John Gillard

John Gillard: Combat Veterans Giving Back

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This is an interview with John Gillard, who explored yoga for several years while he was active duty military. He now teaches at a studio in Warren, RI. “There is no separation between yoga and service for me,” says John. “I receive so much from my practice; it is only sensible to give back, at least a fraction.”

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?

The definition of yoga is “the union of opposites.” Although my late mother never taught a single posture, she modeled uniting opposites by gracefully balancing her triumphs and challenges. This is what motivates me to teach. As a man of color from an urban setting, the messages about violence are extremely ambiguous. Yoga provides a practice that clarifies this ambiguity by centering me spiritually, emotionally, and physically. This motivates me to continue to practice; that motivation has become more intimate as time has passed.

2016-04-11-1460375680-2521050-JohnGillard.jpgIs there a standout moment from your work with the Veteran population?

Every time I interact with a Veteran who is coping with military sexual trauma (MST), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, or a combination of mental illnesses, I see that relaxation and sleep are very difficult for them. So to hear from a Veteran, for example, that “this is the most relaxed I’ve felt in 20 years,” or to have someone simply fall asleep during yoga class after sharing that they’ve been awake for 72 hours; those are standout moments for me.

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’m a combat Veteran who has actually experienced more trauma here, at home, than I ever experienced abroad, despite engaging in firefights. I have first-hand experience of what violence and trauma do to individuals. I’ve also worked in human services and that experience has allowed for sound insight into the practical reality of this population. My assumption was that not all Veterans would be receptive to yoga practice, but I’ve found that many more than I expected are, and that number is only growing. I now realize that Veterans will use the tools available as long as those tools are presented respectfully.

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?

My style actually remains the same. This is because the studios that I’ve taught and/or currently teach in share a passion for the practice, not simply the presentation. This is important because it allows me to remain true to my heartfelt and committed service orientation.

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

My greatest challenge is also my greatest strength. I look more like a football player than a yoga instructor! Many students view me as a fitness instructor. Although, soon they recognize that I’m not interested in pretentious posturing, but rather in heartfelt, soulful, and noncompetitive yoga practice. I remain authentic in who I am — a humble, loving man who seeks opportunities to serve others. So rewarding!

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach yoga to Veterans?

The same advice I received from Tom Gillette, an experienced yoga teacher and mentor: “Teach from your core. There are amazing instructors everywhere; be yourself.”

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

I’d like for yoga to become more accessible and better received in urban settings, as well as in society in general. It’s become normal for us to engage in mindless living. Yoga provides the information for us to either challenge this truth or remain mindless. Over the next decade, I’d like to see it offered widely as a complementary treatment to traditional therapies such as mental health counseling, physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc. I’d also like to see more teachers allow the common thread of holding sacred space and cultivating our interconnectedness rather than focusing solely on branding or trademarking, especially in trauma-sensitive yoga.

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

Serving such deserving populations as Veterans — whether incarcerated, coping with MST, PTSD, and/or physical or mental illness — has deepened my understanding of service. I realize that no matter how much I give, I’m always receiving far more than what I’m giving. Yoga is the union of opposites, embracing ALL aspects of who I am without guilt or shame, but with a warm parental love. Service has made my practice more intimate, recognizing my practice in all aspects of my life. Yoga is not simply a posture or series of postures; yoga is every breath and interaction…yoga is the symbol of our interconnectedness.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog.

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Even the best yoga teachers need to acquire specific skills and considerations to work in trauma recovery programs. Our goal is to help create the most qualified, supportive teachers possible to work with victims of trauma. Visit our Trainings page to explore trainings for teachers, and to experience Mindful Yoga Therapy practices – originally developed for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress – through the new Yoga for Stress online course.