So You Want To Teach At The VA?

Recently, I’ve been receiving questions about how to start a class at a VA hospital. I wish my answer was as simple as, “Well here is how you do it…”, but it’s nowhere near that simple.

For those of you trying to set up a class at your local VA,  I have once piece of advice: just keep trying. It takes time.

Don’t just make phone calls. Make sure you’re physically going to VA to talk to people, as well as trying to make contacts through social networking. Sooner or later, you’ll meet someone who supports you and will work with you to get something going.

I know most people want to head straight to the PTSD or Mental Health clinic, but that shouldn’t be your only stop. One of the first times I went into the VA in Las Vegas, the Occupational Therapy team was interested in talking with me.

Also, check into your local Vet Centers. They typically offer more activities and it may be easier to attach to a program that is already functioning. At one of the Vet Centers here they have a program called “MOVE” for overweight and inactive Veterans, which I will be presenting a yoga program to over the summer. So try to think outside the box and you may find something that way.

It can get frustrating when you feel as if you are talking to so many different people, who seem interested, but it never goes any further. But trust me, if you keep at it and this work really becomes something that you are passionate about, then sooner or later it will work out.

Marines Are Leaders: Now and Forever

By Elijah Sacra, Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness

Wounded Warrior Battalion East, Camp Lejeune, April 2012 with the SFHW Warrior Wellness Team: Cheryl LeClair, Clarissa Kussin, Elijah Sacra

The following are the words of the Bravo Company Commander following the SFHW Warrior Wellness Team successful implementation of the FIRST & ONLY Juicing | Smoothie |Super Food Program for Wounded Warriors at Wounded Warrior BN East Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.  United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment.

“Marine are leaders, and if you are going to continue to lead in life-you need to learn how to lead yourself.  Just like you stepped off the bus onto the yellow footprints at Parris Island into the unknown and made  a transformation in 12 weeks, you can do the same thing with your own Health & Wellness.  It starts with a single step and your results will spread out to Corps, your family, friends and the community in a ripple effect.  We are all here because of my favorite four-letter word.  It starts with an “L” and ends with an “E” and that’s LOVE. 

We didn’t become a Marine because we have to-we did it for LOVE of Country.  The bonds that are forged while serving in the Corps will last forever.  In the Marine Corps the motto Semper Fidelis  describes and signifies our dedication, loyalty and commitment to each other, our organization, and our “Corps and Country” even after leaving service. “For those that understand, no explanation is necessary.” “For those that do not understand, no explanation is possible.” 

THE THREE CORPS VALUES: Honor, Courage, Commitment make up the bedrock of the character of each of you. They are the foundation of the Corps. These three values, handed down from generation to generation, have made you the Warrior Elite and the Tip of the Spear in the defense of our great Nation.“  

So, today we want to thank you folks from Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness for taking the time to come here today and being at the Tip of the Spear in creating a Paradigm Shift in Wounded Warrior Education & Training.  We Salute You.

 DEFINITION OF AN INDIVIDUAL LIVING A WELLNESS BASED LIFE: Individuals who live life as fully as possible within the seven dimensions of wellness (emotional, environmental, vocational, physical, spiritual, intellectual, social). Regardless of socioeconomic status or health conditions, individuals can live useful, active and productive lives. GET SOME WELLNESS.

Veterans: Unplug and Get Back To Nature

“The data across age groups —regular folks from age 18 into their 60s — showed an almost 50 percent increase in creativity.”

Remember: your yoga mat can double as a sleeping mat in the great outdoors.


This week, a great study published by the University of Kansas shows that a few days in the wilderness on outdoor adventures significantly increases creativity. The study was done in partnership with Outward Bound Colorado, and tested four backpacking groups that made up a study group of 120 participants. Some were tested prior to taking off, others were tested four days into the trip. The result showed a 50 percent increase in creativity, insight and problem solving.

