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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.

Looking Back on 9/11: Beryl Bender Birch & Yoga for Post-Traumatic Stress

Beryl Bender BirchOn September 11, 2001, Give Back Yoga co-founder Beryl Bender Birch was living in New York City, where she taught yoga to athletes. Two days after terrorists attacked the Twin Towers, her friend JoAnn Difede — director of a program that studied anxiety and stress — asked Beryl to come to her offices to help the families of burn victims who had escaped from the towers. That moment would shape the course of her career, as Beryl began using yoga practices to help first responders and those with post-traumatic stress.

Later, the medical community would realize just how helpful the broad spectrum of mindful yoga therapies could be when used as a complementary treatment for anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress. Thanks to JoAnn’s urgent call for help after 9/11, Beryl was able to help lead the way, becoming one of the first yoga professionals to apply yoga methodology to the integral treatment of post-traumatic stress. 

On this 14th anniversary of 9/11, we honor the memory of this tragedy and our hope for the future with an excerpt from the preface to “Yoga For Warriors: a System For Veterans & Military Service Men And Women,” written by Beryl and published by Sounds True.


“When I walked into a small room in the hospital burn center, I was nervous. It was filled with comfortable couches and chairs, a plain wooden table, and just a few men and women — relatives of the people who were wrapped in bandages from head to toe and heavily medicated for relief from unbelievable pain. Many were dying, others struggling for life. Their family members sat in stunned silence.

They all looked up as I came into the room, hoping for news of someone, somewhere. They looked exhausted. No one had slept since the towers collapsed. I didn’t assume anything. I didn’t assume I could help. I didn’t assume I knew anything that could be of use. Faced with such incredible suffering, how could anyone go on with the mundane activities of life? There was such a sense of despair in the room. I just sat down quietly at the table and put my head in my hands.

Dear Lord, I thought, give me strength and the right words to say. A man came over and put his hand on my shoulder. We both started to cry. That was it — the icebreaker.

I introduced myself and suggested that we, all together, see if there was something we could discover, something we could do, that would help us all to sleep, to deal with the tragedy, to grieve while avoiding despair and depression. I remembered what I had done in yoga classes the night before: sitting with everyone and breathing. It was the breathing that seemed to offer the most relief and the most comfort.

‘Let’s just sit together,’ I suggested. Everyone moved into a circle around the table, and I invited them to close their eyes. What happened after that, I don’t remember very well, except that I slowly came around to teaching them a closed-mouth yoga breathing technique called ujjayi. Breathe in, breathe out — with sound. That’s all. You just pay attention to the sound and see if you can make the inhalation and the exhalation the same length and make them sound as much alike as possible.

Within minutes, everyone at the table was making the slow, controlled, aspirant sound of the inhalation and the deep, sibilant sound of the exhalation. They just got it. They hung on it as a lifeline. Time became timeless. We sat like that for nearly thirty or forty minutes, although none of us had a clue how long we had been there. I kept an eye on them. Each of them just climbed into the breath and went to a place that was quiet and peaceful — for a moment. One man fell asleep during the session; God bless him. It was joyful to see him sleeping. Another woman actually smiled and came and hugged me. I can’t say it was some miraculous cure for suffering, but it did help.

I said to the group, ‘I hope you will remember that well enough to use in your most difficult moments; it will help you to sleep and to find strength.’

The man who had been sleeping looked up and asked, ‘Can you come back tomorrow?’ So I did.”

Beryl Bender Birch
Yoga for Warriors
Published in 2014 by Sounds True

Learn how you can share “Yoga For Warriors” with those who have served.

 

Give Back Yoga Friends - Yoga for Warriors

Introducing: Our 108 Studio Partnership Program

 

Now, there’s a new way to give back from the mat: Give Back Yoga’s 108 Studio Partnership Program. We’re inviting studios across the country to join the Give Back family and raise funds for a service program of your choice, helping certified yoga teachers and yoga therapists to bring this healing mind/body practice to those who are most vulnerable.

How the 108 Studio Partnership Program Works

Over a one-year period, partner studios give back by hosting a monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly fundraiser to help bring yoga to those who might not otherwise experience this transformational practice. This can be as simple as a donation class held on a specific day each month. Or it can be an exciting opportunity for your community to come together for special events such as a 108 Sun Salutations practice or a guest teacher, speaker or artist.

Our 108 partners also host a “Give Back Yoga Month” to jump-start the program and raise awareness for Give Back Yoga’s mission, sharing information during regularly scheduled classes and collecting donations at the front desk.

