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Combating years of wartime trauma with a different sort of warrior pose

Students of VETOGA, a nonprofit organization that trains active military members, veterans and their families to teach yoga to veterans. (Photo by Jason Andrew for The Washington Post)
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In a quiet room in Old Town Alexandria, the students sit quietly on mats, facing an altar with mala beads and a meditation singing bowl. For the next 11 days they will spend most of their waking hours together, bonding as they go through rigorous training to become yoga teachers.

It might be any teacher training program in this yoga-obsessed metropolitan area, but look at the students snap to when the teacher says, “Eyes front.” See how the guest lecturer’s “’Morning, everyone,” elicits a reflexive, synchronized “’Morning, sir!” And what about those dogs sitting along the periphery, one starting to whine as she senses elevated cortisol levels in her owner?

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Welcome to VETOGA, a program that instructs military veterans from across the country to teach yoga, and in turn, teach other veterans how to salute the sun.

The program was developed by Justin Blazejewski, 38, who has spent most of his adult life in combat zones, first as a Marine and then as a civilian government contractor. After more than 40 trips to Afghanistan and Iraq, he was hobbled by injuries and living in perpetual fight-or-flight mode.

“My parasympathetic nervous system, the one that allows you to rest and relax, wasn’t in action since 1998,” he recalled.

Then, in 2008, he took a yoga class.

“I physically felt my body let go for the first time. I didn’t realize I was holding that tension until I did yoga. My brain turned off and the rest of my body started letting go.” Afterward, he walked out and said, “I want more of this.”

As he continued to go overseas, where thousands of troops lived in the constant tension of war zones, he realized that they needed release as much as he did — sometimes even more. Even once they were home, many struggled with physical and emotional scars, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. To Blazejewski, discovering yoga had been a gift, and he wanted to share it.

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So he began to do so, starting with an initial training course in November. Twelve members of the first class now teach yoga to veterans in eight states. The current class has 25 students. Unlike some teacher training programs that lose students partway through because of the rigorous schedule, the students here are used to 16 hours a day of boot camp; by contrast, the 13 1/2 hours a day at VETOGA might seem gentle.

The course, taught by diverse yogis, includes lessons in meditation, anatomy, the history of yoga, and various styles of practice, as well as focused instruction on teaching to veterans. While it includes the basics for yoga teachers, it does not include the 10-hour segment, which can be taken separately, for certification in teaching people with trauma, TBI, and PTSD.

But just being veterans gives the teachers-in-training a level of empathy and camaraderie that can be elusive in the civilian world.

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“It’s the power of community,” Blazejewski said, noting that more than 22 veterans a day kill themselves. Despite receiving services such as counseling and job training, “at some point they have a disconnect from society and community. We’re hoping this community of people who are different from civilians . . . can provide a venue for them to reach people that can’t be reached by civilians. When they’re around civilians they don’t open up about anything. When they’re here, they open up.”

A couple of hours into the first day on Thursday, the participants went around the room and introduced themselves.

Keith Toy, a muscular 38-year-old, said he had suffered from bursitis in his hip. “My doctor suggested yoga and my reaction was, ‘Yoga? That’s for girls and stay-at-home moms.’ I’d always been an athlete growing up; I played four or five sports.” But after he tried yoga, “my bursitis went away without any medical help, drugs, or anything. And I thought, truly, if you can help bring that light to someone, you should do it.”

Rick Wojciechowski, 53, stroked his brindle pit bull, Harley, as he spoke. A Marine Corps veteran, he had seen combat in Iraq, Grenada and Lebanon, and was in Beirut in 1983 when the Marine barracks there was blown up, killing 241 U.S. peacekeepers.

By his 40s, “I was closed off, housebound, angry, about to go to jail,” he said, adding that learning yoga and Transcendental Meditation had brought him back into society.

One veteran with traumatic brain injury was taking the class with his sister, who is married to a Marine Corps captain. Another said yoga had helped her not only with her own physical issues but also in connecting with her father, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from flashbacks and the effects of Agent Orange.

Several teared up as they spoke, including one who said 13 veterans from his combat unit had killed themselves.

Blazejewski was not surprised to see so much openness so soon. When soldiers are with other soldiers, he said, “Those layers peel back. Those traumas, those stored memories all are explored.”

The program, which provides free training, meals and lodging for out-of-towners, is currently funded through donations; Blazejewski said he is hoping to get some funding through the G.I. Bill. It also helps connect graduates with military bases, VA hospitals, and other veterans’ organizations.

To be eligible, participants must be active military, veterans or their family members, and must already have been practicing yoga for at least six months. The current class includes 10 active-duty members, 10 veterans, and five mothers, spouses or siblings. For the next course, which starts in November, 50 people have already signed up, which means there will be either a waiting list or a second training.

For many, the key benefit from the training is the idea of paying it forward.

“Yoga’s done so much for me, I want to kind of give back,” Wojciechowski said. “You’ve led people in probably the most stressful environment there is. It kind of gives you confidence that way, that you can stand up in front of a class. . . . I just don’t want to see another veteran go 10 years like I did, when I can try and reach someone through my experience, because we have that common bond through the military. If I can succeed in shortening their trauma by one day, then I can succeed in passing on what was given to me.”