While electronics have become second nature to us, all this plugging-in can also increase a sense of obligation to either maintain levels of connectedness, which can come at the expense of maintaining connections to our surroundings, and those around us. As much as I like practicing yoga on the mat, many people roll it up once class is done and get back to their smart phones. In other words, they go back to what they were doing before. Outdoor excursions though, especially ones that take a person away for a few days, allow them to completely decompress from the obligations of social networking and see their lives without (what I call) the static noise.

So unplug, move, breathe, get outside –even if it’s just a one hour walk each day. As one of the researchers stated:

“There’s growing advantage over time to being in nature,” said Ruth Ann Atchley. “We think that it peaks after about three days of really getting away, turning off the cell phone, not hauling the iPad and not looking for internet coverage. It’s when you have an extended period of time surrounded by that softly fascinating environment that you start seeing all kinds of positive effects in how your mind works.”

One outlet is the Outward Bound for Veterans program. Several of my friends have been on one, and friend Sebastian Junger is an active proponent for these experiences.

“I think the course I went on was very helpful and it allowed me to grow as a person. I was also allowed to talk about things in a calm, accepting environment with open-minded people. It felt good to let out some things I have held on to for a long time.”  -A veteran, Outward Bound for Veterans


In San Francisco: Whitewater Rafting & Women Veterans Retreat

Honoring The Path of the Warrior is having its Spring Fundraiser, a raffle to fund a 

Whitewater Rafting trip and a retreat for women veterans. Go here to purchase your tickets!  Your support is needed in order to make them happen, as all of the events are offered to OEF, OIF and Gulf War veterans at no charge. The raffle prizes are some of the best I’ve seen: resorts in Mexico and Calistoga, a white water rafting trip, massage, art work. Really, kids. These are serious prizes.

Here’s what one veteran had to say about a past HTPW event:

“Coming to the one-day events with other veterans, I feel like I am coming together with my family.  As vets we kind of walk with the same rhythm.  There is a sense of kinship.  You know that other person understands what is essential.  You’ve lived on what is essential and you know you can be 

fine with that. This is why mindfulness and meditation goes so well with veterans.  It is about getting down to that essential stuff – breathing, walking in silence.  It is like what we learned and were trained in, in order to do our duties. Maybe you are being mindful in a different way, but it is still mindfulness.   I have no desire to meet my fellow vets out at a bar.  It is the place and quality of being held and cared for that makes these days very appealing and healing.”

– Paige Jenkins, U.S. Navy

Facilitated by Dyan Ferguson, a former US Army officer, Honoring the Path of the Warrior is a program that assists post 9/11 and Persian Gulf veterans in making a positive transition from military to civilian life. We provide a pathway of meditation and mindfulness that welcomes, honors, and integrates their service and leadership. 

Their programs combine nature and engaging physical activities; meditation, Sensory Awareness and mindfulness practices. The intent is to provide Veterans with connection, community and tools that support them in using their strengths and experiences to find a meaningful and productive path in civilian life. 

Mini-Rant: Funding for a whole-body approach at the VA

Some of the best efforts come from small places. But small places doesn’t mean small minds, rather the contrary. Great people with good intentions, many who are or become experts in their fields cobble together programs that help our veterans.  The only thing they lack is a constant flow of money to support what they want to offer. 

Address the nervous system with a holistic approach. This doesn't mean women in purple carrying crystals, rather a way of uniting mind, body and spirit through an integrated approach.

I point this out because the government funds many programs through the VA –many worthy, some experimental, a few that don’t work at all. But take in comparison the millions spent on some programs vs the paltry amount spent on yoga. At most, yoga isn’t even offered. Things are changing, but  more needs to be done to encourage the VAs to go with the existing data (as more comes in) and delve into ways to heal our veterans in more ways than just medication and talk therapy, which are not addressing how trauma affects the body. Taking an integrated approach to help dispel the emotional stress held in the muscle through movement, breath and mindfulness will go a long way toward helping along them heal.  I like yoga. But if others don’t, there’s an array of sports -competitive and not, and creative endeavors that will help them greatly with stress reduction.

