Search
  • Jambo

Yoga for veterans and military personnel: in conversation with David Venus

By Audrey Reeves David Venus, a former physical training instructor in the Royal Marine Corps, now works as a full-time movement therapist and yoga instructor. Audrey Reeves, an assistant professor in political science at Virginia Tech, crossed path with David in 2017, while completing a yoga teacher training. Audrey and David met again at David’s home studio on the Northumberland coast, where he lives with his partner Claire and their four-year-old. As Audrey arrives, Claire is printing off David’s typed answers to an email sent by Audrey. ‘Because of PTSD, David’s memory sometimes fails him’, she explains. ‘He answered your questions in his own time so he could get the dates right’. From the upper floor, the blue ribbon of the sea is visible in the distance. Soon, David and I sit on a rug and resume the conversation started by email. A:

When did you join the military, and why?

D:

I joined the Royal Marines Reserve whilst studying at 17 years old, in 1995. I completed a degree in Sports Science before joining full time in 1997. Growing up, I was fascinated by an old tobacco tin full of medals, exotic coins, and grainy semi-tattered, black and white photos of punji pits [an artisanal booby trap] and of my father looking much younger in a hot place. He had served overseas during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya [1952–60]. I also recall stories of my great uncle’s naval exploits. I loved the outdoors and anything physical, and was enthralled by Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s race to the South Pole. There was probably a call of proving oneself (as a man?) against an unknown and unknowable force – war or possibly nature. On a much deeper level, I joined the Marines because of what I believe is the fundamental problem in modern society – the fragmentary disembodied self, the inner machinations of self and the other.

A:

What brought you to leave?

D:

I left in late 2008, shortly following my return from Afghanistan (see Figure 1). I was on a high and felt like I had ticked that box of being a soldier in live conflict. I moved to the Canadian Rockies, taught Telemark skiing, and enjoyed ice climbing and mountaineering. But something was not quite right.

A:

Would you say you experienced PTSD?

D:

Definitely mental health issues. PTSD is a broad label. In the words of Carl Jung, every crisis is a spiritual crisis. Following a series of personal crises and some difficulty finding my place after leaving the military, things came crashing down around me. I was an angrier, less pleasant person following Afghanistan and inevitably my marriage broke down. In the last few weeks of living together, I would leave the bed in the middle of the night and go outside to move a huge boulder. Every night, I would spend a few hours moving it a few hundred yards. Freud would tell you my unconscious burdens manifested through this physical interplay, but I think it was more alchemical. I was becoming the rock – stable, resolute – and learning its ancient wisdom. Eventually I did not need to flagellate myself by carrying the rock. I was able to just sit on it. A meditation, if you like.

A:

How did you encounter yoga?

D:

Yoga had never been on my radar as anything other than a rather passive form of exercise. After a period of soul-searching, I searched online for local yoga classes and found Jambo Truong. For a few years, I did a lot of healing with Jambo. There was a group of us, including recovering addicts who were finding their talents and power within. Jambo performed powerful ceremonies like the death meditation [the visualization of one’s own death and rebirth]. He also did bodywork [massage therapy that works through emotions stored into the body]. He got into my jaw and I burst into tears. Something had been stored there that I had been holding on to, and it felt so good to let that go. That was my first encounter with the notion that mind and body are not as separate as we imagine.

A:

Do you know what was stored in your jaw?

D:

A fear response. Being in survival mode for a long time makes jaw clenching stronger and stronger, and it becomes your norm. Perhaps it is a fight or flight reflex. It is harder to break a clenched jaw than a relaxed one. I see it a lot in clients. It is the first place I want to massage, to give them some ease.

A:

How did yoga shape your trajectory after leaving the military?

D:

With yoga came a new challenge, a new sense of self, which felt like an improvement (see Figure 2)! I met the mother of my son, whom I hope to marry in November. Having a new network of friends who shared a vision of a more caring world was healing. I was just adjusting to a sense that everything’s going to be OK, when my brother and mother passed away suddenly, before the birth of my son. With so many transitions, I was not coping with the shifting sands. My work as a maritime security team leader was untenable, and I found myself once more without a professional identity. Yoga was the only cohesive thing I had left.

A:

How did you become a yoga instructor?

