John Gillard: Combat Veterans Giving Back


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.


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

Phoenix Patriot Foundation Partnership Supports Yoga for Veterans

Phoenix Patriot FoundationGive Back Yoga is honored to partner with the Phoenix Patriot Foundation, an organization that provides direct support to post-9/11 wounded and injured veterans enabling them to fully “Recover, Reintegrate and Remain Engaged” in service to their communities and country. Phoenix Patriot Foundation aids veterans by developing and implementing an individually-tailored program to ensure independence and lifelong sustainability.

Through the foundation’s Wellness Program, veterans now have access to free Mindful Yoga Therapy and Yoga For Warriors practice guides offered through Give Back Yoga, providing an opportunity to begin experiencing the healing benefits of yoga. Phoenix Patriot Foundation is also co-funding scholarships with Give Back Yoga to help post-9/11 veterans complete a Mindful Yoga Therapy teacher training and share this beneficial practice with their peers.

This partnership was established with the help of PPF’s Development Director, Audrey C. Dalton. The daughter of a wounded WWII Purple Heart recipient and the wife of a former Marine who also practices yoga, Audrey shared her thoughts on why wounded warriors can benefit from the tools of yoga.

Yoga For Veterans: The Need for the Power of Possibility

I see a huge need for the Mindful Yoga Therapy toolkit. The trouble veterans often encounter is that they experience post-traumatic stress, and as a result may become deeply depressed. In many cases, veterans who already feel isolated feel as if there is no answer. Many veterans do not even know that options outside of conventional therapy exist. Often they have never tried Yoga, either as a form of exercise or a form of therapy, thinking it either odd or too Eastern, or viewing it as having only a religious connotation. Whether they have limited motion due to injuries or are missing a limb or limbs, veterans may think of Yoga as outside of their scope, even though they are trained warriors.

Mark Zambon

Photo: Sakal Times

In the past when I taught Yoga classes, many of my students had limited movement and I used adaptive techniques so that they could participate. All veterans can practice Yoga, even if the practice is limited to Yogic breathing techniques. In many instances, the mindset of a warrior only enhances their ability to concentrate. The body is joined with the spirit, and I feel all who come to appreciate Yoga see possibilities, not limitations.

Many veterans return from battle without limbs and on drugs prescribed for pain control. When they deployed from the U.S. for combat, some were fresh out of high school with no college or vocational training. When veterans transition back into civilian life, it is as if they have stepped out of a time warp. Technology has advanced light years within the timeframe from when they initially enlisted. Job prospects may exist, but many of the jobs that are available require training or college. Veterans may not have learned how to structure a resumé, and often feel frustration mount as they are faced with few options to pursue as sources of income.

The most poignant aspect of all is that these men and women swear an oath to serve, and when they return from duty, the prospects seem grim. Nothing could be further than the truth. These veterans are heroes and Patriots, and we can all learn from their experiences and from their wounds, as tragic as they may be. There is a great depth to all those who travel the road of the military, and there are many good lessons garnered from military experience. Veterans need to see that civilians deeply appreciate their sacrifices.

Audrey DaltonI see Yoga as a saving grace available to all people, and a phenomenal opportunity for veterans to find a way out of darkness and despair. The very definition of Yoga is “to yoke” the union of the spirit or Supreme being with the body. That is what makes it so beautiful, and so powerful.

Audrey C. Dalton
Development & Marketing Director


Veterans and servicemembers: request free yoga resources through the Give Back Yoga Foundation.


Gaiam Partners With GBYF For A 3-Year Corporate Sponsorship

Gaiam donates to Give Back Yoga to provide veterans with the tools to experience the gift of yoga

NEW YORK, April 7, 2015 /PRNewswire/Gaiam, a leading yoga, fitness and wellness company, today announces a three-year partnership with the Give Back Yoga Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to making yoga available to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to cultivate a regular practice- including at-risk youth and veterans with PTSD. With the goal of sharing and spreading the transformative benefits of yoga, the Give Back Yoga Foundation embodies Gaiam’s philosophy of providing “Yoga for Everyone.”

Courtesy of Robbins Point Photography for Yoga for Warriors

As part of the partnership, Gaiam is making a special financial contribution to the Give Back Yoga Foundation’s Light the Way for Heroes™ initiative, a campaign designed to provide the proper tools to veterans so they can practice and use yoga as a means of “navigating life after war” which will strengthen connections with loved ones and improve quality of life. With a goal of providing for 30,000 veterans, Gaiam and Give Back Yoga aim to empower veterans to use yoga as a means of living a peaceful, productive life.

