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