03/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Yogi In The War Zone

I started talking with Justin Blazejewski on Facebook, where I meet most of the quality people I connect with these days. I was doing a free yoga class in Central Park last summer and Justin was trying to make it. He was doing the Dharma Mittra teacher training program at the time. Dharma is one of my heroes. Any student of his is a friend of mine.

Clicking through Justin's Facebook pictures, I found two categories that are pretty common among people who practice yoga: pictures with your friends hanging out, and yoga pose pictures, usually taken in fun public places. Justin has a bunch of good time pictures with his pals, mostly adorable girls. Then there are the yoga pictures, many of them at the beach, where a big percentage of Facebook yoga pictures seem to wind up. Justin didn't opt for a simple tree pose or meditation picture. His shots are mostly super-complicated backbend poses, including one in Ganda Bherundasana. That means he's lying on his stomach, with his feet coming over to rest on his head. It's a tricky one. (See photo.)


Dharma Mittra students often have incredibly flexible spines. Maybe it's an emphasis on certain poses Dharma teaches. I think it also has to do with the openness, compassion and unconditional love that Dharma shows his students. In turn they have a way of broadcasting it to everyone they contact. More evidence that our bodies are the product of our behaviors and our thoughts. Or even that all three are really the same thing. Openness coupled with unconditional love has an interesting physical benefit, more room in the spine and insane back bending ability. On the other side, closing off to others closes off your own body. It starts in your shoulders and your spine, and creates pain, which is no good. Another reason to be nice!

Justin never made it to my Central Park summer class. But he got back in touch after I opened Strala on 5th and 22nd, conveniently close to Dharma's school on 3rd and 23rd. We messaged back and forth a few more times, and I think we almost ran into each other on the street once, but there still was no yoga exchanged.

I had an instinct to message Justin a few weeks ago to see if he wanted to come by for a class. A regular yoga practice has taught me to listen to my instincts more. He replied rather quickly, like all good Facebook addicts. He told me he had just returned from Afghanistan that morning. A yogi in the war zone? What? This is a story I had to hear firsthand. I asked Justin if he would let me talk to him in person about his experiences with yoga and the war. He said he was coming to the city for a week (he lives in DC) to take Dharma's classes, and he'd happily stop by the studio to speak with me.

Justin is a good-looking all-American kid. (see photo) His posture is perfect, not like a rigid soldier, more like a relaxed but attentive yogi. Any weirdness you might expect from a New York yoga-type was completely absent. Justin was simply who he is, and completely transparent. He was refreshingly unaffected and kind. And that's what yoga is about anyway, being the best version of you. Self-realization. Justin seemed to radiate all of that so simply, even upon first meeting.


Justin has been to Afghanistan and Iraq seven times in the last year. He was born Jan 11, 1979, grew up in Buffalo New York, enlisted in the Marines when he was 18, and is now a Senior Field Engineer Contractor. He gets hired to fix satellites on military bases. They like him for the job because of his double qualification as a Marine and an engineer. Justin travels to bases, fixes satellites, and knows what to do when they get attacked. "Which happens," he explained to me as simply and calmly as I would ask him "Would you like a glass of water?"

Justin's started practicing yoga a few years ago. He practiced Tae Kwon Do for years and his teacher taught him yoga poses. At the time he thought they were just stretches. He had a lower back injury that needed surgery. Instead Justin started yoga classes, which healed the injury and pain. He took a Dharma Mittra class, felt drawn to Dharma, and wanted to be around that kind of yoga. He came back from a mission with some cash, bought himself a flat screen and signed up for the Dharma Mittra teacher training, not really knowing if his intent to teach, or simply deepen his practice.

I was dying to ask Justin how he felt about yoga and war. Did his yoga practice help him deal with stress? Did he teach yoga at the bases in Afghanistan and Iraq? I wanted to hear his thoughts in general about the war, and where it is going. What he told me next, I'll never forget.