How Your Studio Can Make a Difference

With your help, Give Back Yoga can support our partner programs in expanding their reach, bringing therapeutic yoga to even more of the people we aim to serve. Through the 108 Partnership Program, studio communities can give wings to programs like:

  • Eat Breathe Thrive: Fostering positive body image and overcoming eating disorders.
  • Mindful Yoga Therapy: Helping veterans to find a calm and steady body/mind.
  • Prison Yoga Project: Teaching skills for non-violent problem resolution and healing.
  • Give Back Yoga: Supporting our operations to cover our largest areas of need.

 How the Program Benefits Studios

Becoming a 108 Studio Partner can help studios to build a close-knit community of the heart by gathering students around a common cause. It’s also a way to help students begin to explore and practice karma yoga, by giving back a gift that has touched each of their lives — the gift of a practice that can transform from the inside out.

The 108 Studio Partnership Program can also help studios to raise their online and local presence, as organizers work with community partners and Give Back Yoga to cross-promote events large and small through online and offline channels. Additionally, Give Back Yoga issues an end-of-year tax receipt to all active 108 Studio Partners, which may help your studio to offset expenses.

What 108 Studio Partners Are Saying About the Program

“It is important to extend the ancient teachings of yoga out beyond the space of yoga studios and into the world where it can reach the many people in need who may never walk through the doors of a yoga center. The time-tested benefits of a regular yoga practice are profound not just on the individual, but on all of society, essentially creating more peace for all.  At a time in human history when there is a tremendous amount of chaos, Give Back Yoga supports growth, healing and harmony for all of society.  I am happy and grateful to have my yoga studio community give back as a whole while benefitting on so many levels from the 108 Studio collaboration with Give Back Yoga Foundation.” — Annie Freedom, founder of Samadhi Center for Yoga, Denver, CO

 

Become a 108 Studio Partner or learn more: email 108@givebackyoga.org to request information on getting started.

 


Connect with our 108 Studio Partners:

 

True Nature Healing ArtsLotus House of YogaYoga Pod LoDoYoga Studio SatyaYoga Pod BoulderOutlaw Yoga

 

Main image courtesy of Merrick Chase Photography.

Give back to veterans, one breath at a time.

For combat veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress, yoga can make a profound difference. We’re seeing it in a growing body of clinical research, and hearing it from veterans who are reaching out to tell us that “yoga saved my life.”

At Give Back Yoga, we’re working hard to make this healing practice more accessible to those who can benefit. To date, we’ve shared free Mindful Yoga Therapy practice guides with more than 13,000 veterans and active duty service members, and have introduced Mindful Yoga Therapy programs or resources to 47 VA facilities and 50 vet centers nationwide. But our team members are continuing to lose friends and colleagues to PTSD, and we know there’s still much more to do.

Will you join us in bringing the healing power of yoga and meditation to those who have served? Here are three simple ways that you can help.

— Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director

 

 

 

 

 

GIVE BACK WITH BHAKTI FEST MIDWEST: SAVE $50 ON PASSES

“One of the main pillars in which Bhakti Fest was build is seva. Seva, meaning selfless service, is incorporated in every part of Bhakti Fest — from the non-profits we support, to the service work we do while on our India pilgrimages, to our Work Exchange program at each of our festivals.” 

– Vanessa Harris, Associate Producer of Bhakti Fest

IF YOU LOVE SOMETHING, TAKE CARE OF IT: BHAKTI FEST MIDWEST

Give Back Yoga Foundation is honored to be a seva partner of Bhakti Fest 2014, with a portion of all proceeds from this year’s three Bhakti Fest events supportingd our work of bringing yoga to underserved populations like veterans, those struggling with food and body image issues, prisoners and at-risk youth. Because we know that organizing a major yoga and music festival – let alone three !- can be an all-consuming task, we asked Bhakti Fest’s organizers to tell us why the festival is committed to sharing its time and resources.

“Bhakti Fest encourages the spirit of service because it is eye-opening, humbling, sometimes grueling – but at the end of the day, always rewarding,” says festival Associate Producer Vanessa Harris. “It’s been said if you love something you must take care of it, which is why it is so important for Bhakti Fest to give back to the people, places, and causes we love.”

