Yoga: Incarcerated Veterans Taking Healing Into Their Own Hands

This is an interview with Ron G. Self, founder of Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out (VHV-FTIO), a program he started at San Quentin State Prison in 2012 specifically to address psychological, emotional and ethical issues of veterans related to their active duty in the military, and to explore how their personal experiences may have contributed to behavior that resulted in their committing a crime. The program offers cognitive behavioral processing and mind/body integration support and seeks to share its healing work with veterans on the outside.

Ron enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corp in 1987 and served in the Fleet Marine Corps till 1992. He transferred to Active Reserve and was re-assigned to Special Operations. He went on to a Permanent Duty Assignment to the Joint Special Operations Command. As team leader of a Hostage Rescue Prisoner Recovery Unit, he participated in campaigns ranging from training Afghanis to shoot down Russian aircraft on the Uzbekistan border during the 1988 spring offensive to extracting civilians from Rwanda in April 1994. Other special operations were in the Gulf War, Mogadishu, Somalia, Bosnia, and Panama "to name a few."

Ron was honorably discharged in 1996. He was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. That was 17 years ago. He is now up for parole and has been a resident of San Quentin since 2009. His decorations include two Navy Marine Corps Medals and numerous other citations for heroism and combat wounds. The Navy Marine Corps Medal is the highest Marine medal given during peacetime or non-declared actions. One of the medals involved pulling 15 Marines from a burning helicopter in Pohang, Korea.

Ron says his "mission is to implement a policy shift within the military that mandates participation in the VHV-FTIO program before discharge from any active duty component. A period of decompression and re-socialization before returning to society after active duty is needed. The program we've created will provide that."

Rob: What originally motivated you to start this program for veterans and what continues to motivate you?

My primary motivation for starting VHV-FTIO was the high rate of suicide among post-combat veterans returning from our most recent two wars (Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom). I have since discovered there are many Vietnam War veterans that have basically been forgotten about. Many of these veterans have gained valuable insights as to where they went wrong and can show the younger generation of veterans how to cope with the stress of a post-combat life and avoid the mistakes that ultimately brought many veterans to prison.

Do you see similarities between veterans who experienced trauma in war zones and prisoners in terms of coping with PTSD?

Without a doubt. Incarceration syndrome, a term I think I coined some years back, presents itself identically to PTSD even though prisons and the military seem worlds apart. They actually share common ground: the emotional stressors both situations produce on the psyche.

How is being in prison like being in combat?

In prison you're on edge 24/7. You never know what is around the next corner. You can be rolled up and placed in administrative segregation at any moment with no cause, or maybe you offended someone, so he and his friends lie in wait to beat you down. In many ways prison is more dangerous than combat. In combat, when the patrol is over you have the relative safety of base camp. Prison is a free-for-all any time and any place. San Quentin State Prison is unique -- it is safer, but I have seen many men become complacent and bam -- "gone transferred got caught slippin."

What are some specific benefits you have seen for the veterans in your group thus far? For yourself?

The vets in this group are like seeds that have been buried in the ground for millennia. Now, for the first time, they have water, and are un-burdening themselves of emotional baggage they may have carried from childhood. Then in adult life, there is the trauma associated with combat, and they get to peel away the layers of trauma with clarity and passion. There's the growth related to emotional intelligence, spirituality, broadening their compassion and empathy for others, and for themselves. For me, I created this program because I felt with my level of combat-related trauma this type of program would work for me. With the help of people like James Fox, Lt. Col USMC Ret. Sunny Campbell, Brent MacKinnon, and Jacques Verduin (, VHV-FTIO was created.

What is it that your program has to offer veterans outside prison?

Trauma came long before combat-related trauma for most of these men and women. You would be surprised at how much luggage is being left by the curbside: What comes with identifying the original trauma in one's life is an understanding of how a current trauma is affecting the individual right now. The big difference is that we address all traumas one accumulates over a lifetime, so, oddly, in many ways a prison creates a safe haven for combat veterans. The perception of prison is that it is a dangerous place. Walking into a prison is like walking into enemy territory. Every veteran I have worked with has said they immediately felt at home walking into prison, a place perceived to be violent; this perception is what opens the veteran to healing. Feeling calm is an abnormal feeling to get from combat. However, after combat when a veteran is in the safety of their home, they feel uneasy and out of place. When they visit the prison, a place where the perception of violence is implied, they feel at ease, normalcy in an abnormal situation, and they open up to us and leave just a little less burdened than when they arrived. Brent MacKinnon, a Vietnam War veteran, stated, "I am a 30-year veteran of veteran groups; I have never experienced anything as magical as what is happening in this group."

Do you find the programs at San Quentin Prison unique in being able to offer yoga and other inmate rehabilitation classes?

Yes. There are 33 prisons in California. Yoga on a regular basis only occurs at San Quentin, as far as I know, although it may happen at two or three others. A program like VHV-FTIO, where veterans from outside the walls of the prison actually come to the prison and participate in healing with incarcerated veterans, does not occur in any other California prison. We have expanded our program to include yoga, yoga nidra meditation, mentorship training, and we require participation in the Prison University Project's AA program.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of service yoga in America for veterans in and out of prison in the next decade?

My mission is to implement a policy shift within the military that mandates participation in the VHV-FTIO program before discharge from any active duty component. A period of decompression and re-socialization before returning to society after active duty is needed. The program we've created will provide that by offering yoga to address healing the trauma related to combat.

Yoga is one tool that needs to be in the toolbox. It allows the body to let go of things the mind has chosen to ignore. If the body is in pain, it provides a distraction, a reason, if you will, for the mind to not face the traumas that are lingering in the shadows of a veteran's psyche. If the body is healing through yoga and meditation, the mind also can heal.

How can your program expand both in San Quentin and for veterans outside?

Our program is expanding. We started with stress reduction and a PTSD recognition curriculum less than a year ago. We've added yoga, and soon yoga nidra, thanks to James Fox and his Prison Yoga Project's Incarcerated Veterans Program. Additionally, we have California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse counselors working one-on-one with those who need that service. VHV-FTIO also started a mentorship training program taught by veteran Brent MacKinnon. As long as people like you show genuine interest and are willing to support programs like this one, the healing will continue. We need to remove the stigma that some veterans feel when they ask for help in coping with physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional wounds that are such a big part of military service.

I would like to see the materials used in the yoga program and the curriculum used in the stress reduction and PTSD programs translated into Hebrew and adapted for use by the Israeli Defense Forces. And I believe this program would also benefit veterans of other U.S. allies such as Great Britain.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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