Gaiam is also inviting their loyal online shoppers to support the cause by donating $2 specifically to Light the Way for Heroes with every purchase on The customer donations through will help to provide veterans with therapeutic yoga toolkits, which offer resources including practice guides, meditation audio and Gaiam yoga mats that can help veterans experience how a personal yoga practice supports a calm and steady body and mind. One hundred percent of the donations collected are passed along to Give Back Yoga.

“We are thankful to partner with Give Back Yoga and provide aid to those who may not otherwise be able to discover and use yoga,” said COO Cyd Crouse. “We hope that by providing the tools to experience this powerful practice, we can help share the inner peace and comfort that comes from a regular yoga practice.”

Light the Way for Heroes™

“Time and again, we have received testimonials from veterans who have access to our Mindful Yoga Therapy practice guide, and who tell us ‘Yoga has changed my life. Yoga has saved my life,’” says Give Back Yoga Executive Director Rob Schware. “Through Gaiam’s partnership, we can bring these resources to many more returning warriors, giving them a valuable tool to lead a peaceful and productive life.”

Gaiam will also be donating yoga mats to the Give Back Yoga Foundation, for use in all of their initiatives.

Gaiam, Inc. (Nasdaq: GAIA) is a leading producer and marketer of lifestyle media and fitness accessories. With a wide distribution network that consists of over 38,000 retail doors, close to 15,000 store within stores, 5,000 category management locations, along with e-commerce and digital subscriptions platforms, Gaiam is dedicated to providing solutions for healthy and eco-conscious living. The company dominates the health and wellness category. For more information about Gaiam, please visit or call 1.800.869.3603. View the original press release on PRNewswire.


Make a donation through Gaiam to help Light the Way for Heroes. 



Meet Anthony Scaletta: Reaching Out To Veterans, With Your Help

We’re honored to introduce you to a new member of the Give Back Yoga team: Anthony Scaletta, our new Outreach Coordinator for our Yoga for Veterans programs.

From 1998-2003, Anthony served as a US Navy Special Warfare Combatant Crewman (SWCC) with Naval Special Warfare Group 1 out of San Diego, CA. An 11 Meter RHIB operator, he did two deployments to the Northern Arabian Gulf region, conducting Maritime Interdiction Operations and reconnaissance missions. As a result of his service, he was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, depression and OCD, while also suffering chronic pain and a spinal fusion surgery. It was through these “opportunities,” which he used to call obstacles, that yoga found Anthony. The practice immediately resonated with him as a way to heal and reintegrate after his military service.

Today, Anthony’s post-military mission is to be of service by bringing the transformational practice of yoga to others — especially veterans — as a way to ease their suffering and empower them toward healing. As a combat veteran and a certificated yoga teacher, Anthony is uniquely aligned to help lead the way for this current generation of veterans as a yoga teacher and advocate. In his role as Veteran Outreach Coordinator, Anthony will help Give Back Yoga to reach our goal of sharing free yoga and meditation resources with 30,000 veterans.

As lead ambassador for our Warriors For Healing crowdfunding campaign, Anthony is also raising funds and awareness for Give Back Yoga’s mission of sharing yoga with veterans — while providing leadership for other supporters who are getting started with their own crowdfunding team. Here’s two ways that you can give him a helping hand and have a direct impact on bringing yoga to more veterans:

1.) Help Anthony travel to the Warriors For Healing event hosted by Yoga Journal LIVE! in San Diego this June. This is an amazing opportunity for Anthony to work one-on-one with fellow veterans and yoga teachers who share the goal of making yoga more accessible to returning warriors. By making a donation of $10 or more to our crowdfunding page, you can help to cover the costs of his trip.

2.) Set up your own crowdfunding team. You can fundraise as a studio community, an individual, or with your friends. The Warriors For Healing foundation is offering crowdfunding incentives for each team that earns at least $250 (including valuable promotional spots that can benefit your studio or business). And all funds raised through Give Back Yoga’s unique crowdfunding page stay with our organization, supporting the growth and development of our veterans’ programs. As lead ambassador, Anthony can help you get set up as a GBYF Warriors For Healing team, and add you to a Basecamp project that will help to keep the fundraising ideas flowing.

Make an impact: donate $10 or more to help fund Anthony’s outreach trip to San Diego, or contact to learn how to get started with your own Warriors For Healing crowdfunding team.




Katrina Kopeck: Serving Veterans Through Yoga

This is an interview with Katrina Kopeck, a vinyasa yoga instructor since 2011. I first met Katrina at a 15-hour Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans teacher training in Boulder, Colorado early this year. Soon thereafter, she began teaching at the Boulder Vet Center, offering a mindful yoga practice open to veterans and therapists. — Rob Schware, GBYF Executive Director

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?