To honor our community’s support of yoga service, Bhakti Fest is generously offering Give Back Yoga community members $50 off three-day festival passes for any of their three sister events. The next event is coming up soon:  Bhakti Fest Midwest, a heart-opening solstice celebration of yoga and music hosted in Madison, WI on June 20-22. We hope you’ll join us to chant along with award-winning kirtan artist Krishna Das, practice with world-renowned yoga teachers like Saul David Raye, and dance, sing, camp and play with fellow yogis and yoginis! Enter code GBY14 at checkout to save $50 off three-day festival passes.

Are you a veteran? Bhakti Fest shares our commitment to making yoga freely accessible to those who have served our country. Vets and active duty service members can get free admission to any Bhakti Fest event by visiting the festival website, printing out a free ticket, and showing proof of military ID at the gate. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Making Sense of War: Healing for Veterans Through Yoga

By Executive Director Rob Schware

I’m having difficulties making sense of war. For Americans, at least, the war in Iraq is over. But only in a way, politically — not in the human sense of lives changed.

I recently returned from visiting San Quentin State Prison through an invitation from Prison Yoga Project founder and director James Fox. It was Thursday morning; the yoga and yoga nidra class was for incarcerated veterans. An alarming 10% of the inmate population at San Quentin are veterans.

Ron Self at San Quentin State Prison. Courtesy of Saalik Khan and Veterans Healing Veterans.

Helping me to make sense of the unintelligible on this journey was my current reading: Phil Klay’s new book Redeployment (Penguin Press), twelve stories by a Marine who served in Iraq that show the experience of wartime in a foreign country, and what war can do to people’s souls.

But while the human toll is great, there are also some rays of light in the darkness: while at San Quentin, I was honored to meet Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out President and Founder Ron Self, whom I had interviewed in my Huffington Post blog series. Veterans Healing Veterans brings incarcerated and free veterans together for mutual support and healing from post-traumatic stress, helping them to make a successful transition back into society whether they’re returning from combat or from prison.

With a brand new website and a new Executive Director, Mary Donovan, Veterans Healing Veterans is poised to make a real difference, working at the intersection of the military and the criminal justice system to heal wounds that can result in suicide and incarceration among our nation’s warriors.

Give Back Yoga also supports veterans’ healing journey by sharing free copies of the Mindful Yoga Therapy toolkit with vets, active duty service members and their families. Designed with the feedback of veterans who are coping with post-traumatic stress, this toolkit is a valuable resource for anyone touched by trauma who wishes to explore the healing power of yoga and meditation.

Will you join us in helping veterans to heal? When you purchase your own copy of the Mindful Yoga Therapy toolkit, you’ll fund five free toolkits for vets. Or make a directed donation to Yoga for Veterans – for every $5 contributed, we can reach one more veteran with this simple but effective tool.

Your support will have an impact on the life of a veteran…long after the fighting has ended.

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Are you a yoga teacher who wants to work with veterans? Mindful Yoga Therapy’s new 100-hour certification program will lead you through a deeper understanding of how to support this population. Learn more at the Mindful Yoga Therapy website.

Sumr Breez: The Journey of Inner Healing for Returning Veterans

Experiencing the gifts of yoga can inspire the desire to share this valuable tool with the world. Here, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with teacher Sumr Breez for The Huffington Post Blog about what motivates her to bring yoga to veterans.

“When I first began working with veterans, (I) wondered if yoga was penetrating all the emotional turmoil they have in their psyche and body. I witnessed a major break-down and break-through with a veteran who I assumed was not receiving any benefit from our session. Later, he told me ‘this was the most soothing amazing experience I have ever felt.’ Today, when I walk into the group to begin our session, I hear the veterans take a deep breath and close their eyes, to tune into their body on their own…that is awesome!”

– Yoga teacher Sumr Breez, on her work with vets at the Phoenix Veterans Center and Merritt Center Women’s Returning Vet Program

Read Sumr’s full interview to learn how service has changed her definition of yoga, and her advice for teachers who want to serve veterans.

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This interview is one of 26 blog posts featured in Give Back Yoga Foundation’s new publication, Yoga: How We Serve, a collection of conversations with teachers who work with veterans, active duty service members and their families. Enjoy inspirational reads from GBYF partners like Mindful Yoga Therapy founder Suzanne Manafort, veterans Sarah Plummer and Sue Lynch, Advisory Board Member Biff Mithoefer and many more…and know that your purchase is helping to bring this transformational practice to more veterans. Starts at $9.95.

 

Become a Sustaining Member: Join Our Monthly Donation Program

If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to support our mission of sharing yoga and meditation with those in need: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation.

