THE BLOG

Yoga: Inspired to Serve Our Troops

02/26/2013 05:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2013
  • Rob Schware Executive Director, Give Back Yoga Foundation, President, Yoga Service Council

This is an interview with Ann Richardson, who began teaching yoga to active-duty service members prior to 9/11 at all of the major bases in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia Beach, Va. Most of her students were strong and able; occasionally, she worked with students who had injuries. She still trains some of the men and women who began with her then. Founder of the Studio Bamboo Institute of Yoga, she now works with wounded, ill, and injured United States Marines. She travels extensively as an instructor for Special Warfare working with both able-bodied and injured men and women.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My original motivation was simply to share the ease I gained in my own body from practicing yoga. Now I see the same benefits working in my students' bodies. Some of these men and women have lost touch with their own bodies. I want them to feel again, relax, and to find peace.

Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans and service members?

Absolutely! Last year I had a young man who had been hit by an I.E.D; most of his ankle has been remade. Once someone is injured like that, he or she is forever changed. On one particular day, the guys were sitting up after final rest. The soldier who had been hit looked at me and said, "Something is wrong." That is the last thing any teacher wants to hear after a class! I got him some water and had him sit for a moment longer. Mind you, he looked fine. We got up and walked to the waiting area where he put his shoes on and then slowly, as if he was on a cloud, walked out. I'm thinking, "What in the world just happened?" He sat in the van he had arrived in, and had a huge smile across his face. He then came back into the studio and said, "I figured it out!" His comment was "I have not been this relaxed since before my accident." That was my moment, and why I keep doing this work.

What did you know about the population you are working with, before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if any, have those assumptions changed?

I live in a military town. We see the news about the many lives we have lost in the recent wars. What we don't see often is the figure of the 48,000 men and women who have been physically injured in the recent military conflicts. We're also seeing men and women physically injured and also living with the invisible wounds of war, like post-traumatic stress and major depression from WWII, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. I thought that some of these men and women would be frail and broken. That was a huge assumption. In actuality, these are some of the strongest and most motivated people I've ever worked with.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio and what are the reasons for these differences?

I'm not as soft-spoken in these classes. I joke a little more. And allow the students to joke with me -- it makes them feel at ease. Yes, I'm in there as a yoga therapist, but I surely don't come across that way. They wouldn't respond as well as they do, if I did. I don't concentrate on the breath; I simply ask, "Are you breathing?" Safety is a key concern for both the student and me. In a traditional class I'm a hands-on instructor. In these adaptive classes I have to be super careful.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

I like to have a plan in my head as to how the class will unfold, all the time. I've realized that "my plan" isn't necessarily going to work. I've had to be flexible with my ideas and be ready at any moment to try something else. My classes have a wide variety of physical challenges because I have students in wheelchairs, leg braces, paralysis, spinal injuries, arthritis, and traumatic brain injuries. These challenges have made me more present than ever and ready to make changes in the class at any moment. Instructors working in this field have to be creative, because traditional patterns and flows simply don't reliably work.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population that you work with?

First and foremost, be present, be "in it" with the students, "it" being the experience. Second, don't treat these amazing people as if they are broken; they are not. They don't want you to pity them. They want to be treated like you and me. Third, learn how to be creative, and fast!

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

What doctors are finally realizing is that traditional medicine isn't working for every "body." We are going to see yoga and meditation -- as well as other modalities -- being used to address many issues that are now being medicated. The medical field is slowly coming around, encouraging alternative practices for patients to complement their ongoing treatment. We are going to see more and more of this in the years to come, which to me is very hopeful.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

I once watched the movie The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, and a character in it said, "Service, there is no higher honor." I believe this to be true. I'm giving back to this population who gave/gives so selflessly to us!

My definition of yoga is simply to be present in each and every moment. It took time to get to this place, and at times I have to be reminded that it's all practice.

My students inspire my practice each and every day. I'm always grateful to be on my mat, to have the opportunity for experience, and above all finding joy!

What other organizations do you admire?

I'm honored to be a part of two extraordinary foundations: the Give Back Yoga Foundation and the Exalted Warrior Foundation. Both are doing remarkable work in the world! Locally, we just founded an organization called Om Town Heroes.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email rschware@gmail.com if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

Because of stories like these, The Give Back Yoga Foundation is committed to offering free yoga and meditation resources to veterans nationwide. With the help of sponsors and individual supporters, they have helped create and distribute clinically-tested multi-media resources to over thirty VA hospital facilities, various Soldier and Family Assistance Centers, and wellness programs for wounded warriors. Their goal is to reach 10,000 veterans across the country.

New and Improved Edition!

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering from Trauma, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website, if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans. This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.

GaiamTV.com, the world's largest online collection of conscious media including films, documentaries, yoga, and health and wellness videos, is a proud media partner of The Give Back Yoga Foundation. Together, GaiamTV.com and GBYF are helping to bring the gift of yoga to veterans and supporting programs that empower individuals, build relationships and communities, and cultivate a peaceful and healing yoga practice for all. Check out the direct link on GaiamTV.com and let us know what you think and what else you'd like to see:
www.gaiamtv.com/gby.

Help our heroes transition back to a civilian lifestyle by giving them easy access to mindfulness meditation. Veterans who take the class at the Washington, DC VA say mindfulness meditation helps them sleep better! Access is easy and anonymous. http://ow.ly/eAj77.

Join us at the Yoga Service Conference at Omega June 7-9th http://yogaservicecouncil.org/?page_id=5

Hanuman Festival is deeply committed to supporting service organizations and encouraging festival-goers to take action in their communities. The festival features talks from leaders in the Seva movement and donates a portion of its sales to the Give Back Yoga Foundation, Angel Organic http://angelorganic.org, the Wellness Initiative http://www.wellnessinitiative.org/, and Africa Yoga Project http://www.africayogaproject.org/. Learn more about Hanuman Festival at www.hanumanfestival.com