Rolf Gates is keenly aware that he doesn’t fit the profile of your typical yoga enthusiast.
“How many African-American males do you think there are in the yoga space?” he said. “I’m like the Lone Ranger.”
Gates is a former Army infantry lieutenant who went through Ranger school during his eight years in the military. Thanks to a combination of grit, yoga and his Army training, he was able to overcome addiction and post-traumatic stress in his civilian life. Gates is now a full-time yoga teacher and the author of three yoga and meditation books.
He is one of many veterans who have taken advantage of yoga as a technique to calm inner turmoil and as an alternative to destructive forms of self-medicating. In fact, there are multiple nonprofits designed specifically to help veterans looking for a more peaceful way to work through their problems.
For example, the nonprofit Yoga For Vets serves as an international database for veterans interested in finding yoga classes tailored to their needs wherever they may live.
“The idea is that when you’re working with this type of population … it creates a space of peace and comfort,” said Randy Hamlin, Yoga For Vets’ president and CEO. “That’s the first go-around, when you’re involved with something and you’re not freaking out.”
Hamlin is a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marines from 1966-74. He said that in his experience as a yoga teacher, he has seen veterans gain the confidence to cut back on or go off their prescribed medications entirely because of how yoga quelled their inner demons.
“I think yoga is a beginning aspect of creating balance in your life. It’s a foundation for it,” he said.
That was Gates’ experience with yoga. Doctors told him that his blood pressure was dangerously high, most likely due to complications stemming from his PTSD.
Now, at 55 years old, Gates said he no longer has blood-pressure issues and has also been sober 29 years at least partially thanks to the mental and physical relief provided by yoga.
“You physically learn how to calm down,” he said. “They teach you how to relax your body, slow and deepen your breathing, to be less and less disturbed when you’re disturbed because you learn to take care of yourself.”
Yoga also was crucial for former Marine Cpl. Jason Davey as he dealt with mental anguish that arose years after he exited the military. Luckily for him, he already had a yoga routine in place and was able to find the inner strength to keep his anxiety attacks at bay.
Davey has been practicing yoga for almost four years and teaching it for more than two years. He works with nonprofit Connected Warriors that makes sure veterans have access to cheap or even free yoga classes, and he also started his own nonprofit called Nola Seva dedicated to that goal in the New Orleans area.
“Ultimately, the idea is to create a space where the veteran can be more mindful of the present without being on edge,” Davey said.
All three of these veterans want to dispel the notion that practicing yoga somehow makes you less masculine.
“It’s about showing all the veterans out there that this isn’t just something for soccer moms ages 18-25,” Davey said. “There’s a perception among veterans groups that this is a women’s-only exercise, and it’s just not that. It’s a healing modality that requires effort on the service member’s part.”
Hamlin admitted that he also used to think yoga was “for girls,” but quickly opened his mind when he realized how much good it was doing for him.
“You start to look at things differently,” Hamlin said. “When you actually take the time to practice once or twice a week, it actually changes you. Your awareness level is a lot different. That’s been a big benefit.”
Gates had a lot more at stake with yoga than just personal betterment. He believes that his commitment to yoga has helped him be a more “calm, reasonable parent” to his 16-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.
In Gates’ experience, male veterans are more likely to use yoga as a healing tool in cities than in rural areas. He challenged his fellow veterans regardless of race, gender or location to check out yoga and be the leaders the military taught them to be in terms of evangelizing its potential benefits for others.
“When I went to Ranger school, they told me Rangers lead the way,” Gates said. “Why would you be afraid of leading the way? Be one of the first men to show up to this class. Don’t be a wuss.”