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  • Writer's pictureAnna Morgan

An Interview with Annie Okerlin, Founder of the Exalted Warrior Foundation

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

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Today, I am thrilled to share part one of my interview with Annie Okerlin, one of the nation’s leading experts on Adaptive Yoga and the founder of the Exalted Warrior Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports wounded warriors with the visible and invisible issues of traumatic injury. The daughter of two World War II and Korean War veterans, she feels deep gratitude for our nation’s veterans. Prior to founding the Exalted Warrior Foundation in 2010, she worked with traumatically injured patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC, which is where my husband recovered from his combat injuries in 2012. As you’ll quickly see in our conversation below, yoga is truly her passion in life. It’s such a pleasure to welcome Annie to the blog today!

Please note: The conversation with Annie has been edited and condensed.

It’s so nice to chat with you today! To start, can you tell my readers a little bit about yourself?

I’ve been a yoga student since 1996 when I started with the Bikram yoga practice — hot yoga with 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises where you just sweat like crazy. Then, in 1999, I became a Bikram yoga instructor.

I returned to Tampa, Florida, and my first student turned out to be a rear admiral who was the Head of Homeland Security for SOCOM (Special Operations Command). He was geo-baching it at the time (geographic bachelor, when a military family chooses to have the family live in a different location from the service member). We practiced every day, and he soon realized it was taking care of all the aches and pains after a long career as a Navy SEAL.

Let’s dig into the Exalted Warrior Foundation. What was your inspiration for starting this non-profit organization?

Fast forward to 2006, my first student and his family had moved back to Virginia Beach. He called me and was like, “I’m at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I’m standing in the amputee department. We need to do something.”

Long story short, we connected with an old buddy of his from BUDS, the SEAL training program, who was now the command surgeon at SOCOM. Fascinatingly enough, he’s the guy who re-wrote the field manual to teach our service members how to tourniquet themselves.

So I traveled to Walter Reed, where we met with the head of physical therapy. It was a Wednesday, and that Monday, she had just returned to work after earning her Masters in Wellness. He said something that kind of changed everything for me in terms of how I view what I do in the world. He said to her, “How can I support you?”

We were all taken aback by the statement — the simplicity of it but the potency of it too. She replied, “My staff are exhausted. We’ve never had to move at this capacity. We’re working seven days a week, nine to ten hours per day. And the need is, sadly, getting greater.”

I started to fly up to Walter Reed every four to six weeks to give them that support they needed. I started by working with the staff in the physical therapy department as they helped people learn to walk again — for the second time in their lives — as they also navigated their family, their military experiences, and the intense trauma of their past. I’d jump in to stretch a patient if needed, and I also taught classes to the staff. From there, I started to work with the patients one-on-one. It was a very powerful time for me, just witnessing all of that.

How does the work of the Exalted Warrior Foundation translate to your home base in Tampa?

Tampa has the third-largest poly-trauma (meaning multiple injury states in one body) Veterans Affairs (VA) in the country. It took me three years to break the door in and begin working with those veterans. Since 2009, I’ve worked there weekly.

Stretching far beyond Tampa, I have a very vibrant Zoom community. We provide four to six classes per week online to people all over the world. Plus, we have programs around the country in various VA Medical Centers and other military settings. I also train yoga teachers how to work in military settings.

Additionally, I’m on staff at a human performance company; we train tactical athletes — mostly prior members of the military who stay within the service base and work as police, firefighters, SWAT (special weapons and tactics), and other government agents.

Finally, I’m an iRest Yoga Nidra instructor, which is one of the most beautiful ways to retrain the brain to sleep. It’s also a top-tier therapy for the VA as well as the Department of Defense (DOD).

You begin each class with a focus on resetting the nervous system. Why is this step so important?

The way I view yoga and meditation for any human being goes back to a simple question: What does the nervous system need? It’s pretty rare that I meet someone who’s not glued to the ceiling and needs to come down a little bit. Or the total opposite — they’re in a lot of pain and discomfort and need a boost back up to get to stasis.

The reality is that, anyone who's been in the military longer than five years has most likely completed the training cycle to build up to deploy. Whether or not they’ve seen combat doesn’t change the cycle of what they’ve been doing.

Over the years, I’ve really honed my intuition when it comes to the people joining my class. I like to position myself close to the front door or check-in desk so I can watch everyone walk in. I never know who’s going to show up for a class. I keep my classes very simple, especially in a military setting. There’s used to grinding it out, a “no pain, no gain” mentality. And we’re now asking the body for a totally opposite experience. It’s very gentle.

By beginning with a reset of the nervous system, I’m able to get the vagus nerve settled. I’m also able to witness how someone feels in their body. Do they have a limp? Are they holding an arm? All of us have our tells.

For those of us unfamiliar with adaptive yoga, can you walk us through what a typical class is like?

A full hour is very luxurious in a military setting. Normally, I get 48 to 50 minutes.

Once we get the nervous system settled, we go into the breath. That’s the thread, or sutra, that follows through the class. We know from science that, if we control our breathing, we’re really controlling our nervous system. They know the importance of slowing down their breathing because they’ve all shot a weapon — they taught me that very quickly. But the science behind it — inhale stimulates sympathetic, exhale stimulates parasympathetic — isn’t in the forefront of their minds.

So we really take the training that they already have and rewire it for the benefit of their nervous systems. That way, if they feel hyper-vigilant or hyper-engaged as they’re driving the grocery store, they have the tools needed to ground themselves.

During class, I talk a lot about the window of tolerance and how we’re expanding that. It allows us to be in the present moment and react and respond as best we need. Then, when we’re out of the exercise or off-target, we can sleep. I talk a lot about the importance of sleep too.

So we do 38 to 40 minutes of super gentle movement — maybe six to eight poses focusing on the big muscles — with a lot of offering, like you don’t have to put your head down below your heart. And then, we end with a minimum of 8 to 10 minutes of rest at the end.

During that time, I do a very specific guided meditation. I don’t input anything for them to think about. It’s not like, “Notice a beach…” What if they lost someone on a beach? I don’t know. Everything I say and how I move when I’m in person is all very trauma-sensitive so that I’m holding space for them to show up however they need to show up.

Can you tell us a bit about your work with active duty military members?

My active duty component right now consists of 17 or 18 guys on Zoom (or in-person during our community class). I don’t know where they are in their 11-week cycle of the Post-Deployment Rehabilitation Evaluation Program. They’re not happy to be there; it is an intense program. They’re out of their unit and away from home again because their mental ability is starting to deteriorate.

Unfortunately, we have a two-and-a-half-year waiting list, and we’re one of only three or four programs in the county. When they finally get to us, I want them to come to yoga and not feel any pressure. I constantly repeat the phrasing, “You can’t do this wrong.” Because I know how many times it takes my brain to hear that on the daily to allow myself to release and let go. I know, from my own experiences, how hard it is to do that — and I’ve never been to war.

Where Can You Find Exalted Warrior Foundation?

Next month, I’ll share more from Annie, including her advice for military spouses and caregivers as well as her own yoga and mindfulness practices.

Please note: While my religious beliefs differ from some of the Eastern philosophies taught in yoga, I respect and am grateful for the services provided through the Exalted Warrior Foundation.

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