November 11, 2011

Upon Returning Home: Giving the Gift of Yoga to Veterans.

This is part one in a series called “At Attention, At Peace” a conversation among veterans, teachers and military officials about the use of yoga in addressing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Click here to read parts two,  three, four and five of the series. To subscribe to the series email ‘subscribe’ to [email protected] to receive links to a new interview each week.  



Hugo Patrocinio was tricked into his first yoga class.

If he had known what he was in for the day that a yoga teacher walked into his “Back on Track” rehabilitation group in 2007 at Cam Lejeune, he never would have shown up.

“Honestly, when you said the word ‘yoga’ to me, all I thought about hot chics and flexibility. Point blank. That’s what I knew.” But Patrocinio stayed that day because for him – and the several other marines enrolled in the program for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- saying ‘no’ was not part of their training.

“When you’re a marine, and you’re told you’re going to do yoga, then you’re gonna do yoga,” Patrocinio explains. And so, class began.

Hugo Patrocinio was born in Lima, Peru and moved to Miami with his family when he was 9.  He joined the Marine Corps when he was 18, a year before September 11th, 2001 and was deployed in Iraq in January, 2003 where he served third battalion as part of task force Tarawa, second of the most heavily hit units in the war. Throughout his eight years of service, he received a total of eleven medals, among them the Purple Heart.

In the first week of his second tour, which lasted from July of 2006, through March of 2007, Patrocinio was wounded in a small town outside of Fallujah during a combined arms attack in which a suicide bomber drove and detonated a vehicle the size of a garbage truck full of 1,000 pounds of explosives 15 feet away.

“I should be dead” Patrocinio says of the incident.  A sandbag wall saved his life, although he was knocked unconscious, burned and had a piece of shrapnel lodged in his leg.

After returning home in 2007, Patrocinio began to suffer classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which include insomnia, migraine headaches, flashbacks of traumatic events, recurrent nightmares, fits of anger, bouts of depression and relentless anxiety.

While in active duty in North Carolina, eight months before he was planning to return to Iraq, Patrocinio finally sought out an evaluation from a medical officer and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Now I’m not worth anything because I have PTSD,” Patocinio says during our interview over Skype, twisting his hand up into the air, leaving a trail of wobbly computer static on the screen, “which means, basically, that I’ve committed career suicide.”

Our returning veterans are largely unsupported by the military and the population at large, a fact which is apparent in even the most general statistics: The annual suicide rate is 20 service members per 100,000 which means, astoundingly, that a US Veteran commits suicide roughly every three days.  Rates of alcohol and drug abuse are at 27 percent and rates of prescription drug use in the US military have tripled since 2002. 121 domestic homicides have been committed by veterans in the US since wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began and the unemployment rate as of January 2011 is 15 percent, nearly double that of the current national average.

Of the over two million service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 37% are struggling with mental health problems including PTSD, depression and traumatic brain injury– a total of 740, 000. Yet given that the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the veterans health care system, veterans cannot be relied on to accurately self-report their own symptoms, especially when these symptoms are ravaging largely invisible territory.

Patrocinio points to how the military gives priority to injuries that can be seen, offering the example of a man who has been badly shot or burned but who seems to be doing all right, and comparing him to another man whose body is in good condition but who is messed up inside. “How do you explain that?” he asks me, “other than deciding that one guy is weak the other guy is strong?”

Patrocinio recalls the struggle to admit to his own illness and the difficulty of incorporating self-care into his job description as a marine. He had just a few months earlier been in the midst of combat with the sole mission before him of caring for 35 other lives. Although his symptoms had become steadily worse since his second tour in Iraq, he was determined to return in a few months and had trouble considering an alternative. “What we’re taught in the military is to just move on, push forward, adapt and overcome, go for the mission, take care of each other.  And I might be wrong but there’s nothing in the military that says ‘take care of yourself.’”

But even Petrocinio’s ability to take care of himself was lessening as he was prescribed one prescription drug after the other to address his symptoms, but which only seemed to make things worse. He worried about his ability to fulfill his duties to those he loved, and having already suffered the loss of his career, he feared that he was now losing himself. “It felt like I was living in a hole that I just couldn’t climb out of” he says.

