Upward-Facing Soldier

April 15, 2012 by  
Filed under Yoga Articles

YOU are sitting behind the Humvee where you’ve dragged a wounded soldier. You’ve wrapped the gaping hole in his leg, given him a shot of morphine and radioed up the line for help. Your eye is trained on a distant, hazy point through the scope of an assault rifle. You can see the tiny, magnified bodies of your enemy. Maybe they are waiting for another explosion. A bigger one. Your heart starts pounding harder. The temperature is over 100 degrees. The kid next to you, a kid you always found slightly annoying, with his Massachusetts accent and his unwillingness to walk in the front position of the line, is now holding a bloody pad to his thigh and biting down on a bandanna to keep from screaming. Sweat is pouring down his face. There is no easy way out. You simply have to wait and try not to give away your position. Through your scope you can see their rocket launchers in a pile on the ground.

Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Nick Roberts, a sophomore, finds focus in the author’s yoga class at Norwich University, the oldest private military college in the country.

What you do, without moving your hands from the rifle, is to start breathing, because you realize you have been holding your breath for a long time. So you deepen it. Slow, deeper, deeper. The hiccups of fear start to mellow out. You can feel your belly soften a bit. Then you visualize your breath. In the left nostril, out the right. In the right, out the left. After just a minute, the mad thumping in your chest begins to slow. You hold the fingertips of one hand to your forehead to calm the fight-or-flight response so you can think clearly. The situation has not changed, but you feel yourself change, and you are now able to deal with it.

Back in the safe and cold green mountains of central Vermont, I walk into the yoga room to face a roomful of boys and girls. They are 17, 18, 20 years old, but they seem more like boys and girls than men and women. The stress in my students’ lives is not at combat level. Yet. Right now, most of them have the stress of being in the Corps of Cadets at a military college. That means P.T. at 5:30 in the morning, and constant building, running, gunning, learning, hiking, jumping and being yelled at.

Norwich University, the birthplace of R.O.T.C. and the oldest private military college in the country, trains both military cadets and civilians in discipline, integrity, confidence, loyalty and honor.

From here, many of my military students will deploy to the deserts of Afghanistan. I have a boy leaving next week.

They are young. They are strong. They have incredible stamina. But they don’t have fluency or ease within their bodies. They do push-ups and pull-ups and bench presses and weighted lunges. They run 10 or 20 miles with heavy packs on. But they don’t know how to breathe or to access the core muscles in their abdomens that could help them hump their packs or carry a buddy to safety. I teach them this, and also, how to find that place deep inside that is whole, untouchable, sacred.

Halfway through the semester, I ask my students how they think yoga will help them. Why did they sign up for this class? “It helps us to focus on the good,” one says. “That’s the only way we can get through this place.”

I think of them as if they are in the Bhagavad Gita, the great Indian treatise on war. The soldier Arjuna stops on the battlefield and cries out to Lord Krishna: “Do I have to do this? Do I have to kill?” Krishna, instead of telling him what to do on the battlefield, teaches him yoga. So that is what I do. I teach them yoga.

I am humbled by this prospect, but I come in to the classroom strong. This is a community used to leadership. They stand at attention and call me ma’am. I have to show that I have enough strength to lead them. But I don’t teach them strength. They learn that enough. One girl said to me, “This is the only class where I don’t get yelled at.”

I want them to love and respect themselves. At the end of class, when they lie on their mats in savasana like children at nap time, I nurture and tuck in these bodies. I hold their ankles and swing their legs back and forth to let their hips soften. I roll their shoulder blades under their backs to help open their hearts. I hold their heads in my hands, while they lie there. They don’t get touched here, at military college. They don’t get nurtured. Everything is hard and harsh and angry and fast and sharp. Some of them are so stiff and rigid. They hold their heads at attention even when they’re lying down.

Lauren K. Walker runs the yoga program for veterans, cadets and civilians at Norwich University.

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