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Marc Titus: Festival Owners Making a Difference By Bringing Yoga to Veterans

This is an interview with Marc Titus, Founder & Director of the Sedona Yoga Festival in Arizona. I first met Marc when he approached the Give Back Yoga Foundation with an offer to host a training for hundreds of professional yoga teachers, to help them share yoga with our nation’s veterans. With the suicide rate among veterans at an all-time high, Marc and his wife, Festival Producer Heather Shereé Titus, believe that sharing yoga with these men and women is a gift for everyone.

– Rob Schware, Executive Director, Give Back Yoga Foundation

Rob: What originally motivated you to start a yoga festival?

Marc: I moved to Sedona in 2007 to become a yoga teacher, after 7 years of practice. Even after that, though, I had to go down a personally torturous road, involving finding a way to transcend and heal from a very materialistically-lived life; it was during this transformation that I became a certified yoga instructor. Finally, while I was living in Los Angeles in the winter of 2011/12, on an especially hard day, with literally the last dollar to my name in my pocket, the spirit of Sedona appeared to me, and said, “It’s time to return to Sedona…it’s time to bring consciousness to humanity; and thus Sedona Yoga Festival was born.” I didn’t know how I would get back, how I would pay for it, or how it would unfold, but I said YES! Within two weeks, I was sleeping in Sedona in a beautiful house under a full moon, with money in my pocket, all my ‘stuff’ with me, and a new and profound sense of purpose.

What motivated you to partner with a non-profit organization for this year’s yoga festival, and to focus on introducing therapeutic yoga for veterans?

I’d been reflecting on my relationship with my father, who was a Vietnam War veteran affected by PTSD. It was like a lightning bolt that came to me: we can use the energy of the yoga festival to bring awareness to an ever-growing problem in our country.  We can help returning veterans with mental health recovery and rehabilitation tools that are inexpensive, and can help relieve the symptoms of stress-related physical and non-physical injuries. This approach would also promote community collaboration. As you know, Rob, the situation is very real, with several thousands of veterans returning with PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc. I feel one solution our community can offer is simple: yoga, right now, brings about and supports inner peace.

I’m interested to know, what do you see as outcomes?

My friend Chris Courtney, an Iraq War combat veteran and yoga teacher, once said to me, “heal our veterans, heal our communities.” We are all affected by the return of so many veterans with trauma, and part of the solution is where and how we direct our attention. Therefore, at the 2014 Sedona Yoga Festival we envision over 200 teachers receiving the Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans training. We hope to support them with Yoga For Veterans Toolkits, in collaboration with the Give Back Yoga Foundation. And we hope these teachers will return to their communities prepared to serve our veterans and their spouses. If every teacher we train aims to serve 50 veterans in his or her local community, together we would provide 10,000+ veterans with useful tools. These will help them overcome the debilitating and often severe symptoms PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and the other myriad experiences that are making life incredibly difficult for returning veterans, their families, and their communities. Those are possibly real outcomes. We simply cannot solve the problem in the same way it was created. We need to step out of the energy of old, into a model of Giving Back–Dharma, Service in Action.

How do you maintain a mindful corporation, and emphasize “compassionate action” in dealing with festival partners?

I think it’s hard to run a “conscious business” with all that is going on in the world today. The accoutrements of our modern world, while purporting to be “helpful,” have actually created a situation in which we are always doing something, always needing to do more, always striving.  There is a lot of pressure to keep moving, to grow, etc. As an antidote, I try to be present to what’s happening right now, to life itself flowing through me, to you, to all of us right now.  The more I embodied this, the easier things got, and the more mindful, awake, and aware I’ve become.  As a result of a consistent and dedicated asana practice that completely stilled my overactive “monkey mind,” I’ve come to see that it all unfolds without my effort, and that if I am “to be” compassionate in collaborations with business partners, then I must learn to be compassionate with myself first.

What advice would you give other festival owners?

Maintain your connection to, and listen only to your inner voice, to your visions and dreams. Through your practice cultivate an intimacy with yourself that allows you to trust this voice, and follow it wherever it takes you: walk your own path. Be an advocate for Dharma, Service in Action.

