For The Lone Survivors: The Integral Role of Yoga in the Lone Survivor Foundation, and for the Military at Large
THE LONE SURVIVOR: AN INTRODUCTION
Thanks to a best-selling memoir and blockbuster movie, a lot of people know of Marcus Luttrell’s harrowing tale of survival in Afghanistan. How, during Operation Red Wing, the Taliban surrounded Luttrell and his team after an encounter with a group of shepherds. Luttrell would be the only soldier to survive the attack – including those who attempted to rescue Luttrell and his team by air. Luttrell was eventually rescued by local villagers, who hid him in their houses and eventually transported him to safety.
However, like many returning military men and women, the story of what happened after he came home is considerably less broadcasted, less well known.
Marcus returned to his home in Texas after his experience in Afghanistan. It was during this time of recovery that Marcus was able to experience the many different ways one can heal after such an ordeal. Through his own journey, Marcus became inspired to provide support that went beyond the standard treatments given by government programs.
Three years after his encounter with the shepherds in Afghanistan, Marcus Luttrell established the Lone Survivor Foundation.
The Lone Survivor Foundation aims to help those service members – as well as their families – during their silent stories of recovery. The Lone Survivor Foundation aims to “restore, empower, and renew hope for wounded service members, veterans, and their families through health, wellness, and therapeutic support,” as per their mission statement.
One of the main ways the Lone Survivor Foundation does this is through its therapeutic retreats. The retreats are held throughout the year, and focus on providing support for PTSD, mild traumatic brain injury, military sexual assault, and pain management. They also provide resources for other areas of support that a service member might need. There are retreats for veterans and active service members, retreats for couples, and retreats for families – all at no cost to those who attend.
While the retreats give those who attend a chance to hike, fish, or just enjoy the beautiful, serene nature around them, the main focus is on solution-focused, educational, experiential modalities to help facilitate healing and growth.
And one of those ways is yoga.
YOGA FOR VETERANS, YOGA TEACHER VETERANS
Like many of those who help facilitate the retreats at the Lone Survivor Foundation, Brian has an extensive background with the military. Brian enlisted in the Marines at 17 and was a Recon Scout Team Leader and Light Armored Vehicle Commander. In 2003, he began service with the U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service, as a special agent, and served on the security details for Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and many others. He practiced and taught multiple combative martial arts before eventually switching to yoga.
In the same vein, Ken received his Air Force commission in 1992 and started a career in Space Operations as a Missile Warning and Space Surveillance Crew Commander. He twice served as a squadron commander, as a staff officer on the joint staff, and in assignment in Cyber Operations, Special Operations, before eventually retiring in 2013.
Neither men seem like the type who would get into yoga. This is something Brian prides himself on. “I drive a big muscle car, not a Prius,” Brian’s spotlight page on the Lone Survivor Foundation website reads. “I hate kombucha tea and love great steaks, BBQ, and margaritas. But that also makes me living proof you don’t have to be a tree-hugging hippie to practice yoga and meditation and live a life on a path to wellness.
Brian got into yoga after leaving martial arts due to health concerns. Ken – also a martial art practitioner – got into yoga at the request of his aunt, who encouraged him to explore the practice to reduce stress.
It was during a family vacation in Crystal Beach, Texas (where the Lone Survivor Foundation retreat center is located), when Brian learned about the foundation, and what they offered during their retreats.
“Being a yoga teacher, I knew how great yoga and meditation are for symptoms of PTSD,” says Brian. “I cold-called the program manager and volunteered to teach at their retreats. Over the course of a few retreats, I developed the yoga and meditation program taught there to this day.”
As the program grew, Brian eventually started looking for more properly-trained yoga teachers to help with their program, and reached out to Ken. Ken helped lead and refine the program – and, in 2017, the modality relaunched as the modality of Health, Wellness, and Resilience with Ken becoming the program coordinator. While the modality includes many other off-the-mat focuses, like nutrition, hydration, and others, yoga is still at the center of it.
While both the retreats and the modality are run, refined, and supported by multiple people, Brian and Ken have helped facilitate the yoga program using not only their military backgrounds, but their extensive training in yoga for veterans and service members.
THE VETERAN’S YOGA PROJECT
Brian knew Ken because both had undertaken the Mindful Resilience for Trauma Recovery training offered through the Veteran’s Yoga Project. The organization’s core mission is to help veterans, service members, and their families through building connection and community, as well as providing the toolkit that yoga can provide. Veteran’s Yoga Project trains yoga teachers and healthcare professionals, as well as helps support and facilitate classes across the country.
Mind-body exercises like yoga have proven to provide benefits from those suffering from PTSD. The link between the mind and the body is only beginning to be understood, but one thing is clear: trauma is as much of a body experience as it is a mental experience. There is a shift in the nervous system, and the body gets “stuck” in emergency mode.
The mindful resilience yoga classes operate on five principles: breath, meditation, mindful movement, guided rest, and gratitude. Simply speaking, the classes are there to help their students breathe, move, get into their bodies, rest, and help build up that yoga toolkit.
