11/02/2012 08:22 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Yoga: A Veteran's Way to Serve Veterans

This is an interview with Paul Zipes, who started practicing 17 years ago in response to a dare from his wife. He tried following a Bryan Kest Power Yoga video tape and was sore for days. It was much harder than he expected. He started teaching either years ago and founded his organization, Yoga For Vets, five years ago.

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 started Yoga For Vets to send a clear message to our combat vets -- "Welcome Home" -- and to make sure they know that the yoga community cares. Yoga For Vets now has over 500 locations listed around the United States that offer four or more free yoga classes to any combat vet. Unfortunately, some problems vets encounter after returning from war haven't changed yet. I still read reports about over-medicated combat vets, suicides among active duty and reserve soldiers, and misunderstood vets. So, my motivation hasn't changed much over time, it is still very much all about the vets.

Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans?

It was when a local vet told me after his first yoga class that he'd had the best night's sleep in years.

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

I am a military vet so when I first started teaching vets, the only assumption I had was that they were going to laugh if I chanted, used woohoo, flowery language, or mentioned a chakra. Since then, the military culture has changed a bit and yoga has become more accepted. Now I might chant a little but I still try to make yoga as relatable as possible to the military culture, so I try to quickly emphasize breath, muscles, and mind: three things all vets can relate to.

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

My greatest challenge is getting the word out that Yoga For Vets offers free yoga for combat vets. Facebook is helpful, so is talking to spouses and friends of vets. Getting someone who knows yoga to tell a vet to try it is the greatest tool, especially if a vet tells another vet.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach veterans and active duty service members that you work with?

I tell them to be aware that not every vet will benefit from yoga or like it. This is hard for some yoga teachers to accept, but it's true. Teach because you care; realize that if you've never been in combat you won't be able to relate to being in a combat zone, so don't try. What teachers should do is be present, do your best and everything will turn out the way it was meant to.

How do you make money if you are offering so many free classes to veterans?

The vets that take classes at my studio sometimes pay for more classes after the initial four free, others never return. The offer was never intended to make a ROI.

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

My hope is that all teacher training programs will make service a mandatory requirement to graduate. Yoga For Vets is a good place to look for examples of teachers who embrace service yoga. If a requirement to serve others was established in teacher training, of course I would like the service to be related to our vets, but a close second would be in senior citizens' homes. These areas are far removed from most yoga teachers' initial skill sets, but still very much related to yoga. I think four hours of service as a graduation requirement is a good minimum because it will give the future teacher a taste of what service is about.

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

This work hasn't changed my definition of service. Service is service; just do it. My definition of yoga is a practice or activity that is healthy and fun; no matter what the style or program you are teaching, this should always be true. My practice includes meditation and a short yoga practice seven days a week or as often as possible.

What other organizations do you admire?

There and Back Again, Exalted Warrior, Give Back Yoga Foundation and Warriors At Ease.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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 like Gaiam and others, 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.

Goal for the Coming Year:

To bring our Yoga For Veterans Toolkits, developed by expert teachers with years of experience in working with soldiers with post-traumatic stress, to at least 10,000 veterans across the country.

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.

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, D.C. VA say mindfulness meditation helps them sleep better! Access is easy and anonymous.