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

I see yoga “doing” what it has always done, assisting humanity in letting go of all the trappings that prevent the inevitable; consciousness expanding infinitely. I believe yoga will continue to evolve, back to its own roots, right here in the west, as the masses of Western yogis realize what traditional yoga is all about. I believe we will see an expansion of “giving back” in the very near future, as we realize that we are all the same. In that individuated sameness, will come over 7 billion solutions to the one “problem” of separation. When that happens, the world will be a totally different place.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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Dharma. Service in Action. SYF Gives Back: Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans. This 2-day pre-conference training at the Sedona Yoga Festival provides yoga teachers with certification in techniques and practices that are clinically proven to offer relief to veterans returning home affected by post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and other trauma and emotional stress. Join us February 6-10, 2014 in beautiful Sedona, Arizona.

 

Rob Schware: Helping Veterans To Heal The Invisible Wounds of War Is Worth The Effort

This holiday period I am reading David Finkel’s new book, Thank You For Your Service, published by Sarah Crichton Books.  It’s a compelling read. On every page we are reminded of the reality of American wars since Vietnam, of the persistent toll that traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety have on veterans and their families. At times, the stories will break your heart, and they piss me off enough to want to channel my energy to help.

Here is a sample:

“Most of all, they (veterans in a rehabilitation program) had heard explosion after explosion and seen dozens of Humvees disappear into breathtaking clouds of fire and debris, and by the end most of them had been inside such a cloud themselves, blindingly feeling around in those initial moments to determine if they were alive, or dead, or intact, or in pieces, as their ears rang and their hearts galloped and their souls darkened and their eyes occasionally filled with tears. So they knew. They knew. And yet day after day they would go out anyway, which eventually came to be what the war was about. Not winning. Not losing. Nothing so grand. Just trying until it was time to go home and discovering that life after the war turned on trying again.”

For many veterans, as hard as they try, the wars keeps trying too, as images of heads half gone, close-ups of torsos ripped open, and blood spreading become repressed.  “So many soldiers with psychological injuries,” writes Finkel, “envy soldiers with physical injuries because those soldiers can see evidence that something is really wrong with them.”

As a growing evidence base of yoga studies demonstrates, such stress, depression, and anxiety is ultimately processed through the physical body. For those who want to try to take a break from their stress and anxiety, we at the Give Back Yoga Foundation have a toolkit that can help connect the mind and body, which has been especially designed and tested for veterans. It includes breathing practices (pranayama), meditation, physical postures and movements (asana), and a specific form of guided rest (Yoga Nidra). It’s called Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans.

We’ve received wonderful testimonials of the benefits of the toolkit from veterans. Paul, a Vietnam War Veteran who is becoming a yoga teacher, told us: “Mindful Yoga Therapy has been incredibly helpful to me in coping with my post-traumatic stress. Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder. The more I practice, the more my symptoms are mitigated.”

It may not be the only thing veterans AND their spouses need in the healing processes, but with other tools, we have seen real change happening.

We are reaping the results of sending this toolkit to nearly 10,000 veterans and 43 VA hospital facilities and hearing back on the unbelieveable benefits veterans experience—freedom from traumatic stress!

If you’re a veteran or service member, I encourage you to request a free copy of this toolkit. My hope is that these resources will help you to find the same relief and peace that other vets have experienced when they discover these practices.

And if you’d like to tell a vet “thank you for your service,” please consider making a donation to our Yoga for Veterans program. A contribution of $50 will help us to bring yoga toolkits to 10 veterans. You can also make a lasting impact by joining our monthly donation program – with a contribution of just $15 to Yoga for Veterans, you’ll help us to bring healing yoga practices to three veterans every month.

It’s one the best ways I can think of to say thanks – and I’m grateful to each and every one of you who is contributing to this movement of hope and healing.

Rob Schware, PhD
Executive Director
Give Back Yoga Foundation

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Do you want to bring the healing practices of yoga and meditation to veterans? Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans is an empirically informed, clinically tested program comprised of five practices – pranayama, asana, yoga nidra, meditation and gratitude – that give veterans a “toolbox” that can carry them into a life of strength and resilience. Find a Mindful Yoga Therapy training near you, or join Give Back Yoga at the Sedona Yoga Festival in February for a two-day Mindful Therapeutic Yoga Practices for Veterans pre-conference training.

 

Pamela Stokes Eggleston: Giving Back To Veterans’ Spouses and Caregivers Through Yoga

Executive Director Rob Schware talks to Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans faculty member Pamela Stokes Eggleston for The Huffington Post Blog, learning how yoga providers can offer special support to the spouses and caregivers of veterans.

“As the spouse of an OIF wounded veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, I know what it’s like to live with these challenges, day in and day out. And as his caregiver, I know that many caregivers of veterans and military service members neglect their own care. When a military caregiver or veteran comes into one of my classes, I immediately connect with them on a deeper supportive level. I’ve been there, and I get it.”

Yoga2Sleep founder and Mindful Yoga Therapy faculty member Pamela Stokes Eggleston on her work with veterans and their families

Click here to read more about Pamela’s inspiration for working with veterans and their families, and her advice for other yoga teachers who are serving this population.

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Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering from Trauma features simple but effective yoga practices that were developed to help returning soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression. When you purchase this multi-media guide for yourself or someone you know, you’ll gain a valuable tool for dealing with stress and support Give Back Yoga Foundation’s programs for veterans. Or purchase a copy on behalf of a veteran in need by using the “Give a Gift” feature on the right side of this page.

Veteran Matt McDonald: Finding A “Diamond In The Rough” In Give Back Yoga

The personal stories of students who have found peace in their practice continue to provide inspiration for Give Back Yoga’s work of bringing yoga and meditation to the thousands of veterans who are battling post-traumatic stress. So we were thrilled to find this letter from veteran Matt (“Mack”) McDonald in our mailbag this week:

Although I had dabbled in “mindful practices” like yoga for several years, the first time that I became of aware of specific programs tailored to the specific needs of veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI was in October 2012. Having signed up for a three-day conference called Veterans, Trauma, and Treatment at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, I happened to find myself seated across from Give Back Yoga founder Rob Schware during breakfast on the first morning. Mind you, there were hundreds of people in the dining hall, but – as these things go – it was “meant to be.” When I asked him about his sweatshirt, which had something to do with “Yoga for Veterans,” he said, “You’ll have to talk to Suzanne.” As the story goes, I never did get to meet this amazing woman – at least not at the conference – but I certainly would have plenty of opportunity to do so in the months to come: after all, her studio (Newington Yoga Center) is but a mere 5-minute drive from my house in central Connecticut!

To be sure, it took me some time to follow through with reaching out – as they say, you have to “be ready.” When I finally did, it still didn’t lead me directly to the yoga mat, or, for that matter, the seated lotus position. Rather, it was to invite her to yet another conference, also on veterans and treatment options for those with traumatic injuries. After accepting my invite via e-mail, we met up at last, and at that point there was no way I could turn down her offer to “do some yoga.”

When I finally fulfilled my end of the bargain and showed up outside Newington Yoga on a cold, dark night in late February, I’ll be the first to admit: I was definitely…Nervous? Anxious? Apprehensive? Perhaps a little bit of all three. Am I going to be the only veteran here? (I wasn’t.) Are they going to “get it”—that I’ve got to be “facing the exit”… that I need to “see my out”… that I might end up bawling my eyes out? (They did.) Not to mention, either, that I didn’t even have a proper mat to use, nor money to buy one. As generous as she is, Suzanne not only lent me a mat, but promised me one of my own as long as I “came back.” Beyond that, she also gave me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text I’d read years before but had since lost track of. Interestingly enough, it is the chronicle of an “epic battle” in which Lord Krishna instructs Prince Arjuna on all things related to human nature and spiritual development.

Little did I know it that night, but that book – along with the undeniable “call” I was having to “do yoga” – would stick with me through some darker times indeed. You see, not even a week after my first session at Newington Yoga, I found myself in a month-long residential treatment program for veterans who suffer with “co-occurring disorders” (i.e. PTSD, TBI, and substance abuse.) Not only did my copy of Bhagavad Gita keep me company on the difficult journey that followed, it also reminded me to remain “mindful” of, and open to, the profound lessons that Krishna taught Arjuna. But this wasn’t all: come to find out from a clinician a few days into the program, one of our “required classes” was yoga – and who was there to teach it? The folks from “Give Back Yoga!”

So do I feel indebted to Rob, Suzanne, and all the other teachers who are “giving back” to veterans like me? Surely I do. But it is also goes well beyond being generous and opening their doors to me – although there is much to be said for all that as well. The fact remains, though, as I’ve already said… they “get it.” And as a veteran who has struggled for over eight years to not only find, but to trust, others who do, all I can say is that it’s like finding the diamond in the rough. Or, to use an analogy based on my renewed interest in the Bhagavad Gita, it’s like finding “peace” on field of Kurukshetra. And, whether the “war” we are referring to is “epic” or modern, finding peace… for a combat veteran…is worth more than diamonds. I, for one, should know.

                                                                                               –SPC (ret.) Matt McDonald (“Mack”)  OIF III/IV