July 19, 2012

The Common Ground is Breath: An Interview with Paul Zipes, Founder of Yoga for Vets.



This is the sixth 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 onetwothreefour and five. To subscribe to this series, email ‘subscribe’ to [email protected] to receive a new interview each week. 


Paul Zipes, a yoga instructor and former military service member, is the founder of Yoga For Vets, a non-profit organization that works to provide free yoga classes for returning veterans, with the current help of 400 participating studios across the US. In this interview, Paul discusses how civilians can aid veterans in their return home, the power of both acceptance and perseverance in his teaching, and his long-term visions to provide free yoga teacher trainings to all veterans who seek  it.


Full Interview with Paul Zipes

Lilly– What motivated you to start Yoga For Vets? Where were you at that point in your life?

Paul– About Five years ago, I was watching the news and saw vets complaining about how they were not being served by the VA properly, that they had come back with health issues that were seemingly ignored, or being addressed with large quantities of drugs. I knew from teaching yoga that it could help with some of the minor symptoms that vets have, so I decided that I was going to be part of the solution, which in my capacity, was to offer free yoga to vets who asked for it.  I thought I could teach for free locally, but then I figured that there was nobody on a national level that was offering free classes to veterans, so that’s how I started Yoga For Vets.

  I decided that I was going to be part of the solution, which in my capacity, was to offer free yoga to vets who asked for it.

I  believe that after Vietnam, some vets actually had bigger problems because of the lack of a welcome home  type environment, regardless of the initial help they may have received from the military. So,  I want to make sure that 20 to 30 years from now, we can look back and see that the yoga community from this generation welcomed our veterans home and tried to give them some help.

Lilly– I spoke with a former Marine who served a couple of times in Iraq, and was really transformed by finding yoga, and eventually got off all of his medications. He says that the purpose of the military is to fight wars but the return home is an overlooked element. Would you say that that’s true, and if so, why do you think that is?

Paul– Absolutely. It’s not a great sales pitch for the military to say, ‘You’re going get out of the military after combat  with very little idea of how to actually come back to civilian life’.

Lilly- So how do you offer yoga to somebody who’s new to it, who’s completely unsure about what it is?

Paul– For me, my goal is making sure that if a vet is interested, they’ll be able to find yoga, whether it’s in Wichita, Kansas, or in New York City. That’s my primary focus.

As a yoga teacher I always stress that I’m not going to grab anyone by the collar and say “you gotta try yoga!” Of course, as I’m sure you know because you practice yoga, if you try to explain to your friend what yoga is, and they’re not ready, it doesn’t matter what you think, the best you’re going to do is get them in for one, maybe two classes, and then you’re going to hear them say whatever they have to say to never come back. My experience is that it’s no different with vets.

For me, my goal is making sure that if a vet is interested, they’ll be able to find yoga, whether it’s in Wichita, Kansas, or in New York City. That’s my primary focus.

As yoga teachers, we always  want to help people, but this is one demographic where we have to sit back and really practice what we’re taught, which is that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. It’s not when the teacher knows that the student needs yoga and wrestles him or her in.

I’m not gonna say I don’t care if a vet never tries yoga. I care first that they know where to try yoga.

So, the way I try to “sell it,” if you will, is through testimonials on the Yoga for Vets website. Those testimonials are real tangible things that real vets wrote. What you see in the testimonials are from real vets who had real benefits from yoga.  If those people can’t convince vets that yoga can help, then I doubt anyone else can, except maybe a spouse.

 As yoga teachers, we always generally want to help people, but we have to sit back and really practice what we’re taught, which is that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

That’s why, so this guy you talked to, he’s a Marine, right? You said he got off of meds because of yoga? Can you believe that? I mean, this is unbelievable. For me, that’s all I need to hear. A vets who was able to reduce meds because of yoga?  That can only be considered a good thing.

But the scientists, and the special interest groups, and the military, how much do you think they want to hear that it took nothing or minimal cost to get this guy off of meds? That it didn’t take years of psychiatric care, or a 20 year payout of drugs that cost a hundred thousand dollars? That it only took yoga, and by the way, there’s a bunch of people that want to give it for free?

With people who don’t know the military lifestyle, the best service you can give is to say “Welcome home. Here’s some resources.”

A lot of the vets coming home are ready to get back into what is called “the new normal.” It’s a false dream that people are going to come back from war and be the same, and yoga is one of the things that can help vets find a new normal.

Lilly– The Marine that I spoke with spoke eloquently about this exact issue. He felt that the expectation that he’d be the same, on the part of his family and his friends, was almost a disservice when he had been so altered by his experience. He found that the yoga practice really helped him accept where he was.

Paul– That’s why I’m looking forward to this new generation of vets to become yoga teachers! Because  the teachers of our time, Seane Corn, and Barron  Baptiste, and Erich Shiffman have zero military service that I know of.  Imagine now a veteran who also becomes a popular and knowledgeable yogi  but also had the  incredible experience, of having almost lost their life, of losing people right beside them, and coming out the other end with an interest in growing; of transforming their life experience and sharing it with others… I’m going to be leaning into that person as a teacher.