It was in this state that Patrocinio joined “Back on Track”, a basic PTSD education class offered by a psychologist at Camp Lajune, and how he came to lay, reluctantly, on a yoga mat.

Patrocinio says of that first class: “I don’t think we did a single pose, we just laid on our backs and learned how to breathe again.”

There were no flexible hot chics, no ultimatums, no glorified statements about pain, or weakness. Just a yoga teacher named Andrea gently moving around the room, speaking softly, offering assists, propping knees up on pillows. Watching her, those first few minutes, Patrocinio’s ideas about yoga were defied. And then– he fell deeply asleep.

When he woke up in response to the teacher’s gentle nudging, Patrocinio realized that his first yoga class was over. “Then I realized, that for the first time in a long time, I felt rested. And that was a big turning point for my healing.  Just that one day I finally got some good sleep. And so I couldn’t wait for the next day for Andrea to come back.”

For the next two weeks Patrocinio was excited for yoga class, having happily set all stigma aside in favor of what he now referred to as naptime. “I think I probably slept through every class except for one, and I’m sure I was probably snoring, twitching, but Andrea didn’t mind, she let me sleep.”

Once the two weeks of “Back on Track” were over, Patrocinio sought Andrea out, and finding that she was the fitness director on the base, continued to take yoga classes with her. He says of this time: “All I had was questions and pain.” Yet he continued to return to the yoga mat and found, over time, that he was connecting with a strange, silent country that he had worked so hard to keep at bay.

This country, he would later articulate, was one where he lived, a place that as he began to make contact with, was one he found he could lean into and see, only faintly at first, but then slowly, day by day, in bolder detail, in greater color.

In order to see this place of the self he had move beyond the orders he had received, and what he had been told about what his body was made of, how it needed to be cared for, and all that it contained. He had to look beyond the orders of those who had been trying to help him, even those who were closest to him, to reach a place inside where he could hear what he needed to receive.  He says of this time “it didn’t happen overnight, but bit by bit, things started to get better. And while yoga helped me connect with others, most importantly it helped me to connect with myself.”

This process of discovering the number of ways that he existed, of learning that he was made up of more, that he consisted of more, than he had ever before believed, was one of gentle inquisition that Patrocinio believes stand in stark contrast to the military’s approach to healing, where “a man or a woman is expected to complete step one, two, three, four, five, six and be ‘fixed’. But we are not tanks, it doesn’t work that way.”

Even though the Veterans Health Care System is seeking ways to offer support for returning service member, Patrocinio doesn’t think that circumstances within the military are right, and doesn’t know if they ever will be. “The military is there to win wars,” he says, succinctly. “That’s their initiative. They’re not really too concerned about yoga classes.”

Members of The Veterans Yoga Project

Patrocinio speaks of the difficulty of his own return. “The first thing that anybody thinks about when they know they’re into combat is that they want to come back. You know how everyone says ‘Come back in one piece?’ Well that’s a lot to ask.  How can you be the same person when you return from war? It’s too much for me to ask of myself and it’s too much for anybody to ask of me.”

For Patrocinio, it was painful to transition back from combat and to realize that it had changed him. Before going to Iraq he had prayed for his emotions to be lifted, and this served him in combat, something he even prided himself on, “but I see now that I was just de-sensitized. Cold blooded.”

When he reached he doorstep of his home, although his family was there to welcome him in, he couldn’t seem to find the person they remembered.

“I remember coming back home, especially after my second tour, with all these expectations about seeing my family, hugging them, feeling joy. And when I saw them, I knew that I was supposed to be happy, but I couldn’t feel a thing.” And that is when Patrocinio wished, after all his physical training and all the strength at his command, that he knew how to reach inside his body and turn his heart back on, “like a switch.”

