Veteran & Teacher Spotlight: Josh Maloney
Written by: Josh Maloney
Whether I had actual ants in my pants or my mind was wandering to everything, but what I should be doing, I was never good at sitting still. My mother will tell you of a boy who felt he needed to interact with everything in his environment. I never thought I would be one who could do yoga as my incapacity to sit still was well rooted, and my mind wandered. If I wasn’t fidgeting, I would go to a place in my mind and just imagine—a daydream place like being in a trance. I grew up and was conditioned to stop fidgeting in school so I could pay attention.
After one semester of college, knowing I could not sit still anymore, I joined the Army with hopes of getting a stepping stone in life and obtaining discipline. I had confidence the discipline instilled in training would help better control my thoughts and feelings. In basic training, we spent hours every day standing in formations at the position of attention. We know it is painful and uncomfortable, but it is what we must do, and it shows our loyalty and cultivates pride. These skills teach us to stop noticing what is going on inside and to focus on the mission. I finished my training, and it helped me through my time in the service.
As an Abrams Tanker, the Army assigned me to the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. I had to have a doctor waive the tanker height requirement because I was taller than the maximum. I was always flexible, which helped me navigate my long arms and legs through the driver’s hull and tank turret. A deployment to Mosul, Iraq, in 2008 showed me the benefits of having the discipline to ignore my inner feelings and instincts. I left the active Army in 2011 and became a police officer.
In 2014, while a police officer, I was motivated by the present atrocities occurring in Iraq, where I had deployed five years earlier, and I decided to join the army reserves. It turned out, even as a police officer, my time in Iraq haunted me, and I perceived accomplishing more would be helpful to me at the height of my emotional suffering. The only position in the Army Reserves for a Sergeant in combat arms was a Drill Sergeant. Therefore, as a full-time police officer, I reenlisted into the army reserves as a United States Army Drill Sergeant.
My drill sergeant time taught me why we use drill and ceremony. Soldiers stood with their heels together, toes pointed out equally, legs straight, body erect, chest lifted and arched, and the shoulders square. Each soldier’s head is erect, facing the front, with their arms hanging without stiffness, and the fingers curled and the thumbs alongside the seam of the trouser leg. Hundreds of service members stand in silence in rectangular formations to promote discipline and esprit de corps. When every individual gives up moving and submits to military doctrine, we maintain belief and confidence in the unit and philosophy. It gave me insight into why this is useful and why it was helpful for me.
I could not live in the moment, and I did anything within reason I could to alter it. I was impulsive and always went with my gut. I often felt like something horrific was about to happen, and I would focus on these intuitions rather than the circumstances I was in. It felt like a barely conscious place in my mind was constantly grappling with traumas in my life. Now, I recognize my denial, and I would not admit that I was thinking about these things that happened to me. This ties up a lot of cognition in the brain and leads to confusion in the moment. Constantly reexperiencing these events as unwanted memories made it so I could not accept the moment. Anytime I was allowed to be intoxicated, I was, and I would “pregame” events; I was going to ensure I was drunk enough to relax when I got there. The patterns of traumatic thinking kept me in a place where drinking was always a way to numb the racing thoughts. My doctors prescribed me benzodiazepines which I learned made me feel like I was intoxicated with alcohol. Taking risks was another way to calm my thoughts, but more and more was needed to make me feel relaxed, like the alcohol and benzos.
One morning after a night of drinking, I crashed my go-cart into a tree, and I hit my head on the rollbar. I don’t remember how long I was there, but it hurt, and I was seeing double for a week. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t tell if the blurry vision and headaches were from the crash or daily drinking. I couldn’t tell if my shaking hands were from the hit to my head or from delirium tremens from my hangover. This uncertainty led me to question how I was living my life, and it made me look at how I accepted blurry vision and DTs in my life. I was miserable as I sat outside, double-fisting beers and chugging them. My actions did not align with my values, and I had overwhelming proof. I believed that I was not battling thoughts in my mind; I refused to accept it. Things had become unmanageable in my life. I had come to this place before when I recognized I had a problem with alcohol, but I would change my mind the next day and be confident I was in control of my lie.
Having blurry vision when I was sober and having the shakes when I was drunk was an ominous sign. Several days later, after I hit my head, knowing I could not live like this anymore, I walked into a Veteran Affairs Medical Center and asked to detox. Beginning on November 2, 2017, I went through detox and then went to an inpatient rehab facility. These were the places where I started to understand mindfulness. While in rehab in Boston, a VA employee would take those who wanted to go to an off-campus gym that offered yoga. This yoga was free to anyone with the stipulation that they must be sober from anything for 48 hours. Alcohol, cocaine, heroin, sugar, or soda pop; if you are in early recovery, this class is for you. A group of us went here weekly, and I noticed a group of veterans who had written off the practice and never came. I saw correlations between the skills we were learning in a group and individual therapy and the skills in yoga. I knew yoga would be a part of my recovery, and I also started going to classes in the community around rehab. I rekindled my love for my high school girlfriend, who taught yoga in that community, and she will soon be my wife.
After rehab, the VA then provided me with treatment at Ward 8, a Specialized inpatient PTSD program in Western Massachusetts. The program taught yoga and mindfulness alongside intensive therapy, and I also sought yoga from the community. In a North Hampton Yoga Studio, I first saw the now recognizable dog tag logo of the Veterans Yoga Project. The owner and yoga teacher was a veteran, and I became very aware of how valuable these skills were to me. I went to a few more programs over the following years of early recovery with organizations like Homebase and Wounded Warrior Project, which taught yoga and mindfulness skills. I figured that there was something to yoga and that it helped the traumatized.
I went to yoga in my community, and I began to have an understanding that building these skills made my life better. I still had racing thoughts, and often they were still overwhelming, but I often practiced with other people to focus on the moment. I followed up with the Veteran Yoga Project because I wanted to understand better how yoga worked. I was so lucky to have attended a Mindful Resilience Training taught by VYP’s own Brianna Renner in Vermont. Maybe it was because I had completed therapy and was ready to receive it, and this training taught me so much about myself and how people think. Brianna explained the stress responses in the VYP manner, and I understood it. During our yoga session that weekend, I was able to experience something I have come to know as a blissful state. I can cultivate awareness of the present moment when I am in a Safe, Predictable, and Controlled environment (SPaCe), and, as Dr. Dan Libby puts it, we can create our own SpaCe.
Beginning with that VYP MRT, Yoga has helped me unwind the patterns I was engrained in the military, starting with the position of attention. In Drill Sergeant School, I learned how to train civilians to become new soldiers, and drill and ceremony and uniform physical training were vital. If a soldier’s body did not naturally move in a way consistent with physical training or their bodies did not feel good standing uncomfortable in silent formations, there was something wrong with the individual. In yoga, I learned that there is no perfect shape and that we can accept where we are in the moment.
As I mindfully move through my life, my fiance Deanna and I have continued to have yoga as a source of support. In 2020, I was ecstatic to apply to and begin to attend the first-ever VYP MRYTT. I was less excited about the announcement of a global pandemic, but VYP dodged, ducked, dipped, dived, and dodged their way through our virtual training. Meeting every month during covid was just what I needed, and I know this training has saved lives. I left that training with a lot of understanding and growth.
I am teaching VYP classes in my community, and sharing the skills that have helped me means so much to me. This organization taught me an understandable way to create a Safe, Predictable, and Controlled environment to hold for myself and others. I have so much gratitude for VYP as an agency, everyone who has worked to make it so great, and the donors who have supported veterans like me on their journey to a life worth living.