"Yoga has taught me to confront the enemy with compassion." He delivered the statement simply. I had to take a moment to wrap my head around it. He said so many of the guys fight with hate and fear. "My philosophy in the war zone is to have compassion and love for your enemy." I wasn't expecting that one. We read lines like this in books. Justin is field-testing it. I was expecting something more along the lines of yoga helping deal with stress and anxiety. He says it helps with that too. He told me how he would go to the roof of the base to meditate. One of those times a rocket flew close by his head without hurting him. He says if he can meditate in that kind of environment, then it's doing good things for him.

I asked Justin how he practiced yoga while he was in the war zone, and if he taught others. Justin explained what he was doing as planting the seed in people. He said, "They can see my calm and peace and my connection with God and they want to know how they can be the same way."

We talked about religion and yoga. He understands yoga not as a religion, but a practice at realizing who you really are. That is powerful. Justin said he likes to mess with friends on his Facebook page by changing his religious views to God, then Jesus, then Krishna, then Shiva, and on and on. They're all the same. Justin said he's careful with how he talks about his yoga to each person. Everyone is different. Everyone's world is different. If he talks about yoga in terms of God to his Jewish friends they flip out and argue with him. So he finds a way without using the word God. When he talks to his Catholic Mom and sisters about Krishna, they are worried he is in a cult. So he leaves out the mythology.

Justin practices in a space where people can see him, so if they want to join they can. Often it will turn into an informal class with Justin teaching some poses and breathing techniques. Justin studies his approach and language of teaching just as much as the practice. He explains how he can reach soldiers dealing with post traumatic stress in a way that the "experts" can not. Justin can understand what the've been through because he's been through it. He can also teach them how to deal because he has found a way through yoga. Justin explained to me how they have no release of the pain, death, and fear. He said he's teaching them to let go of it with yoga practices. That's amazing.

I was on the edge of my seat to hear Justin's views on mixing yoga and non-violence with war and violence. His stories and reflections once again were completely unexpected. He told me he has difficulties talking about war and his role in it to some of his yoga friends who believe only in non-violence. Justin reflected and researched if it was possible to be a Brahman (a yogi) and a warrior (a soldier). In history and mythology there are many examples of both, but Justin wondered where he fit in.

Justin told me how the Brahman's karma is to practice yoga. Their whole life they will meditate and practice yoga and non-violence. But without warriors to protect them, the Brahmans would have no land on which to practice. Justin explained how present day is similar. He paralleled the story of the Brahmans to how yogis are able to exist in New York City practicing non-violence and peaceful living. But we need warriors to protect us, or our freedoms might not continue forever.

Justin identifies with the stories of warriors. He has a tattoo of Arjuna on his right wrist. In Hindu mythology, Arjuna was a master archer and played a central role in the conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Arjuna was reluctant to take part in the battle because of the slaughter he knew he would cause, which included many of his relatives. He was persuaded by Lord Krishna to change his mind. Lord Krishna and Arjuna talked about issues involved in war, courage, a warrior's duty, the nature of human life and the soul, and the role of Gods. Justin reads and absorbs the classic texts, citing the Bhagavad Gita as one of his guides. He likes to take in the texts in their purest form, and he's not a fan of too many interpretations. Arjuna embedded in Justin's wrist makes perfect sense. His contemplations are similar in their depths, and bring clarity into his present.

I asked Justin how he felt the war in Afghanistan is going and when and how does he see it ending. I don't know what I expected to hear, maybe something about a time table and strategy. Again Justin's answers surprised me with humanity and compassion, leading our talk in a completely different direction.

Justin talked a bit about corruption in Pakistan and terrorist safe havens, but I realized that war strategy updates weren't the best thing I could extract from our talk. Unlike what we can read and watch about Afghanistan, Justin's stories haven't been drilled into our minds in the form of sound bites. He described the tired and weathered faces of the Afghan people and how for the first time, in his experience, he is seeing hope shine from their eyes. In an interview with Rachel Maddow, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said the same thing about seeing hope for the first time in the Afghan people. Justin told me about the young girls playing without burkas in the streets. Some of the older women still wear them but Justin says it's because they are just accustomed to it. They wouldn't feel comfortable changing now.

I asked Justin what he plans to do now? He said he is tired of traveling for now. He said he met a great girl. He wants to spend some time hanging with her and practicing yoga.