09/30/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2013

Yoga for Veterans: 'I Can Feel Myself Breathe'

This is an interview with Yael Calhoun, who started teaching yoga about 10 years ago. With her three elementary school-aged sons, she started a summer service project teaching yoga at a local boys and girls club and the YWCA shelter. "I told them volunteering goes best when you do something you love," says Yael. Then she started teaching after school at their school, went on to write a kids' yoga book, "Create a Yoga Practice for Kids: Fun, Flexibility and Focus," with Matthew R. Calhoun, and started a nonprofit, GreenTREE Yoga. When you need something done, ask a busy person! GreenTREE's programs have evolved into trauma-sensitive yoga and professional development for clinicians, nurses, and teachers on how to use yoga for compassion fatigue and for work with trauma. Yael offers many training kits and books to support yoga teachers working with different populations -- for more information, visit GreenTREE's Support Materials page.

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'd been a teacher, had young children and wanted to involve them in a fun volunteer project, so I just started teaching yoga to kids. As the work expanded, I saw the profound effect of yoga on various populations. Now my work focuses on trauma-sensitive yoga, both with kids and adults, owing to my family's experiences with trauma, and the incredible healing I have experienced over time. I couldn't do what I do without having had these experiences, because I wouldn't be able to teach from an authentic place.

Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans?

I've taught yoga to a lot of different groups of every age, and there is only one group that has given me pause. I was sitting in front a group of vets, all large men from residential substance abuse. I looked at them sitting and waiting for me to do something; I couldn't speak! I felt the weight of the opportunity and I just didn't want to get it wrong. I finally made myself start talking... and we did the practice, just as Dave Emerson taught me. They loved it. One guy said at the end, "I could feel myself breathe. I haven't been able to do that."

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 have those assumptions changed?

I'd never worked or interacted with veterans before, so I had no assumptions, other than that they needed a very body-based practice. Having experienced trauma, each of these vets needed to reconnect with their bodies in a positive way. As experts tell us, trauma is stored in the body -- so healing needs to begin at that level. Teaching vets has taught me that body-based yoga is an amazing gift to veterans and to those trying to share yoga and help them heal. There are so many different types of yoga, and trauma-sensitive focuses on being aware of how the body feels in a posture. Some yoga is more cerebral -- focusing on thoughts and images. Eventually this approach may be part of the healing process, but studies show that we need to start reconnecting with the body.

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?

Teaching veterans has totally changed the way I teach all my yoga classes. I now only teach body-based, trauma-sensitive yoga. My other classes love it. Whether it's a physically challenging class or a restorative, I still teach it as a body-based practice. I think everyone either has had some degree of trauma or knows, at some level, that this type of yoga makes them more resilient. As I said, there are so many types of yoga. This kind of yoga stresses noticing the body sensations in any pose, noticing how the sensations can change based on personal choices. Learning to focus on these bodily sensations and using the breath as a way to deepen this body awareness is the beginning point of healing trauma, of taking control of one's feelings and one's life.

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

My greatest challenge was not bringing personal challenges with me when I was teaching -- to keep that clear space in my head so that I could teach well. The wonderful feedback loop is that using that mental discipline while you teach is in itself healing for the teacher, which then in turn makes you a better teacher.

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

You are being presented with an incredible opportunity to help people "find their way" (Bessel van der Kolk). Don't take it lightly. Read and reread David Emerson's book, Healing Trauma Through Yoga. Also read and reread Pat Ogden's book Trauma and the Body. If you work with kids, read as much of Peter Levine's work as you can. Keep reading and learning. Keep notes on what seems to be working and what isn't. Study, learn, and practice.

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

I would hope that qualified, thoughtful, talented teachers continue to offer various yoga options to people in need. One of the strengths of yoga is that it is so diverse and flexible -- different yoga for different people, times of life, stages of healing. So we need a lot of yoga teachers sharing what they love to do.

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

I think the work I do has brought me a much deeper appreciation for the healing that yoga can bring. I needed both to experience the healing myself, and to see how yoga affected others, in order to expand my definition of yoga and my personal practice. From that broader definition and practice, what I am able to share in my teaching grows. It's a lovely feedback loop, or connection.

Stay connected with Give Back Yoga Foundation as we share the gift of yoga with the world, one person at a time, by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and by subscribing to our newsletter.

Do you want to learn trauma-sensitive yoga techniques from leading experts in the field? Join Give Back Yoga at the Sedona Yoga Festival in February for a two-day Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans pre-conference training that provides yoga teachers with clinically-proven techniques to help students recover from trauma and emotional stress.