April 19, 2011

I Was a Rifle Totin’ Yogi

A yogi in military school.

Now that just sounds like a dumb idea, all shades of wrong, a recipe for disaster! Like trying to mix oil and water; using a magnet to place a picture on a stainless steal fridge; planting a garden in Phoenix, in August. Some things just don’t mix.

What did I know? I was only 15.

I had been practicing yoga for almost as long, and had been in northern India, attending a small boarding school for the past seven years. I may be an American, but I was not an ‘American teenager.’

I’ll re-phrase that. I didn’t feel like a typical American teenager.

From an outsider’s perspective, signing myself up for military school was clearly, unequivocally, absolutely, without a doubt, a total mismatch!

Not to mention, the military school I was enrolling in was located in Roswell, New Mexico. For those unfamiliar with Roswell, well it’s known for being a bit ‘out of this world’. After all, it is home to the only UFO museum in America. Moving from northern India to Roswell was a bit of a change. To say the least.

The Himalaya’s were no longer in my backyard.

Nope. Not anymore.

Just to be clear, as far as I know, UFO’s did not replace the snow-capped mountain range I had become so accustomed to.

Other metal objects did, however. These were large, metal, free-standing, crane-like, machines, which moved in a slow, deliberate, and constant fashion. The arm of the crane attached to a smooth metal rod that plunged in and out of the ground.  The rod would disappear then reappear, every couple of seconds. I had never seen such things. My dad had to explain their function on that first, and quite memorable, drive down to Roswell. For in and around Roswell, oil-drilling rigs dot the dry, dusty landscape. There are no mountains nearby, not even anything I’d consider ‘rolling hills.’

Instead of mountains, rolling tumbleweeds appeared over the horizon. I quickly learned to dodge these. I had signed up for all possible extracurricular activities, including the cross-country team. Running out on the country roads was part of training.

These long runs brought a new sense of freedom, which I particularly enjoyed. The tumbleweeds were not enjoyable, as they forced me to do automatic sprint drills in an effort to avoid them. They move fast! Not like the slow, meandering sacred cows in India, the tumbleweeds rolled right for me, like a magnet.

This environment, all outside the walls of the New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI) took some getting used to.

Inside the walls of NMMI, now that was a whole new world. An entirely different universe! For the first couple days I felt like a Martian plunked down in the wrong universe. If you can imagine, I felt like a Martian attempting to look like a military cadet.

Wait. No, try imagining a yogi-Martian, attempting to look like a military cadet.

Carrying a rifle, wearing a turban (had to match with the same color as the military hats worn by the cadets), marching along with other American teenagers, calling out cadences I’d never heard before. And in English!

What happened to singing in unison, in Hindi and Punjabi?

This wasn’t chanting!

I chanted in the fields in and around Roswell, with friends, and without oil drills or cows. We had no control of the tumbleweeds!

I had to change with my environment. And the environment at    NMMI changed for me.

The cafeteria now made all dishes with a vegetarian version.

I was allowed to wake up before reveille and practice yoga in the  school Chapel.

The school changed their rules entirely, allowing me to wear a turban, instead of the uniform hat, but with the stipulation that the cloth had to be the same color. The school stepped outside their realms of ‘normal’ to accommodate me.

Yes, I felt like I was in the wrong universe for a few days.  But that’s it. Only a few days.

The cadets asked questions. They were typical American teenagers. They had lots and lots of questions. And so did I! This exchange of information was fascinating. I learned from my fellow classmates, my peers, and they learned from me.

The first cadet that inquired about my yoga practice was an officer. He had ‘rank’. I didn’t. He came up to me, as I stood at attention, staring straight ahead like I was supposed to, and because he was expected to pretty much yell, no matter what was being said, he raised his voice and asked, “Cadet Khalsa! Tell me what you are doing that is SO IMPORTANT in the Chapel before reveille! Then wipe that hint of a smile off your face, and give me 10!”

I was expected to pretty much raise my voice as well, to answer, so I did. I yelled out that I was doing yoga, “Sir!”

Then I did 10 push-ups. I couldn’t wipe the ‘hint’ of a smile off my face, as I had no idea what he meant.  Later my roommate and I joked about this, and in our dorm room she drew a smile on her belly, which could be easily ‘wiped off.’

