This week I agreed to do a book on my yoga program for St. Martin’s Press. As I begin to formulate the structure of the new book, I am reminded of how and why I began to train and teach the approach to yoga that I informally call Warrior Yoga.
I started practicing yoga in 1998, when I was initially looking for a good martial arts program to sink my teeth into after a being side-tracked from my training while on Active Duty.
One day I decided I would pay the local Bikram Yoga studio a visit just to see what it was about. I was intrigued by the new martial arts-like movements and immediately signed on for the 30 day challenge. After doing a class every day for 30 days, I felt really good: cleansed, clear-headed and as aware as I used to feel while on a SEAL Op. I kept training until I got bored with the same routine and numbing dialogue – the sequence is the same for every single class – and so I again set out for another alternative.
A friend suggested I check out Ashtanga Yoga, which was introduced to the west by Patabi Jois from Mysore, India. He was taught it by a fellow named Krishnamacharya, who developed the method to train young warriors and athletes. The rigorous flow and extremely challenging poses of Ashtanga appealed to my achiever self, especially since the Ashtanga style had six series of poses with increasing levels of difficulty, each accessed only after blessing from the teacher, similar to a belt ranking system in the martial arts…or so I thought. Turns out that after 14 years of training I have yet to get beyond the second series. That yoga is incredibly hard…but awesome.
My First Ever Warrior Yoga session
In 2004 I was called up to active duty and sent to Baghdad with SEAL Team ONE. While flying into Baghdad International on a C-130 I was about as nervous as I have ever been. It’s not every day that you fly into a hot combat zone with a weapon you haven’t had time to prepare with. That really got my sweat pumps flowing. My stress levels were rising fast, and I wasn’t sure what to do. So I got out of my seat and began to do whatever pose came to my mind, focusing deeply on my breathing to calm myself down. I recall thinking that a SEAL officer doing yoga in a C-130 must have looked a bit strange to the Marine General and his aide – but they were gracious enough to ignore me while working on their important presentation. That moment was the first official Warrior Yoga training session.
When I got settled into the SEAL compound I soon found that the nearest base gym required an armed combat patrol to get to – a slight inconvenience. So I reluctantly fell back on running and calisthenics to maintain some level of fitness and sanity. But after a week in country I found the anxiety level to be stifling. That is when I had the idea to use my yoga training as an ongoing way to stay in shape and regain some peace and mental clarity. I also had the somewhat selfish thought that doing yoga would increase my survivability!
After 6 years of training I was well aware of the many benefits of yoga beyond just flexibility. It was those features, such as concentration, meditation and moving with the breath, that I focused on when I began my daily sessions. A yoga mat with the serene backdrop of a lake behind Saddam Hussein’s former palace (or is it the former Saddam Hussein’s palace?) was my new gym.
I began each training session by sitting on my mat and just breathing deeply in a controlled manner. Later this developed into what I call “Box Breathing.” After ten minutes of breathing, my mind was clear and ready to move. I then went through a twenty minute standing pose routine where I would link each pose with my breath – in and out as I moved into the pose, and 5 to 10 deep breath cycles while holding the full expression of the pose. After twenty minutes I had worked up a good lather and my mind was even more clear and poised.
Adding a Fitness Dimension
Next, since this doubled as my workout, I took a twenty minute functional fitness “break” and cranked out a body-weight CrossFit style workout using push ups, sit ups, squats, burpees and a kettlebell I had borrowed from my one visit to the base gym. I changed this functional routine up every day to avoid getting in a rut. You might think of this hybrid routine as “CrossYoga” – and it’s more intense than it sounds.
Especially with the heat of Baghdad in the summertime, I have to admit I got pretty smoked during this part. After the interval training I went to the ground and performed twenty minutes of seated and supine poses to wind down, strengthen my core and get deeper into my spine. Included in the ground sequence were back bends, twists, shoulder and head stands and more forward bends. The icing on the cake came with the final pose – appropriately named “dead man’s pose.” In dead man’s pose you just lay there and play dead, a skill I hoped I wouldn’t have to use outside the wire. Here was where I could completely relax, visualize and allow the benefits of the prior work to sink in.
So that was it. Simple, yet incredibly powerful. After 30 days straight of doing the aforementioned routine, I couldn’t believe how good I felt. I was relaxed, focused and knew that I was building resiliency and mental control. This was in spite of a bruising schedule and little sleep while aiding SEAL Team ONE meet their mission.
Three years later I started SEALFIT, and wanted to share my “discovery” with the SEAL candidates coming through our training academy. I was a bit worried they would think I was a nut for teaching them yoga…after all they wanted to be SEALs and not sissies. After the first session they were hooked. Many of those young men now wear the trident, and I believe that Warrior Yoga helped them be mentally tough, emotionally resilient and more combat ready. I am also confident that Warrior Yoga will help them remain free from combat induced PTSD. Time will tell.
From these austere beginnings Warrior Yoga (or whatever it ends up being called) is ready for the next stage. I will be sharing more in upcoming blog posts, but before I do that, I’d love to hear from you.
If you could ask me any question about Warrior Yoga, what would it be?
I may not be able to reply in the comment section, but I’ll do my very best to address questions in upcoming posts and communications about it.
Your feedback and thoughts is very much appreciated.
‘Till next time, train hard, stay safe, and Namaste.
Coach Mark Divine