Story by Liesel Schmidt
Photography by Jonathan Thorpe
Unfortunately, war seems to be a consequence of human nature. Looking back at two World Wars, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and what seems like an endless war in the Middle East, we as a nation have endured more than our share of conflict in the last century. Through all that time, countless men and women have braved the unthinkable to come home battle-scarred. Often, those scars are ones that we cannot see. The mental and emotional toll that life in a warzone inflicts is sometimes too much; sometimes to the point that there seems to be no light in the darkness.
For Justin Blazejewski, post-Marine life as a government contractor saw him in Iraq 40 times over a 10-year span, leaving him with war wounds that weren’t visible, but still every bit as debilitating as physical wounds. How he found the strength to rise from the depths came from a place of self-reflection and meditation through yoga. “I began practicing yoga in 2008 and it was the light that I needed to pull me out of the darkness and away from suicide,” says Blazejewski. “Early on in that year, I was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, and out of desperation, I left the generally accepted ‘box’ of what vets typically do to deal [with emotional pain] and went to a yoga class. While I was laying in the relaxed pose at the end of the class, I felt my parasympathetic nervous system for the first time in years. It was like medicine for me and I knew that, whatever that was, I needed more. It was then [that] I started practicing yoga six to seven times a week to deepen my practice and healing. I knew that I wanted to share this with other veterans out there struggling in the darkness like I was. Later that year, I attended my first yoga teacher training in New York City with Sri Dharma Mittra … and [that] is where my journey of becoming a yoga instructor began. I made a promise to myself then that when I stopped my warzone travel, I would use what I learned in yoga to create something to help those others like me. My last warzone trip was December 2014, and in 2015, I took a year off to heal and dive deep into my yoga practice.”
"My vision was clear... sharing the healing benefits of yoga with military, veteran, law enforcement, first responders and their families." - Justin Blazejewski
It was during that year that the idea for VETOGA was born during one of Blazejewski’s meditations. “My vision was clear,” he recalls. “The concept of what I wanted to do was simply sharing the healing benefits of yoga with military, veteran, law enforcement, first responders and their families and creating a yoga teacher training for veterans to be trained and equip them to spread these teachings to those who need them most.”
VETOGA is now the first 200-hour yoga teacher training specifically for veterans, offering a focus in Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) at zero cost to the veteran. VETOGA is also the only teacher training that is free to veterans. “When people get out of the military, they lose their community and tribe and lack a sense of purpose,” Blazejewski explains. “VETOGA is filling that void by creating community through our classes, retreats and trainings and giving them a mission and sense of purpose to help others.”
The benefits that yoga offers is where VETOGA also differs from other forms of therapy. “Yoga helped me heal from the physical, mental and emotional injuries that I brought home with me from the warzones,” Blazejewski says. “We all live with some level of stress and our veterans bring home a higher level of stress and trauma with them from their service. Yoga helps keep the body healthy and regulate emotions and is a positive coping mechanism for stress. Yoga helps you find your true self and your dharma—your purpose in life.”
Over the past four years, VETOGA has trained and equipped over 150 teachers who are now teaching hundreds of yoga classes per year and reaching thousands of military, veteran, law enforcement, first responders and their families. “We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from the people who have come to VETOGA,” Blazejewski proudly says. “When people find VETOGA for the first time, a lot of them have told us that they wish they had known about us sooner. It always lets me know we’re living our missions when new students find VETOGA and share their personal stories of what brought them to that present moment on their yoga mat.”
The biggest challenge in his work at VETOGA, according to Blazejewski, lies in getting vets to the classes and trainings. “Yoga is still outside the ‘norm’ for veterans,” he notes. “We aim to break down that stigma of what vets think yoga is by training brothers and sisters like themselves to show them the benefits and be the light in their communities for others to find.”
As challenging as it can be to break those stigmas and misapprehensions held by so many in the military community, Blazejewski is fully aware of the importance in forging ahead. “There are still, on average, 22 veterans committing suicide every single day,” he says. “I was very close to becoming one of those statistics before I found yoga. These programs and teachings are more important now than ever. We need to train and equip more veterans to find their brothers and sisters that are struggling in the darkness with depressing and suicidal thoughts.”
The reward in the work comes from seeing the changes made in the lives of those who find VETOGA. “On a micro level, my satisfaction comes when I get phone calls in the middle of the night from students who are about to commit suicide and I’m able to help them back to the light and prevent them from becoming a statistic. On a macro level, it comes when I see my teachers becoming leaders in their communities and teaching classes in places I could never have reached on my own. All of this shows me, unequivocally, that VETOGA is accomplishing the good I envisioned it would when I started it.”
Coming from such a personal place, Blazejewski’s mission is all the more powerful—and he carries that with him in his work, making him more effective at reaching those who need it the most. “I’m very proud of my military experience and being a veteran,” he says. “Being in the Marine Corps, I learned a lot of positive life lessons and discipline that I’ve applied every day [in my] life. To be a true yogi, you have to have discipline and commitment to a daily practice, so being used to committing to something and having the discipline to stick with it was a direct result of the qualities I learned during my military service.”
As Blazejewski and his team at VETOGA continue their work, he hopes to increase VEGTOGA's impact. “We are still a small nonprofit that depends on donations to execute our missions of providing yoga classes, retreats and teacher trainings to our veterans,” he says. “With our current budget, we are only able to offer one teacher training and one yoga retreat for veterans per year. My hope for VETOGA is that we increase our donations and grants and find corporate sponsorships that will allow the company to hire employees to expand the business and allow us the funds and infrastructure to provide four retreats per year and four teacher trainings and install leadership and communities in every state in the nation.”
To learn more or to donate, visit www.vetoga.org.