As defense spending cuts limit vital benefits for veterans and our country increasingly faces the issue of veteran homelessness, we offer this interview with Mark Francis-Mullen, who became a certified yoga teacher and taught yoga at the Denver Veterans Administration Regional Medical Center while homeless. "The yoga classes and teaching gave structure to my week," Mark told me. He taught at the VA's PTSD and psychiatric wards for 16 months, and also taught his friends without shelter.
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?
Yoga and service were originally part of my martial arts and personal practices. The impetus to deepen my practice -- and eventually drop the martial arts practice of 30 years -- was a combination of pain, tragedy, and PTSD. Yoga helped me survive. As I progressed, my motivation was to become one less angry and poorly-adapted veteran (me), and create a happy, healthy member of society (the new me). Now it's evolved to sharing the transformative and healing benefits of yoga to marginalized populations: veterans, amputees, the elderly, drug and alcohol dependents, and the homeless, to name a few that resonate with me. However, most of my work has been with combat veterans with PTSD, and the homeless.
Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans?
They are all inspirational in their own way, even the simple, quiet stories. One Vietnam War veteran in my inpatient PTSD ward class was on oxygen. At the end of class, he told me that he had run out of oxygen halfway through the class. When he saw my eyes widen in concern, he laughed and said when it happened he just breathed like I told him and everything was all right. The sense of freedom he had when he said that almost made me cry, and filled me with joy at his newfound freedom and joy of breath. Another guy told me he was about to "pull the plug and end the misery" when he recalled a yoga class we'd had the week before on being in the moment and riding out particular thoughts.
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 at all, have those assumptions changed?
I served in the military for ten years, first in Germany as a radar technician, then Okinawa as a satellite communications technician, and between 2004-06 in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was the Southwest Asia regional engineer for military communications in Camp Victory, Baghdad. I'd been on a lot of convoys going base to base with satellite equipment, and often went out into "Indian Country" alone. I saw people die in bad ways. And my son was in Columbine High School when the shooting took place. I didn't know for a couple of hours if he was alive, sitting all the while with the mothers of kids who were killed. So I was familiar with the effects of PTSD, and with being homeless. What I didn't know is how widely PTSD has spread, how it affects not only veterans, but their spouses and families. And how it affects forgotten but still PTSD-suffering civilian contractors and DoD civilians ineligible for VA assistance. I have begun to recognize that when you suffer, I suffer, and that we are all in need of peace and healing, and release from our personal versions of suffering.
In what way does your teaching style differ from the way you might teach in a studio?
I take a lot of time to create a safe space. I combine asana, intuitive somatic movement, breath regulation, meditation, mudra, and yoga nidra in my classes. I give homework -- research and observation on the self and on yogic topics. I've come to see the practical utility of mindful yoga therapy for veterans, especially as vets begin their practices and therapies. I include techniques and traditions from all schools of yoga, since I think yoga is all one.
What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?
No challenges, just opportunities... to see myself in all, to respect and allow all differences and approaches, and to see that people come to their mats (and practices) only when they're ready. I've seen this transformative, healing practice of yoga may not be wanted (or needed) by some. In essence, yoga is an opportunity for vets to allow the ego to drop into that place that is... not the place that should be.
What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach veterans?I recommend the following:
- Take a trauma-sensitive training, such as Mindful Yoga Therapy by the Veterans Yoga Project.
- Be mindful not to say that you "get" what a combat veteran has gone through unless you've had a similar experience.
- Do not project experience or limitations onto your students.
- Be aware that a veteran may not be able to relate to prescriptions for reaching nirvana from non-combat veterans, especially affluent female civilians.
- Truly understand why you are doing this.
- Be aware we veterans can easily detect insincerity, facetiousness, self-promotion, or self-serving.
- Have a good understanding of the physical and psychological manifestations of PTSD.
- Speak your truth and extend your own peace and calm to others.
What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?
That it becomes the norm, and that the sexy, merchantization, glossy model of yoga becomes the exception to the rule. We live in a world in need of healing and support from each other, not of self-service, glamorization, and productization of yogic science.
How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?
Sometimes while volunteering at the local church, teaching yoga to homeless people, nobody would show up. I realized this was not about me and I just needed to show up for even the one person who might come, as well as for myself. One day a homeless dude walked 45 minutes in the rain to my class. I thought, "Wow, he came to my class!" But then I realized "We're both out of the rain, and while we're at it, let's move our bodies together."
What other organizations do you admire?
Yours, perhaps foremost (Give Back Yoga). The Veterans Yoga Project, which has already made a huge impact in my life. The Prison Yoga Project and the National Buddhist Prison Sangha. I admire any organization teaching compassion, consideration, and unity as fellow shipmates on Spaceship Earth. And definitely Core Power Yoga, for providing the vehicle, space, and tools for my own yogic healing and transformation.
Editor: Alice Trembour
Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email firstname.lastname@example.org 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 empirically-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.
Demand Continues, 2nd 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
Call for submissions for the new Journal of Yoga Service!
Please visit our website at www.yogaservicecouncil.org or email our editor, Kelly Birch, at email@example.com