In some VAs yoga teachers are paid, while in others they are doing for free –which isn’t right. Even if each VA hired two yoga teachers at each medical center, it would still cost less than the millions of dollars a year it was spending on Microsoft licenses. One thing for sure, they need to get rid of the deer-in-headlights look when it comes to answering: “And how much is the job paying?”  Because in all honesty, it means the institution doesn’t understand that some yoga teachers bring advanced degrees, many years of study in yoga, and they’re doing this to make a living and advance the cause of wellness. It’s not just a feel-good job. 

Over the next two days, I’ll be sharing two projects that need your help. Both run by veterans doing great things. 

Press Release: Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness and The Veterans Yoga Project Form A New Collaborative

By adding the evidence based protocols in the Veterans Yoga Project to our protocols we will be able to deliver the best possible tools for living to our nation’s warriors. -Elijah Sacra, SFH&W

BALTIMORE, MD – April 24, 2012

Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness (SFHW) announces a strategic partnership with the Veterans Yoga Project. The Veterans Yoga Project is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide education and support for the mindful use of therapeutic yoga practices as an aid in the recovery process from PTSD and other psychological distress among US Veterans, their families, and their communities.  Their training curriculum will provide SFHW Yoga teachers with the tools for facilitating evidence based protocols.

A Special thanks to Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Dan Libby from the Veterans Yoga Project:

Suzanne Manafort, ERYT-500, Co-director of Newington Yoga Center is a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. She studied at Yoga Center Amherst with Patty Townsend, completing her 200 hour and 500 hour programs in Embodyoga®. She also completed 200 hour and 500 hour programs with Beryl Bender Birch and a teacher training with David Swenson.  Most recently, Suzanne has deepened her meditation practice, studying with Pandit Rajmani Tigunait at the Himalayan Institute in The Living Tantra Program.  Suzanne has been teaching yoga to Veterans coping with combat-related PTSD in a PTSD Residential Rehabilitation Program for several years and also teaches groups for women veterans in an outpatient PTSD program.  In 2009, she was designated a Wells Fargo Second Half Champion℠ for her work with Veterans.  Suzanne also serves on the board of directors of the Give Back Yoga Foundation.  She can be contacted at

Dr. Daniel J. Libby is a licensed clinical psychologist, licensed massage therapist, and RYT-200 yoga teacher.  As part of a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the VA’s Mental Illness Research and Education Clinical Center, he treats Veterans suffering from PTSD and other trauma-related psychiatric disorders at the Connecticut VA Healthcare System, West Haven using psychotherapy and yoga.   As part of the Evaluation Division of the National Center for PTSD, he has conducted research documenting the use of yoga and other complementary and alternative medicine practices in the VA Specialized PTSD Treatment programs, and is lead investigator for a pilot study examining the effects of Mindful Yoga Therapy on symptoms in OEF/OIF Veterans with PTSD. Daniel has recently completed the 200-hour embodyoga™ Teacher Training and serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, the nonprofit educational foundation and yoga retreat center.  Reach out to him at

At Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness, they are dedicated to improving the lives of all their members through health & wellness, with a special concern for those who suffer from wounds and injuries, post traumatic stress disorder and other combat related illnesses, chronic pain, disease, obesity and addiction.  In addition to volunteering as SFHW’s Development Director SFHW Yoga for Vets and Staff Yoga Director, Captain CJ Keller and Msgt. Chris Eder will be serving as Veterans Yoga Project Ambassadors as a way to move our joint Mission forward.  

