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Yoga: How We Serve Those in Uniform and Their Spouses

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This is an interview with Susan Barber, who, for the past four years, has been working with military spouses in Wiesbaden, Germany. Many of these women are raising their children alone, while their husbands are on their second or even third deployments. Says Susan: "I've seen how yoga is a crucial part of their lives, and a time for them to support themselves so they can better support their families." Susan teaches five classes a week on base. "My current service sort of fell in my lap," she says.

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?

I saw many of my students' spouses returning from Afghanistan and began hearing about the effects of PTSD. At the same time, my first yoga teacher, Beryl Bender Birch, was starting to work with veterans and writing a book on yoga for them. I started to see a few soldiers trickling into my classes from the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) here. The WTU has soldiers with physical injuries, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and/or various other conditions, which are keeping them from participating in their regular units. The mission of WTUs is to return soldiers to duty with their units, or to help them transition out of the Army as they prepare for civilian life. I knew right away that they needed their own space, and that the healing power of yoga was going to be an important part of their recovery. The response of these tough soldiers to yoga practice was overwhelming to me. It was and is a safe place for them to "let go."

Is there a standout moment from your work with the Veterans Yoga Project or veteran population?

Recently a solider shared with me that he had been suffering from serious depression and PTSD for six years. With tears in his eyes he said that yoga had become one of his only sources of relief, and that yoga is his "new passion." I also received an email recently from the sergeant of the unit I work with, who said that "the yoga classes have absolutely made a difference in the lives of these warriors -- they seem to be more upbeat and have a little more confidence in conducting everyday activities that sometimes would hinder them."

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching?

Initially, very little! Again, I was working with many of the spouses, and had never really been familiar with the military community, other than through my regular classes on base. In addition to immersing myself in materials from the Veterans Yoga Project, I talked with other instructors, including my friend Ann Richardson of Om Town Heroes in Virginia Beach. I've grown to greatly admire our military families, and have appreciated the strong support I've received from all my regular students. The bond among military families is strong!

What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

Oh, my gosh, I had assumptions about all the stereotypical ideas about soldiers -- that they would be tough, tight, not open to being soft and surrendering. What I found was that, yes, they are tough, but they seek healing the same as we all do. Also, it was a surprise to see how quickly my class went from being "something on the schedule" for them, to something they looked forward to!

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?

In my regular classes I tend to teach an energizing vinyasa flow; that's what most morning yogis are looking for! In my warrior class, I get back to basics, because most of the soldiers haven't practiced yoga before. I spend more time on breath work, basic asanas, and restorative and relaxation work.

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

The biggest challenge has been not knowing the military system -- the ranks, who is in charge, and how things work. I still haven't figured that all out! I just decided to show up and focus on the soldiers and teach them as I would any other person in their situation. I have to say, they seem to appreciate and get a kick out of the fact that I am a bit clueless on ranks! My boss at the on-post fitness center has been really good at helping me navigate, and find out who is in charge of the WTU, and also in providing the soldiers in the WTU free tickets to attend classes.

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

Do your research, get materials for veterans from the Give Back Yoga Foundation, and work with your community to be able to provide these resources for the soldiers. Our local Wiesbaden Community Spouses Club donated funds for me to get some of their CDs and practice posters for my students. The community is very supportive here.

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

I think that yoga is now firmly planted in America, and I'm not the only teacher out there with 17+ years of experience. It's time to start finding ways to spread the healing power of yoga to as many underserved populations as possible. There may be a studio on every corner, but not everyone has the money or resources to walk through the door.

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

We may think service is something we need to pack our bags and fly off to do in another land! Sometimes we just need to look in our own backyard to see that we are valuable, and can give back right where we are. My work in Wiesbaden has reawakened within me the truth that yoga is a healing practice. It has brought me to my mat at an even deeper level, so that I am prepared to more fully serve. Teaching more requires me to show up on my own mat more -- my classes come from my time on my mat.

What other organizations do you admire?

Pretty much anything Seane Corn and Off the Mat Into the World does! She is really on fire for service! Also my friend Ann Richardson, of Studio Bamboo Institute of Yoga, who has brought Om Town heroes to my hometown of Virginia Beach. Ann has found a way to reach people in our hometown. While I'm far away, I appreciate that she has really built the community there. My little sister is actually in her teacher training program. My main mentor has always been Beryl Bender Birch. As I tell my students, she is the "real deal," so authentic, so real, and so open to teaching the practice to everyone who comes to her.

Editor: Alice Trembour

To stay connected with Give Back Yoga Foundation as we share the gift of yoga with the world, one person at a time, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. You can help us meet our goal of putting evidence-based Yoga For Veterans Toolkits in the hands of 10,000 returning soldiers this year by making a one-time or recurring donation in the amount of your choice.

Do you work for a VA hospital? E-mail Executive Director Rob Schware if you're interested in obtaining free or discounted copies of the multi-media training manual Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering From Trauma, for use by veterans.