D:

I completed my yoga teacher training in Texas four years ago. Many of my yoga friends had gone on to teaching. Naturally, recovering addicts would work with recovering addicts, and my female friends who experienced sexual assaults would end up working in halfway houses and shelters for women. This process owes something to empathy: having walked their walk, yoga teachers with a certain life experience are much more empowered to teach people with a similar background.

A:

Have you taught yoga to military or ex-military personnel?

D:

I taught a handful. Interestingly, I had one Marine come here with his partner, a yoga teacher. He opened up a bit. He was reserved coming in and saying ‘I don’t really want to go on the drink’ with his Marine mates, and wanting to do a bit of this yoga thing, whatever that might look like to him. I would probably be able to work with ex-military people now. I had to go through a symbolic death where I let go of my military past and friends to grow in this new direction [becoming a movement therapist]. To them, a fear response that can be touched is valid. If it is an emotion that you engage with a ritual, they would wonder, what’s the point? To do yoga, I had to let that [military past] disappear.

A:

How would you teach yoga to (ex) military personnel?

D:

The language needs to be earthy and grounded in their material reality. ‘Come into a comfortable cross-legged position’ is a reasonable request for yogis, but an oxymoron to a large percentage of (ex) military personnel. In people with a military background, muscles are not short and stiff [as in most civilians], but restricted through high tone, high central nervous system activity, and a heightened readiness to respond. These overactive short muscles require an engagement of the nervous system through gentle ramping protocols, and not vigorous stretching. My warm-ups are longer and gradual, with limbering patterns that progressively increase mobility, and breathing exercises that calm the nervous system.

Figure 1. David Venus in Afghanistan with the Royal Marine Corps, 2008.

Figure 2. David Venus practicing yoga in Northumberland, 2019.

I also wonder whether people with a military background have poorer interoception – the capacity to assess and feel sensations and emotions inside your own body. Military personnel could be defined as people who can be comfortable being uncomfortable. Sources of discomfort typical of military life include going without food, drink, and sleep; being stuck in vehicles; getting sunstroke; being constantly wet or bitterly cold; running through injuries to pass fitness tests; taking knocks on the assault course or battlefield; being shouted at or thrown into cold water. These necessitate and foster the ability to numb out bodily sensations. The resulting disconnection of mind and body leads to curious phenomena, such as frequent bed-wetting. Of course, alcohol has a lot to answer for, but I have never experienced this to the same degree with any other group of people – and I’m from Newcastle!

A:

You mention alcohol. What do you think of the practice to send soldiers, following a deployment, to get drunk for a week before going home?

D:

The joke is that this is necessary, so that we do not go home and beat our wives. At least it is an acknowledgement that we are pretty messed up and should not go to our families in this state. Now we are joking about this practice. We are becoming conscious that getting wrecked for a week is not the right tool. But how do you go from war to ‘normality’? What would be the link? There is none. It suggests we should not be going – which is a whole can of worms.

A:

If you were in charge, what would post-deployment decompression look like?

D:

It would be similar to a Forrest yoga teacher training. Six hours of yoga a day, sweat lodges, ceremonies. Probably micro-doses of pharmaceuticals, magic mushrooms, or ayahuasca [traditional indigenous medicine]. Decompression needs to be full on. You cannot bring wartime experiences and trauma back to a civilian population. Soldiers have demons to confront, demons that may haunt them for the rest of their lives. We need to take their condition seriously.

A:

You used to train Royal Marines recruits. Do you think soldiers and officers in training can benefit from yoga?

D:

Yes, they should do yoga before they go into conflicts, and not wait until they have to pick up the pieces. But then, perhaps they would not go into conflicts if they did yoga beforehand, as they would develop empathy. The ability to feel one’s own pain makes a person more aware of that pain in another person.

A:

If you had already practiced yoga at 17, would you still have joined the Marine Corps?

D:

It would be hard to see me as a yoga teacher at 17, thinking of my parents, and where I am from. Yoga is touchy feely, and Newcastle is an earthy place. Up until recently, they [working class men] were drinking in the factories until lunchtime; it was part of the culture. A quantum shift would have had to happen for me to become a yoga teacher. My dad and I hug now, but we never did that before. I would not say that we were distant, but we had these parameters. I am the black sheep of the family. I should be drinking and smoking and getting into trouble.

A:

Does your military past influence your teaching style?

