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  • Writer's pictureAnna Morgan

Annie Okerlin on Adaptive Yoga for Veterans: “Ultimately, the Practice is Coming Home to Yourself”

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Today, I am thrilled to share part two 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. Let’s jump right in!

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

What advice would you give to spouses or injured veteran caregivers, especially those newfound to the role?

Usually, the first thing I talk about with caregiver groups is the idea that taking care of yourself allows you to take care of your person. There are different roles within the caregiver community too. When it’s a spouse, there’s a lot of grief involved in being a caregiver: the loss of this person’s ability depending on their injury state, the loss of freedom to take off and do whatever you want, and so on.

The exhaustion level is intense too. I hear a lot of comments like, “I should go to the gym” or “I should go for a walk.” Don’t should on yourself! The fact that you’re alive and you’re taking care of your person and supporting them is huge. Anything you can do to support yourself is important. Eat well. Drink your water. Rest.

My mom lived with my son and I when he was quite young and she was in her early 80s. She suffered from dementia, so I never knew if we were facing a good day or a bad day. It’s very different because I was caring for a parent. I don’t know the spousal component of it, but from what I understand, it’s heartbreaking no matter what. It’s not what you wanted for your person; it’s not what you wanted for yourself.

The element of grief is very important to navigate. We’ve all got a vault of our lived experiences and the things that upset us. That’s one of the reasons I love Yoga Nidra. It gives us this space to witness the patterns of things we’re proud of, things we’re sad about, things that break our hearts. That’s human, right? Adding on the incredible challenges of being a caregiver makes it even harder to rest.

The Independence Fund does a lot of work with caregivers. At the beginning of lockdown, one of their members found my resources for veterans and began forwarding my emails to her group of caregivers. I had a great group of women who would join us. Very early on, one of them taught me that it’s one thing to show up; it’s another to truly take what you need. So I try to open it right away by asking them, What do you need today? Sometimes, you need to vent and get your frustrations and feelings off your chest. Sometimes, you need to sit in the stillness and practice being present.

For me, iRest, meditation, and Yoga Nidra taught me to be gentle with myself. Ultimately, it allowed me to take care of myself better, which enabled me to care for the people in my life.

Does a particular story come to mind when you think about the powerful impact of adaptive yoga on veterans and their families?

Ultimately, the practice is coming home to yourself. When a lot of people return from training or deployment, it takes a while to truly come home, to be secure again in yourself and your home.

A lot of people do my classes with their family — with their wife and their kids. To me, not only is the family practicing together, but they’re individually doing their own work too. Part of the practice is called the Inner Resource. Each of us has an experience, an image, or a place that helps us feel safe and secure.

One of my guys sent me a beautiful letter saying that he and his wife did the practice together. Then, as they enjoyed a cup of tea afterwards, they had a conversation about their Inner Resource. It was this thing they could talk about that wasn’t the kids, the water heater that needed fixed, the bills, all the things that were wrong. Instead, it was all the things that were right. It was one of the best conversations for them and really started to heal their marriage. It’s especially empowering because they’re doing the work themselves.

What benefits have you seen from your personal yoga and mindfulness practice?

Even though I’m a yoga teacher, I’m still a human being. I get stressed too! There are days where my brain is like a circus. We live in a culture that’s unnecessarily faster than it ever has been. It’s hard as a human being to slow it all down. I make the joke all the time — if I never teach another down dog, I’m good, but I will teach meditation until my teeth fall out.

Really, it’s about being in my body and helping my body be as comfortable as it can be. I want to be as present as possible. The older I get, the longer my list gets. It’s about being as graceful with myself as I can be.

What would you say to a veteran who’s curious about adaptive yoga but feels unsure about trying something new?

Try it! Go on to my website and listen to one of the meditations. It’s so simple, but it’s also so profound. There’s so much doing in the world. It’s important to take a moment — whether it’s 5 minutes or 35 minutes — to just witness yourself and deepen the longest relationship you’ll ever have. Our culture doesn’t value that enough.

Try a Yoga Nidra class. There’s over 165 free options on our website, so you can do it on your own time and in your own space. Most people are logging onto Zoom from their houses, which is the safest space they know. So for people in isolation mode, that’s okay; you can show up however you need to show up.

If you find that your brain can’t turn off, that’s normal. We need to normalize the fact that we’re chronically exhausted and overworked. We’re not built to multi-task, day in and day out. That’s why we get overwhelmed.

How can my readers connect with you and your services?

The community itself is such a gift. A veteran might share that he’s really struggling with post-traumatic stress, and someone else may respond that they are too. That connection is immediately there. I can just blend into the background. The idea that it’s a secure space — whatever needs to be said can be said — helps to bring people out of themselves a little more. Nobody understands a vet like another vet.

Where Can You Find Exalted Warrior Foundation?

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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