August 31, 2014

On Tribe & Yoking. ~ CJ Keller

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I can readily self-identify with “belonging” to several very different and sometimes opposing “tribes.”

From the Marine Corps to yoga circles and many others others in between. For now, I’ll focus my attention on the military veteran and yoga communities. These two populations are often content with keeping a safe distance from one another and seldom intermingle. I suspect this is because we tend to support and empower our members quite differently, and have mismatched values, goals and ways we go about reaching them.

I feel this contrast and creates great opportunity for each group to learn from each other, to compliment and evolve. Affiliating strongly with both tribes, I am one of a growing number of liaisons, translating and trading acronyms for Sanskrit and bullets for breath, with some degree of success.

How each tribe approaches human fear response varies greatly. I find this to be at the crux of understanding how a fatigued military, active and veteran, should benefit from yogic practices. For better or worse, the military indoctrinates us to facilitate a reflexive, sympathetic-like response to an environment, either routing our fears into violence of action, to locate, close with and destroy an enemy, or to numb our senses by encouraging avoidance behavior to “suck it up” and “soldier on.”

This is functional and absolutely necessary for very brief periods of combat, but ultimately incomplete, short-sighted and counter-productive. We know it doesn’t take long for underlying, unaddressed emotions to manifest with mental health issues, damaging interpersonal conflicts and substance abuse, typically alcohol or prescription narcotics to cope with the past and stave off anxiety of the future.

In these cases, I find it a bit ironic and sad that if our affiliation with the tribe hasn’t literally killed us in combat, it wreaks havoc and corrodes our chances for positive, meaningful connections with ourselves and others. Is this sacrifice inherently necessary for patriotic duty and service? I don’t believe it is, so I suggest an alternative, to evolve our approach toward training the mind and body for the demands of modern life and modern combat.

The yoga and mindfulness community offers another possible response to unpleasantries of military service. It attempts to hone our focus on the felt experience of the present moment, awakening our senses to the internal and external environment. With skilled guidance and dedicated practice it elicits parasympathetic-like responses that tend to be more appropriate for dealing with discomfort and stress. Through this, practicing yogis consistently benefit from a sense of returning to a “home” state of restful balance to ease our mind and body.

On a more personal note, part of my drive to unite these polar communities comes out of my sense of not neatly fitting in either tribe. There is plenty about each one that I love and value, enough to confidently say, “I’m a Marine, I always will be,” or “I’m a yogi at heart,” but both have parts that don’t always sit well.

I’m too much of a Jarhead to completely identify with the stereotypical fluffy Caucasian yoga folk, or at least that image that I’ve created in my mind. Same goes for my beloved Marine Corps, there are way too many examples of terrible things us military members have seen or done at home and abroad that I deeply struggle with. On a fundamental level, I disagree with much of how we are deployed and used for political and financial reasons.

So, it is out of a selfish desire to weave a new fabric, attempting a connection between the two opposing tribes with common threads of self-less service, courage, self-acceptance, commitment and love. While hardcore military tribesmen prefer to view the yogis as soft hippie pacifists, which is undeniably true in some cases, but it is a naive and shallow generalization. Thankfully, through education and tangible results of basic yogic practices, this belief is shifting in Western culture as a whole and even among forward thinking military circles.

We can absolutely do better and in this case we should.

Semper Fi and Namaste.



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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Author’s own

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