Captain CJ Keller USMCR, RYT, began studying yoga and meditation in 2009 when he met the co-founder of the non-profit organization Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness (SFHW).  In 2011, he earned his 200-hour certification through Charm City Yoga and immediately began teaching free weekly Yoga For Veterans class in Baltimore, Maryland.  In addition, he teaches a weekly class for Veterans in treatment for PTSD at the Baltimore VA.  Drawing from his experience in the Marines and as an occupational therapy graduate student at Towson University, CJ empowers fellow Veterans to overcome the stress and adversities caused by military life, facilitating return of function and meaningful activity.  His teaching emphasizes the current methodologies and protocol developed by Veterans Yoga Project.  CJ is currently serving on the Board of Directors for SFHW and is the Development Director for their yoga program in seven cities. 

Msgt. Chris Eder USAF is a certified Vinyasa/Hatha Interdisciplinary Yoga Instructor.  Chris’ yoga journey began in 1999 after he encountered the joys of a pinched sciatic nerve, and a diagnosis of Adult ADD. A friend introduced him to yoga as an alternative to pain pills and other meds. He was hooked instantly as a student. During a 2007 deployment to Baghdad Iraq with the Air Force, Chris began teaching a morning sunrise yoga class five days a week. Upon returning to Italy for his follow-on assignment, Chris attended Yoga Fit training and began teaching Vinyasa & Hatha inspired classes. He also taught yoga to Wounded Warriors returning from combat action as part of the Warrior Resiliency Program. Chris is a graduate of Frog Lotus Yoga’s 200YTT specializing in Vinyasa and Hatha Interdisciplinary classes.   Chris’ classes are fun but focused.  Chris has an infectious energy and mixes traditional yoga music with mainstream music. His intelligent sequencing and motivation make for an inspiring yoga experience.  Chris is a 21-year Air Force veteran, still serving since August 1990.  When not teaching yoga, he is teaching aspiring military broadcast journalists.  Chris is currently serving as Staff Yoga Director of Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness.

Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness Founder & Executive Director and US Marine Corps Veteran Elijah Sacra said:  We appreciate the motivation and dedication delivered by the those at the Veterans Yoga Project, Captain CJ Keller and Msgt Chris Eder.  We would not be able to move our mission forward without having them as key assets on the SFHW team.  Those that we serve persevere in the face of insurmountable odds and are extremely dedicated in overcoming mental and physical obstacles.  By adding the evidence based protocols in the Veterans Yoga Project to our protocols we will be able to deliver the best possible tools for living to our nation’s warriors. We propose that an investment in an individual’s personal wellness affects the very core of their being and will spread itself outwards in a ripple effect that will directly influence friends, family and the community at large.  Our classes, events and workshops foster a culture of personal empowerment, education and training”

About Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness (

Semper Fidelis Health & Wellness is a 501(c) 3 organization that provides Integrative Health and Wellness Solutions that serve Our Nation’s Wounded Warriors, Active Duty & Reserve Military, Veterans, First Responders and their families.

For more information or to make secure online donations, visit:

About the Veterans Yoga Project

The Veterans Yoga Project is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide education and support for the mindful use of therapeutic yoga practices as an aid in the recovery process from PTSD and other psychological distress among US Veterans, their families, and their communities.

For more information or to make secure online donations, visit


Finding a Job: Stress Reduction Through Preparation with Ranger Up

There are all sorts of stresses that our readers have, and it’s just not limited to PTSD. One of the most daunting prospects anyone faces when transitioning from the military to civilian is how to earn your living.

The job search can be an overwhelming and stressful time for anyone looking for a job. Ranger Up CEO Nick Palmisciano does a great job in a four part series for veterans in search of employment: from the approach to the interview.

War Trophy Photos in the LA Times & Dr. Phil: A Very Busy Week

By now, the outrage and uproar over the photos submitted by a soldier to the L.A. Times of a biometrics team posing with self-blown up Taliban is complete. Those of us with loved ones in the game are upset, but for different reasons than those who use it for their own political posturing to prove  war is bad, and the world should hold hands like a CocaCola commercial. I wish. But frankly, there has never been a time without war. As long as there are bad guys leading selfish lives, who resort to violence to get what they want, there will always be war. I’m sorry. I know you might be a yoga type, and my point of view upsets you. But I’m a yoga-doer too, and war is a circumstance I accept, and try to find the most acceptable means to work around it to help others.