The ability to return to what is, to deal with what is, to recognize the ways that change has occurred and the bravery to address it, is by and large a process that the military does not necessarily concern itself with. Which is why that work perhaps rest on the civilians, on bringing those who have been to war, back from it. Perhaps that responsibility rests most especially on those of us who have never been to war and do not like its consequences, in that we can extend a hand to help those who are returning cross the frontier back to themselves.  Perhaps our greatest role as civilians is to offer our veterans our experience of the peace they sought to protect and perhaps our greatest role as yoga teachers is to meet veterans exactly where they are; let them sleep, in peace, for weeks on a mat, trusting in the small miracles we cannot understand.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is one group of many that is working to support our veterans through yoga. This group has recently launched ‘Give the Gift of Yoga to Vets’ campaign, working to distribute free yoga resources for veterans and their families, including a book (Finding Peace: A Yoga Guide for Veterans, Active Duty Military Service Members and Their Families, by Beryl Bender Birch and James Fox ) and three meditation cds:  (Deep Relaxation with Yoga Nidra by Patty Townsend and Rod Stryker, iRest Yoga Nidra: Easing into Stillness by Karen Soltes and Breathe in, Breathe Out: by Suzanne Manafort ).

The ‘Give the Gift of Yoga to Vets’ campaign is currently raising money to help distribute these materials to veterans and their families. Click here to learn more about the campaign and how you can obtain materials or here to donate to the cause. For a more complete list of resources and projects working to bring yoga to veterans, visit the list below.*

When asked what advice he would give to a yoga teacher preparing to work for veterans for the first time, Patrocinio offers”just be yourself. Don’t try and act like you understand something if you don’t. It’s okay if you don’t. We don’t expect for you to know what war is like. We wouldn’t want you to know. That’s why we go for you.” He then adds, after some thought “if you really believe in the practice then you will know exactly what to do.”

A few years into his yoga practice, Patrocinio shares eloquently, and in our August interview, he slips me gem after gem of reflection; bits of newly gained awareness. Things look different in retrospect.

Patrocinio has been out of the military for three years now and lives in Miami where he co-owns a small business and this past September, started school as a psychology major at NOVA South Eastern University. He takes time off to travel, speaking and working with veterans and attending teacher trainings, sharing his experience and offering his insight into the role of yoga in healing from trauma. He hopes to become a certified yoga instructor in the near future and eventually offer yoga classes to veterans, both upon their return home and before they are deployed.  He is still connected to the military and proud of his service, but says, frankly, that he is glad to be done with it. He is sleeping soundly again, free of all medications.  What seemed incomprehensibly endless is now in the past and what seemed broken is now, incomprehensibly, better.


In closing, Patrocinio asks me if I have heard the term “Post-Traumatic Growth.” I have, but I shake my head. I want to hear him define it.

“Post-Traumatic growth is how anyone grows, as a person, as a human being, from something they can’t see the meaning of at first. That is what yoga offered me- the chance to grow out of what I didn’t understand. And that’s why I’m so intimately involved with veterans learning this practice or at least being exposed to it, so that they can grow from an experience, out of what they may otherwise see as meaningless. Because there’s no magic pill, there’s not even a magic pose, that’s going to erase your past, that’s going to bring your friends back. But there’s definitely things that we can learn about how to cope with what we lived, what we lost. And that acceptance, to live with what I have lost, is what I have learned through a yoga practice.”

When I ask Patrocinio what he tells struggling veterans who have just returned home and who had never tried yoga before, Patrocinio says: “I tell them, most importantly, that they are brave. I tell them that not only do they deserve a good life but they have earned it. I tell them that they have earned the right to be comfortable in their own bodies, and most importantly, that they have the right to feel again.”



Click here to listen to a 9/16 Where is My Guru show hosting Hugo Patrocinio along with co-founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, Rob Schware.

Also, tune in today at 11 am EST as Where is My Guru welcomes Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel J. Libby of the Veterans Yoga Project!


*Yoga Organizations Serving Veterans

*Adaptive Sports Foundation: an organization bringing sports to disabled youth and is the recent founder of the Warriors in Motion program which works to provide veterans with a basic knowledge and practice of wellness. http://www.adaptivesportsfoundation.org

*Yoga for Vets: Yoga for vets maintains a list of studios, gyms and teachers that offer at least four free classes to war or conflict veterans that served, or are currently serving, in the United States Military. http://www.yogaforvets.org/

*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/

Yoga Teachers Serving Veterans

*James Fox, Founder of the Prison Yoga Project and co author of Finding Peace: A Yoga Guide for Veterans. http://prisonyoga.com/

*David Emerson: Head of the Yoga Program at the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA and co-author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body. http://www.traumacenter.org/clients/yoga_svcs.php

*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/


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