Coming Home Is Harder Than Fighting In The War: How Yoga Saved My Life

Written by Kate Hendricks

I will always be proud to have been a Marine, but after becoming a yoga teacher, I think about pride differently than I used to. I used to think strength meant presenting an image of strong silence and always looking like I had everything together.

Yoga, however, taught me about vulnerability, honesty, and connecting authentically with the people around me, letting them see both my light and dark. We have to be honest about where we are hurting. We have to ask for help when we fall.

I’ve fallen pretty hard and it took me too long to get back up because I didn’t know that people would be OK with an imperfect version of me. Marines aren’t supposed to be sad. Marines aren’t supposed to screw up. I was. I did.

What if I had completed training designed to increase self-awareness and promote resilience? What if PTSD was something I knew to look for in myself and others, rather than ridicule as the province of the malingerer?

I’m a pretty decisive person with a limited ability to ask for help and zero trouble taking risks, and I was almost one of those statistics.

I teach yoga today because I know how it saved my life.

Today we're losing more military personnel to suicide than to combat.

Yoga offers something special and completely reframes the issue of treatment.

The idiosyncratic messages of warrior subculture make sense to me. I grew up in a military family where “civilian” was synonymous with a host of pejorative insults.

I joined the Marine Corps in college to test myself. I doubted whether or not I could do 20-mile hikes or back-breaking obstacle courses. I quickly learned that I could.

In those early years as a Marine, I got very good at presenting a veneer of stoic professionalism at all times. Presenting the certain, effective façade required some incredibly useful skills – skills that become incredibly destructive when you never learn how to turn them off.

The above description fits most Marines. We tend to be a driven, dysfunctional lot. I was a bit of a performance junkie and my desire to constantly display an ideal version of myself in front of others has caused incredible heartache and alienation. I weathered deployment, loss, injury of loved ones, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and divorce completely alone and in an unhealthy way.

I share this not because any of it is particularly interesting, but because it's particularly common and normal in the military community I call home.

Why yoga for veterans?

I came to yoga as an athlete looking for something fun to try, something new to master, and something to help me bend my unyielding muscles a bit more easily.

What I found on the mat changed my life entirely. I found a practice that was about more than my body, my training, and was something I could practice and study while joyously never “mastering.”

Our bodies were made to move in constant search of unity with our minds and spirits. It's a natural stillness that those who have felt it love, pursue, and fight to regain if lost. When we discuss the sorts of trauma and injuries our veterans have experienced, we need to bring mindfulness into the conversation around treatment and prevention. Pills and therapy are not enough to return this active, passionate community to full health after trauma. We won’t seek them out and we won’t ask for help.

The answer has to lie outside the contemporary standard of care. Yoga can do that.

While clinical health services exist for soldiers and Marines with existing mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress, they are not stemming the rising tide of service suicides. Framing mindfulness training as a way to “bulletproof your brain” renders the practices palatable within the confines of warrior culture.

Marines and soldiers are competitive people who respond much better to notions of challenge than to victim or patient identities. I teach yoga because it asks the practitioner to work at creating mental fitness and resilience, and I know no other way to reach my peers with such effect.

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