September 13, 2013

The Marine Mind: Redefining Mindfulness. ~ Kate Hendricks

“We cannot teach people anything, we can only help them discover it within themselves.” ~ Galileo.

I learned how to lead and teach in the pressure cooker that is the Marine Corps. I thought I knew something about physical leadership, communicating and getting people moving in a direction worth heading.

I started teaching yoga around this time as a hobby and if asked, I would have told you I did it for the fitness benefits.

Now I wonder what it must have been like to sit as my yoga student during my early years as a yoga teacher… Sure, I had great reasons for my intensity and aversion to anything pensive or calm.

Going through introductory level schools was an interesting challenge. Women comprise four percent of the Officer Corps and we are always eyed with suspicion. Our peers constantly measure our abilities to speak intelligently, demonstrate strength and perform on par with male peers physically.

The concept of “carrying one’s weight” came to matter literally during those early training experiences. If I failed to perform a task or meet a challenge, my peers would have to pick up my slack and suffer for it. I saw women fail now and again and they were vilified for it.

Performance-focus carried over into all sorts of interactions—you also had to be fearless when speaking or arguing with someone. In an organization like the USMC, if you demonstrate a weak personality, you won’t need to bother showing up for work the next day.

I not only had to be right (or at least close to it), I had to be smart and forceful in the conveyance of ideas.

We were an intense tribe, and celebrated our imbalances. They came in handy when it mattered. I experienced Iraq through the lens of my perceived invulnerability.  It wasn’t shaken until my brother was injured; I was landing safely in Cherry Point as an Improvised Explosive Device was changing his world forever.  The month I spent with him in the hospital changed my life.

I watched the courage with which young men hospitalized in Bethesda with tragic combat injuries fought for mobility, independence and a restored sense of self. The biggest concern many had was getting up and moving to return to their units and friends.

They were heroic and inspiring; some were only 19. I came away from my experiences as a Marine knowing with absolute certainty that leadership is a privilege and requires competence, hard work and unselfish dedication.

I also came away knowing how to be hard on myself and others. I was attached to an ego identity, warrior culture and averse to seeming anything but strong and together. When I came to need it, I didn’t know how to ask anyone for help.

My fledgling yoga practice changed my life slowly. I didn’t see it coming and would have ducked it if I had, but I learned to notice breath. I learned to slow down and to be curious about my body instead of domineering with it.

I met people who listened much more than they spoke and wondered how to emulate them. I learned to value vulnerability instead of revile it. Teaching yoga is as much about being a student as anything else, and it has helped me soften.

My hard exterior was never the whole story about me, and yoga has helped me let go of that chip on my shoulder and be more authentic with people. I will always love the Marine Corps for those early lessons about personal effectiveness and physical leadership, but I no longer think of mindfulness as a pejorative term.

My yoga practice saved my life when days got dark and helped me become OK with falling over in front of others.


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Assistant Ed: Bruce Casteel/Ed: Sara Crolick


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