They also operate on accomplishing what some might feel is the impossible: getting those in the military – who are arguably some of the toughest people in our country – to try something as “floofy” as yoga.
For Brian, this is where the science comes into play.
“Vets are not inclined to buy into strange Eastern practices and rituals, and we don’t need to,” says Brian. “I learned the science behind it and that is how I teach it. I teach participants about their brain, their body’s natural responses, and how to use the breath and yoga poses to hack your brain and re-take control of your body and mind.”
Yoga has been shown to reduce stress, promote ease, and help bolster support where support might’ve plateaued. Yoga skeptics like Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, renowned trauma researcher and the author of The Body Keeps the Score and Dr. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who gained international notoriety for her work on how the body affects the mind and is the author of Presence, have both relented; noting in The Body Keeps the Score and Presence, respectively, that their findings on yoga spoke volumes on the type of good that mind-body exercises can create. There is still a lot to learn about the connection between the mind and the body (as well as the interplay between the two), but science is starting to support what those in yoga have known for a long time: we have to incorporate the whole body in order to grow, and to heal.
MORE THAN ONE SURVIVOR
Veteran’s Yoga Project, the Lone Survivor Foundation, as well as countless other organizations and mental health advocates will all say the same thing: community is an integral part of healing.
The chance to be around people of similar backgrounds, experiences, and mindsets can become just as important as the serene landscape of the retreat center and the therapeutic modalities the Lone Survivor Foundation offers.
“There will always be a loving, accepting support network for our tribe to reach back to – not just providers, but peers too, to help with continued healing, growth, development, and resilience,” says Ken. “The retreats allow me the opportunity to connect with members of my military tribe who are no longer serving but still a part of our military family. Each retreat is an opportunity to hold space, share the practice, and remain connected.”
Retreats at the Lone Survivor Foundation should not ever be confused with a vacation. They are structured programs designed to provide support, resources, and space for healing.
“Participants’ schedules are filled with different therapeutic modalities. Modalities vary by retreat but most include: Equine Therapy, Accelerated Resolution Therapy, Neurofeedback, Yoga & Meditation, and Psycho-Educational group sessions,” says Brian. “Retreats are like a holistic and traditional therapy buffet.”
And in that sense of community, there is a respect for each person’s unique journey.
“Every person’s path to wellness is unique and multifaceted,” says Brian. “I tell the vets they all have a wellness toolbox, and everyone’s is different. A carpenter wouldn’t know what to do with a plumber’s pipe wrench. The retreats give vets different tools for their wellness toolbox. Yoga and meditation is a tool that cost nothing, doesn’t require a prescription, they don’t have to go to the VA for, and they can take home with them and use forever.”
It is through the various modalities, including yoga for veterans, that one can find support in their journey. For yoga teachers like Brian and Ken, the impact of their practice can be felt for years to come.
“The amount of healing that happens over that 5 days is profound, moving, and inspiring beyond belief,” says Brian. “I know in my heart Lone Survivor Foundation retreats save lives. The quality of care participants receive is the best in the world, entirely focused on their recovery, all the while in an energetically healing location on the beach. I hope to teach retreats at LSF for many, many years to come. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
“The retreats are challenging, rewarding, and amazing experiences of compassion, fellowship, courage, struggle, growth, and healing,” says Ken. “Lone Survivor Foundation has a great formula of mixed modalities and retreat types led by consummate professionals – and that makes all the difference in making this a highly successful program […] There is more than hope, thoughts, prayers, and languishing in ‘the system’ – there’s a better life ahead if you begin to make it happen. Put in the effort and the rewards will unfold. Never quit!”
THE FUTURE OF YOGA
“Ask any veteran who practices regularly and they will tell you how yoga has contributed to their wellness,” says Brian. “Yoga and meditation are not a magical cure, but they are powerful tools that truly make a difference in the lives of veterans and their families.”
Yoga in the western world has evolved. It is no longer exclusively about the fit, spandex-wearing women chanting, “Ohm” and then going out for kombucha tea afterwards. Yoga has become a mind-body training that can help people with whatever is on their plate. It is a practice that has been utilized by those recovering from obvious physical injuries to those recovering from the more silent types of injuries. There are trainings around the globe to help yoga teachers hone what they do for the populations who need it most. From Yoga for First Responders to TIMBo Yoga (Trauma-Informed Mind-Body Yoga) to Veteran’s Yoga Project, this branch of yoga is a far cry from the overtly (and superficially) positive brand of yoga that seems to run parallel to the stereotype.
Recovery is a long, complicated, nuanced process. It takes support from multiple platforms, coming from multiple angles, and with multiple strategies at play. Yoga has not, will not, and cannot be a cover-all cure. But it can be instrumental in those living through the stories not talked about in books and mos.
There are many ways you can help out either the Lone Survivor Foundation or Veteran’s Yoga Project. You can donate financially to both – and you can also donate your time. Volunteers are needed and greatly appreciated at both organizations. You can contact LSF or VYP for more information. You can also help spread the word, whether it is through social media, or just passing the names along to someone you know might need it.