Yoga: How We Serve Wounded Warriors

"At the time there weren't many of us offering yoga service in the military medicinal field, and I was very happy to do so. As well, I couldn't think of anything more opposite to the military than yoga, and I was interested to see how the relationship would develop."
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This is an interview with Daniel Hickman, who started teaching adaptive and multidisciplinary yoga in 2007 to amputees who are combat veterans, their families, friends, as well as the hospital staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC, Washington, D.C./Bethesda, Md.). He is the author and lead of the yoga sessions for beginners in VetsYoga, a DVD designed to introduce the stress-relieving benefits of yoga to military veterans and personnel (produced by Yatra Yoga International and Craig Coffman Productions with support from the Give Back Yoga Foundation

Rob Schware: 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 original motivation to do this work stemmed from my curiosity and creativity that has always propelled me to go into exploratory projects. At the time there weren't many of us offering yoga service in the military medicinal field, and I was very happy to do so. As well, I couldn't think of anything more opposite to the military than yoga, and I was interested to see how the relationship would develop.

My motivation has changed over time after teaching for a few years at WRNMMC, and now when I teach the wounded warriors my main aim is to alleviate suffering and cultivate relaxation. This includes addressing phantom limb pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), applying customized yogasanas with constructive movement patterning, and conversing about other specifics.

Is there a standout moment from your work with military veterans?

There was a standout moment with a U.S. Army combat veteran amputee at Walter Reed when it was in Washington, D.C. I never push anyone to take yoga class but will always keep the door open for them to come and see. Once, I did ask this particular soldier if he was interested in trying yoga with us and he felt pretty uneasy about it. I imagine it was partly due to the fact that while on patrol in Iraq, he was blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device) that obliterated most of his left side, leaving him without a hand or foot and with shrapnel wounds all over his body. He would watch class from time to time, the other veterans would joke and chide him to come take class, but he just wasn't up to it.

Then one day several months later, this young man enters the room walking, with a robotic arm, leg prothesis and a cane, and sits down right at the front of class. He decided that it was time to try yoga. So I started the session with dirgha pranayama and ujjaiyi, explaining to sense the movement of the belly, ribs and collar bones while maintaining a raspy sound quality to the breath in the throat. After a minute of breathing in this way this warrior blurts out, "Ninjas." We make eye contact and after a moment he again blurts out, "Ninjas." I smile a bit and gently nod my head in agreement as he says, "Ninjas do this!" Through the martial arts he already knew of the connection among body, mind, and spirit, and in that very moment recognized the same relation in yoga.

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, if at all?

I did not know that much about the unique population of the war-wounded in a U.S. military hospital setting before I began teaching them -- especially about the specific culture of individuals who have been blown up by bombs or who are living with the "invisible wounds" of PTSD.

My father is a U.S. Navy veteran who was stationed on the USS Iowa battleship during the conflict in Korea in the early 1950s. He also was part of the United States Foreign Service in several countries of Southeast Asia during the bellicose 1960s. Some of my assumptions about veterans and the military in general came through the lens of the son of a sailor. In the following decades, members of my family were posted with the Foreign Service in a few Latin American countries. When I was living there, I became friends with a few of the Marine Security Guard (MSG) stationed at the embassies. I would do physical training, play sports, and occasionally take part in security drills with the MSG. So I had some exposure to a section of the U.S. military population before my current working relationship in a U.S. military hospital.

My general assumption about the military "machine," if you will, was that it was a humungous entity with the momentum of a juggernaut. When I started working and then befriending individual people who were severely affected by war, my views began to shift. People are people and the human experience takes on many forms and many ways. In the middle of it all, I look to connect with the spirit of the individual. I do so with the intention to see the person beyond the generalizations and stereotypes of a population. Therein lies the humanity.

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?

I teach without the chanting, and I vary the jargon. I have made these adjustments in respect to the institution where I am offering my services. It is not like when I lead a seminar or workshop, in which education is the theme. Instead, it's about addressing the individual wounded in warfare, his or her one-of-a-kind healing process, and to meet soldiers and veterans where they are every time.

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

It has to do with the assumptions people have about yoga. I have a slogan, "There is no one way to yoga; there are numerous ways, and the best way is to find your way." The tools I have developed in addressing this challenge have been formed over 25 years of multidisciplinary mind-body culture (Western and Eastern). With these tools I am able to offer myriad variations and options.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to teach the veterans with whom you work, both in and outside of military settings?

Take your time and find a sense of neutrality when offering your services. Provide a good vibe with space for people to be themselves. It is mostly about using the powers of observation and the craft of adaptability. Regarding going to work in a military setting, it is best to learn about its culture and subcultures, including its history, from a wide range of perspectives. When teaching in a military setting, remember to be professional, and underneath it all just 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 to see more of it offered to under-served communities. This encompasses impoverished neighborhoods, hospice care, retirement homes, immigrant societies, as well as throughout the medical field.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being involved with this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

Hot Off The Press

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Coping with Trauma, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website,, if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans.

This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.

For more by Rob Schware, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.

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