D:

At first, I did what many yoga teachers do – emulate their teachers. There is power in that, but I was aware of playing an act, just like I did as a Physical Training Instructor (PTI) in the Marines. I was never the biggest PTI but many of them are huge – Greek god-type characters. When recruits move around PTIs, they give them a lot of space, like there is a halo around them. Recruits think their word is gospel and this [embodied performance] fosters that. After completing my yoga training, I pushed back. I just wanted to be me, and ‘me’ is quite mumbly and quiet. I am now arriving at a place where I can reintegrate the military part of my life without being subsumed by the military identity and what passes for patriotism. I sense what students need. When in collapse, people need someone to bring them up and support their breath for them. If someone is already chasing the deep sensations, coming in with my PTI voice is not ideal. In that instance, I go to my more nurturing, feminine side, and ask, ‘are you alright?’

A:

Is there any connection between your teaching and your own healing?

D:

Yes, I am in a different place in terms of empathy. I waltzed through life being an upper-working-class male, right? With the opportunities this affords you, you can walk down any street and be comfortable. When facing other people’s difficulties, you can be dismissive. Now, I am not dismissive of anything. If someone gets out of bed, ‘well done!’ If someone stayed in bed, ‘well done!’ I encourage them to try to get to tomorrow, because I have been there, in a vulnerable place.

A:

What would you say to (ex) military folks who have never tried yoga?

D:

I would ask them why it would frighten them, and what would stop them from trying it. Because that is the military – they want to step up to things. Yoga is not a step down or step sideways or an easy exercise class. Yoga is about learning about yourself, and that is where the demons are calling out.

***

A:

In the days that follow our meeting, I read David’s typed up sheets several times, and listen to the recording of our conversation. As I attempt to boil down a deeply textured human encounter to 2000 words, I feel deeply committed to do justice to David’s narrative. My soon-to-be husband, who also served in the Royal Marine Corps, helps me make sense of military jargon and other phrasing obscure to me as a North American. After David reads a first draft, he suggests that maybe I have inserted too much coherence, as ‘any insights were hard fought and only recently have I been able to make something semi-coherent out of it [my military afterlife and yoga career]’. Perhaps because they came from a space of struggle, I am amazed not only by the generosity of David’s answers but also their insightfulness. They illuminate the embodied dimension of military lives and afterlives in ways that feel deeply innovative to me, both as a yoga practitioner and a scholar. I am most intrigued by David’s idea that the yoga as a ritual and embodied practice can be a force for peace – a demilitarizing force. This is inspiring as debates around yoga and social peace are heating up. For a number of years, controversies have arisen when powerful yoga teachers have taken advantage of students in vulnerable positions. Moreover, in the West, as yoga has been branded as suitable for young, thin, white, middle-class women, those who do not fit this stereotype have often found yoga classes unwelcoming and exclusionary. More recently, and most sadly, ethno-nationalist forces in India have used yoga to promote a Hindu-supremacist model of governance. Alongside these sobering developments, David’s reflections offer an important glimmer of hope. Based in lived human experience and socially aware, David’s suggestion that yoga is a force for peace is more compelling to me as a social researcher than similar claims based on merely philosophical grounds or individualized psychological perspectives. This being said, there is no attempt here to pretend that yoga is a monolithic force for good at all times and in all spaces. Rather, there is the story of someone struggling with deployment-induced PTSD who through yoga reconstructs his relationship to the state, the military, masculinity, and otherness in a way that leads to a hard-won inner peace but also more healing connections to the world he inhabits. And here shines, bright and strong, a glimmer of hope for the struggling world we live in.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks first all to David for generously agreeing to be part of this project. I am also grateful to my partner Chris, David’s partner Claire, and our common friend Jambo Truong for making this encounter possible. Many thanks also to Ravinder and Bikrum Gill, who broadened my perspective on yoga, and to Linea Cutter for invaluable research assistance.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

7 views
Subscribe for Updates

© 2019 Jambo Dragon

Contact info
  • Instagram - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle
  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • YouTube - Black Circle
  • LinkedIn - Black Circle

"A friend asked me today: what’s the Jambo 5-day hands-on training like? It’s pretty incredible. You’re learning from everyone in the room - yoga teachers and advanced practitioners committed to the work and we’re being led by a gifted teacher who knows his shit and has so much knowledge...." Read more

- Kelly Berry