Yoga: How We Serve Veterans and People With Substance Abuse

This is an interview with John Morgan, an Army veteran in recovery from alcohol abuse. He graduated from Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester, Conn. in 2010 with a 200-hour RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) certification in Hatha Yoga and wanted to work with veterans and people with substance abuse. John’s yoga service began on Veterans Day, 2012 at a treatment center in eastern Connecticut for veterans, active duty personnel, and dependents.

Rob: Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans?

Every class I teach stands out. I always ask, “Who’s done yoga?” Most say they haven’t. The second question I ask is, “Who learned how to march and sing cadence?” Everyone laughs and replies “yes.” I make the comparison: Cadence was a form of breath work and marching was a form of asana. The two — cadence and marching — nearly always went together just like breath work and asana.

But a particular moment was when I started a class and asked everyone who came to get into a comfortable seated position. Two men, one Army and one Navy, came into perfect lotus positions. I told them they had just achieved an advanced yoga posture! They gave each other a “high five.” Everyone else cheered.

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

Obviously I knew about this population — I’m one of them. I attended my first Veterans Yoga Project (VYP) training at the Newington Yoga Center in Newington, Conn. in January 2012. Dr. Daniel Libby and Suzanne Manafort delivered what I thought was the perfect approach to teaching veterans. I was glad to know my first teaching job would include active-duty personnel as well as veterans.

Prior to Nov. 11, 2012, I had not taught yoga in a studio. My style of yoga has been Ashtanga. I’ve been a student since my first yoga teacher training in 2009. I could never see myself teaching ordinary yoga in a studio to householder yogis. I wanted to work with special-needs populations. What I learned from Dan and Suzanne was how to conduct a class for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma and substance abuse. I learned how to hold the space, be mindful of language, and provide support. Dr. Libby asked me to teach in July of 2012 at a program he was involved in. At the time I was busy working on the other side of the state (Connecticut). I told him when I concluded that project by September I’d give it a try. Suzanne invited me to attend another VYP training in Amherst, Mass. in October 2012. I attended the training because I wanted to be straight with teaching this population. When the day came to teach I was in my comfort zone because I was with people I already knew and had acquired the skills through the VYP training program to perform my duty.

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

The greatest challenges for me are setting aside the time and not hiding behind my work. I try hard to get my ass back out on the line and help out where I’m needed the most.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach veterans or special-needs populations?

Attend some training, and get out and teach! Just teach in your authentic self and be clear. If the first week goes by and the attendees seem distant, just go back the next week and try again. Then try again. And again.

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

I’d like to see yoga in all grades at schools and in the business sector.

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

I’ve become a more humble person. I have a renewed sense of my military service. I kinda feel like I’m back in my unit. Yoga is the connection to self, others, and the physical world. My practice will remain Ashtanga. However, lately I’ve taken a liking to Embodyoga.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you’re interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

For more by Rob Schware, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.

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