both online and in person classes in a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere. http://yogisanonymous.com/
*War Retreat: Yoga & wellness events, resources, and articles for those who go through wars, conflicts and disasters. Formerly The War Photographers’ Retreat.
*Vets 4 Vets: A non-partisan organization dedicated to helping Iraq and Afghanistan- era veterans to heal from the psychological injuries of war through the use of peer support.
*Semper Fedelis Health and Wellness: Provides Integrative health and wellness solutions to our nation’s wounded, ill and injured warriors, active duty and reserve military, veterans, first responders, families and caregivers. http://www.semperfidelishealthandwellness.org/
*Beryl Bender Birch: Director and founder of The Hard and the Soft Yoga Institute, co-founder of The Give Back Yoga Foundation and co-author of Finding Peace: A Yoga Guide for Veterans http://berylbenderbirch.com/
* Patty Townsend, director of Yoga Center Amherst, developer of embodyoga teacher training programs and co-creator of the CD: Deep Relaxation with Yoga Nidra, donated as part of the Give the Gift of Yoga to Vets Campaign: http://www.yogacenteramherst.com/teacher_patty.html
*Rod Stryker, Para Yoga: Founder of Para Yoga, author of the Four Desires, and co-creator of the CD: Deep Relaxation with Yoga Nidra, donated as part of the Give the Gift of Yoga to Vets Campaign: http://www.parayoga.com/
*Suzanne Manafort: serves as a board member of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, co-founder of the Veterans Yoga Project, co-leads trainings for teachers interested in working with veterans and is the creator of the CD: Breathe In, Breathe Out: Quick and Easy Breathing Practices to Help Balance the Nervous System, donated as part of the Give the Gift of Yoga Campaign. http://www.newingtonyogacenter.com/staff/SuzM.htm
Judy Weaver: Co-founder Director of Education of Connected Warriors, a program based in South Florida that co-ordinates veterans and provides free yoga classes. As well as offering classes that blend the Ashtanga, Anusara, Iyengar and Yin tradition, Judy is currently designing and launching a 200 hour free teacher training program for veterans.
*Daniel Hickman, Nosara Yoga: Creator of For VetsYoga, an introductory yoga dvd for veterans, featuring interviews with vets who have found yoga to be essential for their healing process .https://www.nosarayoga.com/faculty-bios/daniel-e-hickman
*Robin Carnes, Walter Reed Army Medical Center: The yoga and iRest yoga nidra meditation instructor for a multi-disciplinary PTSD treatment program and the CEO of Warriors at Ease. http://yoganidranow.com/
*Karen Soltes, LCSW. Washington DC Veterans Hospital, War Related Illnesses and Injuries Study Center (WRIISC). iREst Yoga Nidra Teacher for several groups of Veterans with a range of challenges, including PTSD, Substance Abuse, and traumatic Brain Injury. Creator of the CD “iREst Yoga Nidra: Easing Into Stillness”
*Dr. Daniel J. Libby- a licensed clinical psychologist who conducts clinical research and psychotherapy with Veterans suffering from PTSD and other trauma-related psychiatric disorders in the Connecticut VA Healthcare System. He conducts several weekly mindful yoga therapy groups for Veterans suffering from PTSD and chronic pain as well as co-teaches the Embodyoga teacher trainings with Suzane Manafort. http://veteransyogaproject.org/about-us/
*Sue Lynch- Executive Director of There and Back Again,- Sue began her yoga practice in 2001 in her efforts to manage symptoms of PTSD. Based on her personal experience, Sue is passionate about offering a comprehensive approach to healing to her fellow veterans now, not 10 years from now, so that they too can find relief. Sue works with the Veterans Administration, Vet Centers, Yellow Ribbon Program, Warrior Transition Program and Department of Veteran Services to educate and train staff and veterans on techniques to facilitate self-care.
*Denise Dallas White- works with connected warriors http://www.theconnectedwarriors.org/ to offer free yog clases to all military service persons,veterans &their family members in 11 locations in Florida, and maintins a blog on pininterest about veterans health and PTS http://pinterest.com/ddland/yoga-breath-us-veterans/