So I guess it falls to this small yoga blog to point something out amid the clamor. Those who took the photos were coping with the reality of the gristly job they were assigned. In the middle of sorting through body parts to get fingerprints or retina scans, someone broke up the tension with the snap of a photo. Their job was awful. I’m sure they never imaged they’d be doing this when they volunteered to serve.  This stuff stays with them their entire lives. It wakes them up, it fills them with anxiety.  For those who can’t move past the trauma, it greatly alters whether or not they can live in the present.

Everyone into boat pose! MSgt Chris Eder and former Marine Elijah Sacra lead a group at Fort Meade.

In the roar of the outrage, let me point out the discussion we’re most interested in is the one people are ignoring. WarRetreat is interested in how these men and women, who have such difficult jobs, cope in the long term with the side effects of traumatic stress. So, while everyone is adjusting their cajones, why don’t they just shut up and help by learning everything they can about PTSD and how movement and breath combined with the traditional talk therapy (and if need be medication) can yield better results. Let’s not lose site of the aftermath, and what we can do for this generation of warriors that wasn’t done in the past to help them regain both breath and life.

 As my friend Warrior Life Coach, Beau Chatham pointed out in a Facebook post with a quote from the great one:

“Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son. You never walked in that man’s shoes.” – Elvis Presley

The shoes they walked in: After a MASCAL, my husband's Forward Surgical Team would take their shoes outside to have them powerwashed. Elvis was right.

I also want to bring up the Dr. Phil show and an episode called “From Heroes to Monsters?” It was an unfortunate use of hyperbole, cooked up by his attention getting staff. Stereotyping those who suffer from PTSD only helps drive them under the rug away from getting help. And we’re not only talking about those who serve in the military –we’re talking about the other 90% of the population who also suffer from PTSD.

Just for the record: people with PTSD by and large do not go out and commit violent crimes against others. On the contrary, most with PTSD suffer alone with greatly diminished lives. They are afraid to admit their issues for fear of looking weak, or worse, because they just don’t want to inconvenience anyone. Even if they are suffering a lot. In addition, someone with PTSD may behave monstrously at times, however, this does not make them a monster. Rather, they are a human being living in intense emotional pain. If you want more on PTSD, swing by our Essential Reading list up on the top menu, compiled by our own Jillian Hunsanger. 

Dr. Phil and his staff were irresponsible by taking a cheap shot in order to gain an audience. I’ll let Uncle Jimbo of the blog Blackfive wrap it up.

One year later… All this because of Tim

Readers of this blog, and followers of us on WarRetreat on Facebook might not realize that it was started as a way to honor my friend, Tim Hetherington.

It’s been a year since he was killed while covering the war in Libya. I was lucky because so many people reached out to one another to give comfort to those of us who knew him. 
I’ve written a piece over at The Kitchen Dispatch, detailing what we’ve done in the year since Tim has been gone. We’ve pushed our own boundaries, met new people, made discoveries and have helped people we don’t even know.  Just so you know: WarRetreat is now a partner with all those organizations you see on the sidebar. Our reach goes pretty far these days.

Tim, I miss you. I always will. You’ll always be a part of what so many of us do. Here’s a photo of the current RISC training put together by Mike Kamber and Sebastian Junger, as well as Tim’s parents Judith and Alistair. Next year, I hope the war photographers’ retreat will be part of it too. 

The Journey: Coming Home

Eventually, everyone goes on a journey. It could be the veteran coming home from war, the housewife tired with her station, the kid who decides to go to college despite a lack of support from home. Here’s a good poem about making a single decision to go forward in life.

“The Journey”
by Mary Oliver, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.

It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

-from Dream Work