I am delighted to share with the VFTP Community the experience I’ve had teaching yoga with Team Red, White & Blue. It all started back in 2011, when Bikram Choudhury invited me to help him reach out to the veteran and military communities. As a result to a trip to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I met Mike Erwin, who was then a faculty member there. In less than five minutes, a key commonality burst into our conversation: both Bikram Yoga and Team RWB hold that our veterans deserve the respect of seeing them as healthy, strong, and independent. Mike pounded the table and said flatly, “Let’s make it happen.” We held our first Team RWB Bikram Yoga National Camp four months later at Jane Kartsch’ studio in the Bronx. Rajashree Choudhury taught the final class at that camp. Her warm, compassionate presence was the ideal balm for all the challenges that we had collectively faced that weekend. Since that weekend, Rajashree has selflessly provided expertise and constant support to the overall effort.
Over the years, some things have shifted and morphed. Team RWB Camp program has grown in two directions: the camps have become more regional and more diverse.
1. Consistent with their local chapter emphasis, they have moved from a National Camp model to more of a Regional Camp model.
2. As yoga’s groundswell grows, more members of the veteran-yoga community have been involved, so there is a wider diversity of styles represented in the camps.
Here I would like to acknowledge the studio owners who have re-arranged class schedules, given the physical space and paid behind-the-scenes expenses and time to enable these camps. Without them, truly these camps would be only in our minds.
Though my own involvement has been with the camps, you should know that these relatively infrequent camps are not the meat-and-potatoes of Team RWB. Overall, their mission is to connect people through physical and social activities. I think of the camps as a way to kick-start local leaders around a certain activity, but the emphasis has less to do with the details of the activity and much more to do with the interpersonal connections made. So, in parallel with the Regional Camps, local chapters hold regular activities for local members. For example, at her studio, New Level Hot Yoga in Palatine, IL Robyn Riconosciuto offers half-price classes for RWB members (Eagles) every day of the week. Plus, she holds weekly RWB Yoga Classes, where Eagles and the public do class together. This frequent, regular contact is a vital way to maintain, strengthen and deepen the connections made at an annual event. For anybody out there who wants to get involved, it’s so easy. Just figure out how much time you have and how you want to be involved. Then go to the Team RWB website and contact the local chapter closest to you. In concrete terms, it would be super cool if you offered to teach a bi-weekly yoga class to RWB members. That’s it. From that seed, there is no limit. Of course, you can always email me, Barry Peterson, and I’m happy to help in any way!
There is something else instructors can do too: simply teach the best yoga class you can, every time you step onto the podium. Veterans are in our midst all the time. Family members of veterans are in our classes every day. While it’s true that veterans and service members have different life styles and life experiences, at their core, they are not that much different from those who have never put on a uniform. In other words, while a customized Camp or workshop has merit, the truth is everyone benefits from yoga practice, and the benefits ripple out into our society in ways we cannot predict.
One of the coolest aspects about this entire enterprise is that it bridges the common divide between military and civilian communities: we all have the capacity to lead heroic lives. Think about that! This is probably the most important thing I have learned over these many years. As civilians we tend to either put veterans up on a pedestal or push them down to irrelevance. By connecting with our personal karma yoga, we each can do what is right in our day to day lives, whether in or out of uniform, whether single-mom or special-operator, whether entrepreneur or employee. While their karma yoga may be different from ours, such differences are not legitimate bases for comparison. What can be common about our karma yogas is the way we struggle for what is right. Our yoga practice helps us to struggle for what is right more consistently with less discomfort and more un-stealable peace.
Furthermore, the camps are not a one-way conversation. They draw experienced yoga teachers too, who walk into the camps as both experienced teacher and student.1 Whether formally or informally involved, each of them contributes something important and unique to the respective camps. Each of these individuals, and truly a bounty of other teaching professionals, have immeasurably helped me to expand my own perspective about yoga. So, the sharing of information at the camps is increasingly multi-directional and multi-stylistic.
From a teacher perspective, I confess that I was initially a bit fearful about teaching in this population: the most important thing I learned about working with veterans is that they are human beings. Veterans are not so different from the people you see at your studio every day; in fact you’d be surprised by how many of your current students are veterans whom have not identified themselves to you as a veteran. Yes, some of them walk into the yoga room with visible and invisible conditions that may be more extreme than the average. That’s where it got scary for me. That’s also where we have the chance, as teachers, to practice the essence of Bikram Yoga.
Notes1 A few of the inspiring yoga teachers and leaders out there whom I have met through Team RWB include CJ Keller, Renee Champagne, Karen Gomez, Ed Stancombe and Anthony Scaletta.
(photo credit: George Logemann)
For more information on Team Red White and Blue and how to get involved please click here.