What got you into yoga, and what does the practice mean to you?
I tiptoed around the practice of yoga for years before actually diving into it. When I moved to the Washington DC area twelve years ago, it became part of my job to practice and understand why people practice yoga. I tried every style of yoga available, led by some of the most inspiring teachers in the yoga community. I felt a sense of inexplicable wholeness when I stepped onto my yoga mat that I’d never experienced before. I wanted to feel more of that wholeness, and that kept me coming back to the practice.
The biggest shift for me happened when I met Justin Blazejewski, a former Marine with a burning desire to share yoga with military veterans and their families. Listening to his story of pain and healing through yoga shook me to the very core. For the first time, my practice felt grounded in a higher purpose. As my focus on the mat shifted from ME to WE, I developed a clearer sense not only of my purpose in practicing yoga but my purpose as a human being.
That sense of wholeness and purpose was only mine, but it quite naturally became the vehicle for me to connect with others in need through breath, movement, and service.
Justin’s goal was to create a veteran-owned non-profit organization to bring the therapeutic benefits of yoga to veterans and their families. I knew I wanted to be part of it. At that time, I was in the perfect position to support his mission to serve other veterans in need, and so I did wholeheartedly. Being part of the birth and growth of the Vetoga organization was, and still is, one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
Grounded in that experience, the meaning of yoga to me is “connection.” For me, the practice of yoga is a way to connect with others, share our common humanity, and feel whole and complete together.
What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
Both my grandfathers served during World War II in the Italian Army. While one of my “nonni” adapted very well upon returning to civilian life, the other (who had fought on the Russian front) came home deeply scarred and became addicted to alcohol to cope with his experience of war. At the time, no one talked about the effects of trauma and PTSD. Both veterans and their families were left to deal with the burden of personal and generational trauma alone.
Many years later, after connecting with veterans in my local community, I realized that their stories weren’t so different from the stories of my grandfather and grandmother, and their suffering was the same kind of suffering that had impacted my family across generations. I felt a sense of personal responsibility to break the cycle of suffering in my own family and also to pay it forward to other veterans and their families.
I was fortunate as a civilian to be accepted and included in a wonderful community of veterans. They were willing to share their stories with remarkable candor and vulnerability, and I learned so much about the effects of trauma and PTSD they experience in their bodies and in their daily lives.
I still remember a young man – a giant Marine who looked so strong that he could move mountains – getting up and crying unstoppably at the end of one of our yoga nidra practices, as years of deeply hidden traumatic experiences came to the surface of his awareness. I just walked over, and we hugged. No words, no explanations, but we’ve become best friends ever since. That, to me, is the power of yoga. It can peel back the layers of what we think makes us different from each other and unite us in wholeness as connected human beings.
I’ve shared the practice of yoga with veterans with the hope that in doing so they might not experience the suffering that my grandparents and family endured. In doing so, I have been able to release some of the generational trauma that my family has carried since the end of World War II. My connection with veterans has been the one of the most transformative experiences of my life, and I will always serve this population and the Vetoga organization in any way I can.
Tell us a little bit about the work you do. How do you bring the therapeutic benefits of yoga to people with limited access to this practice?
I primarily share yoga with veterans, first responders and at-risk youth. The common thread between these populations is that they live or work in a highly stressful environment and often experience trauma, complex trauma, and PTSD. For these populations, it may be difficult to access a consistent yoga practice. The barriers are multilayered. For some, the cost of a yoga class is beyond their means. For others, physical limitations and injuries may prevent them from going to a regular yoga class. And in some professions practicing yoga is still perceived as emasculating, too spiritual, or irrelevant for their overall performance.
I only teach on location – outside the walls of a traditional yoga studio, in an environment where my students already feel comfortable and at ease. I teach yoga to firefighters at the fire station, where we unroll our mats on the floor in the bays, surrounded by fire trucks, during working hours. This allows me to understand what they go through during their workday and adapt the practice to serve their needs. Our practice is often interrupted by an emergency call, and one team may hop on the fire engine or the ambulance to respond, then return back to their mats twenty minutes later to re-join the rest of the crew. Because crews respond to different kinds of emergency calls and may not have time to adequately rest and recover, energy levels shift often and are unevenly distributed within the group. It’s essential for me to understand these dynamics as a yoga teacher and hold a safe space for everyone to practice what they need the most.
When I share yoga with youth, I am aware as I enter their environment of the existing social dynamics, their sense of safety with me and one another, and their disposition towards yoga that day. I choose my language, tone of voice, body movement, and cueing very carefully to meet them where they are and ensure each student feels safe on the mat. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and laughter always helps a lot too.
Trauma takes away choice, trust, and our sense of safety. Above all, I try to create an environment where it may one day again be possible for my students to experience a sense of safety and trust in their own bodies again. I am always a student and learner first, and it’s only from this point of view of humility and adaptability that I can share yoga in a way that empowers my students to choose their own healing paths.
What made you expand from working with veterans to also working with first responders?
It was quite a natural process. Often these populations overlap, as quite a few veterans become first responders to continue their service after leaving the military. The common denominator in both professionals is a drive to serve others. Unfortunately, first responders also experience a great deal of traumatic stress on the job, which may lead to physical and mental illness.
I remember the first time I led a yoga practice inside a fire station. I was overwhelmed by the amount of “bad news” constantly being aired through the dispatch system: “child stopped breathing,” “accident with injuries,” “stroke,” “trouble breathing,” “heart attack.” I wondered how the firefighters and EMS personnel were able to deal with what they saw, heard, smelled, touched, and witnessed on each call and still lead a normal life. I remember feeling overcome with a deep sense of gratitude and admiration for the selflessness and kindness of everyone in the room and a desire to give something back in return for their service and sacrifice.
Are there any small victories you’ve experienced recently that you’d like to share with us?
Probably the biggest “small” victory for me happens every time I introduce the practice of Yoga Nidra to a group of first responders for the first time. Yoga Nidra is an ancient yoga practice that is structured in such a way to bring our brainwaves from an awake state, to alpha and theta (similar to when we begin to fall asleep), and then deeper into low theta and delta (beyond dream and deep sleep), where both the brain and body naturally reach their most restorative state. Research indicates that the practice of Yoga Nidra may help us develop a more resilient brain and better manage life stressors. This is especially important for veterans, first responders, law enforcement, and public safety personnel, who experience high levels of stress on a daily basis.
Inevitably, at the end of the Yoga Nidra practice, I look around the room and see smiling faces, relaxed bodies, and students who look as if layers of stress and unresolved past experiences have been lifted. Then, they ask me when we can do it again. Every time I have the privilege to witness this intimate moment of transformation, it moves me so deeply, because it’s clear that something deeply inside them has shifted.