See me, not just a wounded soldier.
I remember the first time a young, affluent, Audi-driving yogini told me that yoga could cure my Post Tramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I wanted to ask her how she knew—did it help her in (or after) a firefight or in an ambushed convoy? What in her pampered, optimistic life led her to think she could even comprehend my experience, much less relate to it or presume to ‘cure’ me of it? What kind of insane egocentrism or mindless confidence made her think she could teach me, a former Special Forces operator and now an officially ‘hurtin’ unit’?
What kind of pain and suffering had she seen or experienced in her short, fortunate life that could possibly bridge the experiential (and attitudinal) gulf between us? How could her sadness over her dog or her boyfriend, her struggle with drugs and alcohol or weight management relate to me? Unless she’d been covered in blood or shot at, I just wasn’t open to listening.
Just who the fuck was this person to come telling me what to do, what I should do or ought to do, what my goals should be? She ain’t my goldurned sergeant!
I embodied the attitude many veterans take towards ‘lavender’ yoga teachers. I also embodied their general attitude toward yoga in general—I was a man and this was girl’s stuff. I could do twenty pullups and bench 315, hump an 80 pound ruck all day through the hundred degree heat…What did I need girly ole yoga for?
In time, I saw the joy and beauty, experienced the healing and transformation a yoga practice brings, felt those yogic miracles we all experience but never speak of. But people only come to the mat when they are good and ready, and not one minute before. Pleading and proselytization are to no avail. A pretty face or tight bod or patchouli smell could not convince me. An army of these vapid, self-hypnotized ‘freaks’ could not get me there.
It takes real connection to gain trust and empathy, shared experience. It takes time and patience.
It takes love, concern, accessibility. You need to gain my trust and confidence, and then show me you not only know what you are doing (and live it) but truly care.
I’ve been shot at and missed, shit at and hit, as they say. I’ve been from Baghdad to Balad, Tikrit to Tal-Afar. What can you say to me, what could you possibly say that means anything?
That’s what you can say.
What can you possibly do to stop those people from burning like candles in my dreams each night, you who have never ever seen someone die in peacetime?
Invite a union between breath and movement.
Allow me to define, control, and have my own experience, find my own answers, that’s what.
Extend the body, feel the life in it, create and be grateful for space in the body. Guide me into that. Gently. That’s what you can do.
Don’t preach to me, or try to teach me about my ‘illness.’ I have been to many classes led by experts in their field and read many books (and have much personal experience, with myself and other veterans), and chances are I know more about PTSD and neurological function/impairment than you do.
Will your mala beads and chakras and organic granola help me? Can you cure me with your mantras and mudras?
You can however, allow me time and space to heal, can demonstrate compassion and simply be present, be there. You can do that.
Will your homeopathic remedies cure my endless pain…or will your good intentions? Will your yoga love heal the scars and calluses on my body – and soul?
Being a calm anchor and friend (or mentor) might relieve the suffering associated with the pain, though.
The things we can do to ‘help’ veterans are limited…and minute. The things we can do are not great and earth-shattering, but simple and effective—normalize the experience, re-frame the meaning and help me reduce my tendency to catastrophize or perseverate. That might be practical and helpful. Guide me into breath and sensation, offer options to experience my practice in ways that make it more accessible to me. That would be cool, maybe.
You ain’t a Marine or a soldier. It doesn’t matter if your husband or boyfriend has PTSD, or if you have ‘civilian PTSD.’ It doesn’t matter if you have been practicing yoga since Jesus was a private, or have an RYT-8000 or a Super-Duper PhD. It doesn’t matter if you are gifted or channeling God or hold the secrets of life.
It might matter if you demonstrate the value of yoga practice through your own practice of calm acceptance and flexibility with me and with your own life. It’s not what you say or know, it’s what you are, who you are.
I don’t really need (or want) a guru or teacher, a therapist or counselor. I might need a friend or a yoga sister, maybe just another human who will smile at me and see not a wounded warrior, but just a human being, a fellow yogi and traveler on the Sacred Path of Life.
That would be enough.
That’s all I want or need—just enough, nothing more.
Mark-Francis Mullen is lucky enough to live in Boulder, Colorado amongst a vibrant yoga community. He is called to be a guide to those who think they are ‘too something’ for yoga (too old, too sick, too fat, etc.). He loves life.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta
Assist. ed. Sarah Winner