Lilly– What is your vision for Yoga For Vets? What would you like to see happen in the next 10 to 20 years?

 With people like who don’t know the military, the best service you can give is to say “Welcome home. Here’s some resources.”

Paul- The quick answer is that I’d like to become a really successful non-profit, that has big corporations pumping money to us saying “how can we help?” Seriously! Companies who I will not name, who says “we love our troops,” and gives them shirts and other swag, well, I want $100,000 from them, I want $100,000 dollars from all of the sports companies who say, “Welcome home!” I want it from  them and everyone who cares so that we have to decide as a non-profit, how are we going to dole out all this money to our vets?

My bigger dream is that these vets, who want to keep doing yoga but can only do like three or four classes, I want to be able to funnel money to the studio so that the studio benefits financially, and the vet continues to go with no issue of how he or she is going to get enough money.

I want to extend that further. I want the vets to be able to go to teacher training, if they want to for free.
In the future I want to tell vets who ask about teaching opportunities,  “oh, just go  to the ‘I’m a vet who wants to teach yoga’ tab at yogaforvets.org and guess what? You just put in your military id or prood of service, and we’re going to send you a check to take addition yoga classes.”

I want to make sure the vets hear us say loudly “Welcome home!” And then hear “We care.” The message I say a lot is,  regardless of how we feel about war, most of us as yogis feel war is bad, we still care about the person. That’s it.

What we can show our veterans is our interest, our concern, our desire to make sure that they feel right about the rest of their lives.

Lilly–  Do you have any story, or is there any person whom you’ve met over the years whose experience has stayed with you?

Paul– My first experience was the biggest one, the most memorable. So it had been like 6 or 7 months and I hadn’t gotten any vet asking for free yoga. Here I am, the director of Yoga For Vets and I’m writing to people in Los Angeles and telling that I’m the director and they’re listening to me, but they were like, “so who have you taught?” And I’m like, “No one.”

So,  finally this guy calls me, with a very quite voice on the phone, and asks “So you give free classes to vets?” And I’m like “Yeah!” And he says “I’d like to take one.”

So he comes into class, and there were about 7 or 8 people in the class, which for the studio, was a good sized class.  I said “sit down over there. Just take a mat and sit down and we’ll start.” He sits down very tentatively  and starts looking around. He starts doing the class and he’s physically able, so, with very little interaction with him, I start going through a mixed level class, giving him a few small cues. I notice he’s doing things but wincing, and in time I find out he has an injury here, he has an injury on his lower back, he has an injury on his ankle, and I’m seeing what look like fragment or bullet  scars. He finishes my  class, he says, “ Thank you”, and he leaves, and I’m like, “That’s it?” I didn’t get to talk to him much.

So, a week later, he comes back! And I can’t believe he came back. He grabs the mat and sits down, and I’m trying not to look excited, I’m trying not to go over to him. And so, people are settling in, and finally I go over and I crouch down, and I said “Welcome back. What did you think of the class last week?” And he kind of just looked at me and said, “It was good.” And I asked him “Were you sore the next day? Were there any muscles that bothered you?” and he goes, “No, but what was remarkable was that it was the best night of sleep I’ve had in like three years.”

 I want to make sure the vets hear us say loudly “Welcome home!” And then hear “We care.” The message I say a lot is, regardless of how we feel about war, most of us as yogis feel war is bad, we still care about the person. That’s it.

As he kept coming back, I found out more about him. He was one of those guys that got sent in early on in the Iraq war, and if there was a big explosion with a lot of troops around, they would send in a team to kind of clean up. He was the person that put everyone else into bags, and brought them home respectfully, to the United States, or to Germany. They’d fly him in, and then they’d fly him back home. And this went on, apparently, like six or seven times. There and back, there and back. And when he came back, they put him on drugs, he started drinking, he couldn’t sleep. He was going to therapy, he was going to rehab, he was given drugs, and on and on.

He was at some point suicidal. So, he really only called me because of some serendipity. That was the kicker of this whole thing. It wasn’t an  official order or anything. It was a friend of a friend, somebody I might have talked to at some point, who said to him, at his lowest moment, saying, “You should go try yoga.” Because he had tried everything else. I asked “Why did you do this?” He said, “because I had nothing else.” He kept coming back to yoga. He eventually said that he was getting some relief from his injuries, that he was feeling better about himself.

And he did that for a while and then he stopped coming. But it was an incredible experience for me, really an honor, to have that kind of an interaction. I always love teaching students, but this was exceptional. To hear it, to see it in his eyes, to feel it… I don’t care what research was needed, I knew that this was huge.

So I wonder, how many more are out there like that? If you’ve done the research, you know that there are now more people in the current  military that died from suicide or reckless behavior than died from combat related injuries.

Lilly– Yes.

Paul– That’s a sad reality.

Lilly- The yoga community and the military community are seemingly at odds, but what common ground do you think exists or can be established in an effort to support troops?

Paul–  How can a vet love yoga? How can a yoga teacher love a vet? The common ground is yoga. The common ground is breath.


*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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