After I had done my 10 push-ups, I stood there, back at attention, staring straight ahead once again. The officer stood a bit closer, if I recall, so he didn’t have to yell. He asked if I would teach him yoga. He wasn’t in my troop. I didn’t have any classes with him. I was in high school, and he was in college. I never got to know him all that well, personally.

He was tall, and I remember his dark brown hair, blue eyes, and long eyelashes.

I could tell he wasn’t the yelling type. He was gentle and kind. It was after this ‘yelling’ inquiry, that he and other cadets started joining me in the chapel. They learned yoga and long deep breathing.

They wanted to learn to be able to sing cadence as we ran in formation, and do so without getting short of breath. They wanted to improve their physical conditioning, but also be more mentally focused.

The cadets did benefit from the practice, and on various levels. Life in the military school was often stressful, good academic standing was expected, and the standards were set high. The yoga helped them, as they did become more mentally focused, physically conditioned, and they were less stressed by everyday challenges. Yoga made them better cadets. They felt more ‘fit for duty,’ to better serve the Corps.

Military school was absolutely a perfect match for me, a yogi.  And yoga seemed to fit perfectly in the Corps. The cadets that chose to incorporate the practice, did so for the right reasons, under the right circumstance.

The cooks in the school cafeteria also made more and more of the vegetarian dishes, as more cadets wanted to eat the meatless meal options. The female cadets, especially, took to eating as a vegetarian, and many were also my teammates in cross-country, track, volleyball, and basketball.

After my first year I obtained ‘rank’, becoming a ‘Private’. I didn’t have to yell or be yelled at anymore. I went home for the summer break with new insights, knowledge, friends, and gratitude and appreciation for all of it.

It was a good summer.

I was excited to return as a Private, and never have to ‘drop and do 10’ for no particular reason.  I do a lot more than 10 chaturanga push-ups, and for good reason, on my yoga mat!

When I returned for my senior year, the blue-eyed officer didn’t.  I heard he had died suddenly of a heart condition. The news was shocking and I didn’t understand. How could a teenager die of a heart condition? That’s too young! He was healthy, and he was doing yoga!

I was young too, and thought yoga helped everything, but yoga wouldn’t have prevented his death. I will never know what yoga did for him, aside from feeling fit, and more capable performing his duties as an officer in the Corps. I do know he enjoyed the practice, based on his desire to continue learning.

Yoga is about self-awareness, and in military school it helped me live up to the motto asked of me. To be a strong, reliable, and successful cadet, yoga gave me the time to find my center, my own union. This allowed me the capacity better adapt to my new environment and interact with my new peers.

I cannot think of a situation in life where yoga would be a mismatch. Yoga would not have prevented my peer from dying of cardiovascular disease. My memory of him is how enthusiastic he was about life in general, and the joy he found in his yoga practice.

The Mountain Pose Yoga Festival

There are many studies in the literature that have shown yoga is indeed a beneficial adjunct in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. This is of significant important given the incidence and prevalence of cardiovascular disease in America, and around the world.

Join us at Mountain Pose Yoga Festival to learn more about the therapeutic benefits of a yoga practice for heart health. Dr. Daniel Mark, from Duke University, will be one of the medical professionals presenting on this very topic. Dr. Mark has authored hundreds of articles on cardiovascular disease and health outcomes. Most recently he co-authored an article that correlates positive outlook/attitude and outcomes in patients who have suffered from a cardiovascular event.

Why not unite education and practice? Come experience the feeling of healing, even if the environment is seemingly outside your norm, your comfort zone. I assure you, there is no way you will feel more awkward than anything comparable to a yogi-Martian!

(Psst….you just might be surprised with what you do experience…..)

“Life is a journey. It’s the courage we bring that makes it all worthwhile.” Satkirin Khalsa, MD

Mountain Pose Yoga Festival, Copper Mountain, CO, July 7-10. For health care providers and wellness enthusiasts; featuring medical researchers and professionals, yogis, musicians and motivational speakers, in a breathtaking mountain setting. Presented in collaboration with Dr. Satkirin Khalsa.  Earn up to 6.5 CME credits.

To register, call 888-258-0565

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