Katrina: I grew up with a great respect for the military. My dad was an officer in the Coast Guard and is a founding member of the Warrior’s Watch, and my brother served in OEF/OIF as a flight medic in the Air Force. My maternal grandfather served as a gunman in World War II for the British Canadian Navy and my paternal grandfather served as a lieutenant in the signal corps in the US Army.

I was never in the military myself. I’ve had lots of jobs in various careers but chose to pursue yoga as my passion and career. Teaching yoga to the men and women who have dedicated themselves to service is a way to connect my two worlds and give back to a population that deserves a lot more respect and attention. I’m continually motivated by stories of what these people went through and how civilians treated them after their return.

Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans?

Simple moments hit me the hardest: a couple of weeks ago a vet told me that he noticed it’s easier for him to tie his shoes. It’s something most people take for granted, but it makes his day just a little bit easier. That’s huge.

There’s another vet I work with who has a very hard time staying still physically and mentally throughout class. But he continues to practice, and he’s changing, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. I started watching his toes in savasana (corpse pose) and his record is 30 seconds of stillness. He gets better every time.

During a yoga nidra (deep relaxation with inner awareness) practice, an OIF vet woke up suddenly and looked at me. After the practice, he shared that he had experienced a particular memory that he had only thought about one other time since Iraq, and that last time he had gotten extremely angry and physically aggressive. In this moment though, his relationship with the memory had changed into one of an observation instead of a reaction. Pretty cool!

What did you know about working with veterans before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about them, and how have those assumptions changed?

I walked into the VA the first time with the assumption that I was going to have to be very assertive to start a yoga program in a center that had never offered yoga before. I figured I would have to talk to a lot of people up the ranks and have a lot of information to back up my desire to teach yoga for vets.

Because of these assumptions, I probably entered the VA a little on the aggressive side. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I brought my certificates, yoga resume, and a lot of verbal information about why our vets need yoga and no, I really don’t want any money from the VA.

With great timing, a veteran publication had printed an article about yoga for vets that same week. The lead therapist at the center brought the article to our second meeting and said he thought it would be a great idea.

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?

In a veterans’ yoga class, I don’t offer any assists or leave my mat. This was very challenging to start as I love offering touch in my vinyasa classes, but it wasn’t appropriate in the VA setting. Partially because of this, I was able to gain the trust of the people in my classes.

I also encourage “community time” at the beginning of these classes. I set aside the first 10-15 minutes of class time to let everyone chat and connect. Sometimes they’re pretty quiet, but most weeks they’re chatty, telling stories about boot camp, war, bears, something someone saw about yoga, whatever comes up. I think this time to connect everyone on an intimate, comfortable (and sometimes crass) level before getting into breath and movement, is important in this kind of class. Just listening without judgment goes a long way in creating relationships built on trust.

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

The greatest challenge in my teaching experience has been adapting a class to balance younger vets and veterans who have been out of the military and living in Boulder for a long time. I ask for a lot of feedback to develop a class that serves them the best, and this population really wanted more: more core work, more Sanskrit words, more challenging poses, more energy movement. We’re finding a way to walk the line of accessibility and tradition with a mix of people who have studied yoga, as well as those who are brand new.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at a vet center?

1.) Know how you are going to present yourself and your information. Go in confidently, professionally, and with all the compassion you have. Leave judgment at the door.

2.) Get right to the point. Ask to speak to someone about volunteer opportunities, then have an “elevator speech” ready to introduce why you want to teach to vets in this location. For example, “Hi, I’m Katrina. I am a certified yoga instructor and interested in working with veterans. Is this something you would consider offering?”

3.) Bring materials for the staff to keep and look over. Offer your certifications and credentials, resume, printed articles and media, and any books that might shed light on yoga therapy for vets.

4.) Know your “why.” The first question everyone — therapists, friends, vets — asked me was, “Why do you want to work with vets?” Knowing your answer and having a concise way to explain it will help gain the trust of the vets and staff.

5.) Don’t take no for an answer. If you find resistance, ask them “Why?” Since yoga therapy is still so new, chances are the staff just isn’t that familiar with yoga or the effects of yoga therapy for veterans. Offer your materials, media, and your verbal skills to assure them that this is a positive, helpful therapy option.

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

I want to see yoga as an integral part of the military: in training, in combat and in treatment. It’s such an important tool to offer anyone who has or might experience serious trauma. I want to see trained, talented yoga instructors creating a community in which yoga is accessible to everyone.

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

My definition of yoga is constantly changing. In this context, yoga is a way of inclusive, supportive living using the tools to mindfully handle stresses and traumas in a healthy manner, on a daily basis.

My own practice has become more healing and intuitive through pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation as a result. It can be very difficult to take your own advice as an instructor, but learning and living the breath and meditation practices is key to finding balance and healing, especially while working in a yoga therapy setting.

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on November 12, 2014


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.