How does it work? Simple: just visit our Donate Today page and make a contribution using the “monthly donation” option. This will create a recurring payment profile through PayPal, which will automatically bill you for the same contribution amount once a month going forward. All donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law, and you’ll receive a letter at the end of each year acknowledging your total contribution.

What it is: a simple way to give back. For just $15 a month – the cost of one yoga class – you can share yoga resources with someone in need, making a direct difference in their lives. Through the collective power of many small contributions, we can grow a grassroots movement of social change and healing. We hope that you’ll be a part of it!

What it isn’t: a contract. Your recurring donation profile is managed through PayPal. If your situation changes, you can choose to suspend your monthly contribution or change the amount of your donation, so that you’re always giving back in a way that’s right for you. Just drop us a line at info@givebackyoga.org.

Are you passionate about a specific program? We invite you to route your donation directly to that work. You can help us to bring yoga to veterans, individuals with eating disorders, prisoners or at-risk youth.

Or make a general donation, and we’ll put your contribution to work where it’s needed most. To learn more about our program goals and how we use general and specific contributions, visit our Donate Today page.

Will you join Give Back Yoga Foundation as a Sustaining Member? Together, we can share the transformational benefits of yoga and mindfulness with the world…one person at a time.

Become a Sustaining Member: Join Our Monthly Donation Program

If you believe in what we’re doing, here’s one very powerful way to support our mission of sharing yoga and meditation with those in need: become a Sustaining Member of Give Back Yoga Foundation.

How does it work? Simply visit our Membership page and choose a monthly amount you’d like to contribute, and a program you’d like to support. Through the checkout process, you’ll set up a recurring payment profile that automatically bills your card each month. You’ll receive a notification by email when each debit is made. All donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law, and you’ll also receive a thank-you package by mail. Check out our membership benefits. 

What it is: a simple way to give back.

For just $15 a month – the cost of one yoga class – you can share yoga resources with someone in need, making a direct difference in their lives. Through the collective power of many small contributions, we can grow a grassroots movement of social change and healing. We hope that you’ll be a part of it!

What it isn’t: a contract.

You’ll be able to manage your recurring donation profile through the Give Back Yoga website. If your situation changes, you can put your monthly contribution on hold or change the amount of your donation, so that you’re always giving back in a way that’s right for you. Need help? Drop us a line at info@givebackyoga.org.

Find out how you can give from the heart.

Are you passionate about bringing yoga to a specific population? We invite you to route your donation directly to that work. You can help us to bring yoga to veterans, first responders, individuals with eating disorders, prisoners or those recovering from addiction.

Or make a general donation, and we’ll put your contribution to work where it’s needed most. To learn more about our program goals and how we use general and specific contributions, visit our Program pages.

Will you join Give Back Yoga Foundation as a Sustaining Member? Together, we can share the transformational benefits of yoga and mindfulness with the world…one person at a time.

GBYF To Support Non-Profit Operation of Mindful Yoga Therapy For Veterans

The Give Back Yoga Foundation announced this week that it will assume the non-profit operation of Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans, a merger that will allow service leaders to more effectively reach tens of thousands of veterans with a complementary therapy that can offer relief from symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“Give Back Yoga Foundation already has a non-profit infrastructure that’s both effective and efficient,” said GBYF Executive Director Rob Schware. “By freeing up key Mindful Yoga Therapy staff members, we can allow them to focus on what they do best — teaching and helping veterans.”

An estimated 1 in 5 veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan are now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. And the number of active-duty military and veteran suicides is on the rise, prompting the Huffington Post to caution that “the warning signs of an approaching wave of suicide are unmistakable.”

Clinical studies and firsthand feedback from veterans show that yoga and mindfulness practices can be an effective adjunct therapy to help vets recover from symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as insomnia, hyperarousal and feelings of fear or guilt.

Together, Mindful Yoga Therapy and the Give Back Yoga Foundation have already brought clinically tested, empirically informed Mindful Yoga Therapy “toolkits” to 44 VA facilities and 9,000 vets, free of charge. Designed with the input of veterans, these multi-media training guides help individuals to start a personal yoga practice.

By the close of 2015, the Give Back Yoga Foundation aims to bring these free toolkits to 30,000 vets and at least half of all VA facilities nationwide. The organization also aims to train 120 yoga teachers per year, including at least 25 veterans, to share Mindful Yoga Therapy with the veteran population. These training resources will continue to be offered under the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans brand, through the continued leadership of its experienced staff.

Download the press release: Give Back Yoga Foundation To Support Non-Profit Operation Of Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans