It was not the first time a student had asked what I had done before finding a calling as a yoga teacher. I was armed with my usual answer and attempted to tactfully re-steer the conversation to a topic I thought more suitable to the incense filled studio, already full of over-stressed yogis searching for an hour of peace. I answered delicately hoping to smoothly deflect any further questioning. “I was a Navy jet pilot, and tonight we’ll do some flying as well so don’t forget to grab a block and a strap on your way in.” In the cockpit, a pilot would call “Chaff.. Flares” to redirect an impending threat by literally showing them a ‘shiny light’. But my verbal chaff didn’t work, my flares were duds, and the student followed up with the question, “ Now isn’t that a bit contradictory and hypocritical?”
I parted my lips but the words felt like ghosts. I said nothing. My heart urged me to respond “But no, they’re quite similar”, but my best defense in that brief ambush was an unaggressive shrug. As luck would have it, the student decided not to press any further, probably recognizing she had swiftly disarmed me with her simple honest question.
My thoughts were still untethered as I walked to the front of the room. Fortunately, I managed to pull it together until the students slipped tranquilly into savasana an hour later. While they rested, words like warriors, faith, shraddha, reverence, discipline, tapas, love, and most importantly seva came to mind, but they seemed to just float in the space around me. I couldn’t unscramble the puzzle of my thoughts and frankly questioned myself as to why I thought serving in the military, a world of fierce competition and conflict, resembled the beautiful ancient unifying art of yoga. They ARE the same my gut adamantly repeated, and it had never let me down before. Discipline. Love. Seva. These are the answers I wish I had found for my student that evening.
- Discipline & Reverence
4:00AM – Beep! Beep! Beep! I dragged myself out of bed, washed my face and slithered into my uniform. Not my usual flight suit and dog tags, but a yoga ‘uniform’ of brightly colored spandex and a silver elephant toe ring. As I strolled down the cow filled street to Saraswathi’s Ashtanga studio in Mysore India, my only thought was of how glorious my pillow would feel 3 hours later. I hadn’t been that tired since Navy survival training but my aversion to letting down a sweet 70 year old Indian woman resembled a similar fear of an old Gunnery Sergeant.
Maybe it was the bindi or the sari that masked the similarities to Gunny Smith, but I guess I hadn’t noticed it at the time. All I knew was I HAD to be at class at exactly 4:30am, and there was no chance IN HELL I wanted to be on the receiving end of a tardy glance from her earnest all-seeing eyes. After practice ended, I rolled up my battle weathered mat and hesitantly walked up to her. She sat motherly with her ankles gently crossed, hands folded in her lap, and observed the class with a tenderness and intensity that rarely coexist. I lowered to my knees and bowed at her feet, a new gesture and yet one so familiar. vande gurunam charanaravinde = I bow to the lotus feet of our greatest teachers. Pausing for a moment of respect, similar to the same way I had saluted senior Officers and the American flag throughout my career.
Only now, two years later do these parallels seem so evident. The common threads of discipline, tapas and reverence. Whether in the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard, discipline is what helps us stay united. It is the glue that keeps us integrated, whole and functioning smoothly. This is no different as yoga practitioners. Our discipline to our practice, not just on the mat, but off the mat as well, keeps us integrated and balanced. Discipline to a commitment of opening our eyes to truth, love and understanding. It reconnects us to the truest version of ourselves, holding us accountable to embodying the open-hearted, open-minded warriors we strive to be.
My heart is humbled by the simple reverent gestures of bowing and saluting. Not just to our teachers or to the flag, but to our oneness. These gestures remind us we are part of something larger than simply ourselves. Bowing to Saraswathi felt like I was bowing to the ultimate teacher in all of us, she simply was my humble guide.
The same was true of saluting Gunny Smith while I was still a student. On the day I became a new Officer in the Navy, it was Gunny Smith who then honored me with my first salute. My eyes filled with tears as he performed this simple dutiful gesture that was larger than either one of us. It reminded us that we were united and part of a bigger picture.
Whether on a physical battlefield or the one of truth/satya, discipline is the key to success. In essence, discipline to truth and love becomes our greatest gift, our greatest salutation, to ourselves and to others.
- Love & Faith
I once read that a warrior’s greatest strength was in their ability to love. Too often we are told that love is a weakness or that real power is preserved by fortifying our hearts. That if we are to be ‘strong’, to be ‘tough’, to be a warrior, we must hide these disarming emotions. But love is the source of fire for a warrior, and for a yogi. It is the motivation that provides stamina when faced with adversity. Love for family, for fellow warriors, for justice, for tolerance, and for freedom.
Without it, there is no reason to fight. There is no reason to leave your family, friends, and home for months risking life and limb in dangerous conditions. Love is the ultimate source of sustainment for a warrior. And if love is the fire, faith is the bellow that keeps the embers hot even when the fire begins to cool, or doubt creeps in. Faith and love are the scaffolding of a service member’s ‘toughness’, it is what is behind their physical and emotional strength and courage.
Similarly, love is often what calls us as yogis. When we practice, the tension, the stress, the blockages, the knots are unbound and this clearing is what allows our hearts to awaken to a fountain of strength that is already within. Love gives us the courage to forgive, to let go, to accept, and to move on from situations that are no longer serving our lives. It is stronger than any other emotion, we simply need to get out of our own way to harness it. Even when this awakening is not always physical or tangible, our faith, our shraddha, is strong enough to bring us back to our mat time and time again.
Love IS a true warrior’s greatest strength. When we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with love in our hearts, there is nothing we won’t have the courage to discover. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Understanding. Compassion. Freedom. These are the common threads of the warrior spirit.
Any service member will admit, if you want to be rich, don’t join the military. Any yoga teacher can probably tell you the same. And yet, we all still choose to serve in our own way. Some would even say “called” to serve. Not just those is our classes, or those next to us in crisis, but ultimately called to serve the betterment of all living things. We are called to fight for justice, truth and freedom. The military title “service member” lives up to its name. It is a community committed to serving strangers, family and friends. Called to action and to fight for peace. To serve honorably and bravely is a soldier’s highest intention.
As yogi’s we too are our own type of “service members”. We fight for peace and compassion, on and off the mat, for strangers, family and friends. Our energy is never lost if it is of pure intention, and there is nothing more noble than giving ourselves through seva. It purifies the soul, releases the ego, and ignites the embers in your heart to a fiery blaze.
Seva is what makes us similar. It is a shared duty both the GI and the yogi are called to in life.
Four years ago while on deployment aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Truman, I began sharing my yoga practice with fellow service members. A year later I began co-teaching classes with my teacher Ann Richardson to larger military units. One morning as a team of Navy Seals were lying out their mats, a fellow Frogman walked past. When asked by his teammates if he wanted to join, he sarcastically gave the typical response of… “Yoga? Yeah right”. Now usually I wouldn’t recommend challenging a Navy Seal who is über hyped up for his morning workout. But as he walked away, my smart-mouth got away from me and I asked “What are you afraid of big guy?” No answer.
For a moment I wished I could retract my words and zip them back into my lips. “That wasn’t very yogic Liz.” I thought to myself. But then I realized it WAS the question to be asked, but that it was not solely his question to answer. I had to ask myself, what was he afraid of, and could I possibly find a way to help absolve this fear of slowing down? Now I am no Navy Seal, but as a fellow service member, I understood his fear. I understood his fear of letting go of the stress and intensity, it was his protection. It kept his nervous system on high alert. The element of fight or flight strongly in the fight category where it needed to be for him to perform his job safely. But maybe, just maybe, I could guide him to an hour of slowing down, breathing softly, moving with a different kind of intention. A place of balance and mindfulness.
In that moment I realized my calling was to continue finding ways to share the transformation benefits of yoga to this community. We as yogis are called to serve others. In whatever way we can connect to most. Giving our time, our energy, our understanding, and our love unconditionally. But to do this, we must continue to foster our own warrior spirit. Discipline. Reverence. Shraddha. Love. These will keep us ready as warriors, strong and spiritually tough, so that we can fan our own flame in order to serve our own dharma, whatever that may look like.
THIS is the answer I wish I had given my student. It is not contradictory or hypocritical. They share the same call to service. Both the military and the practice of yoga call us to be something more, to reach higher than ourselves. In this sense, they couldn’t be more similar. There is a warrior in all of us.
Thanks for sharing this journey with me…
Liz Corwin is a traveling yoga teacher and wandering yogi who can be found sharing her warrior spirit in workshops, video tutorials, posts and blogs on Facebook and Instagram. After 8 years as a Navy F-18 pilot, it is no wonder she is usually still inverted somewhere on her mat. She is an ambassador to The Give Back Yoga Foundation, an advocate for Malaforvets, a 2014 Kira Grace Warrior, and is featured on the cover of Beryl Bender Birch’s new book “Yoga For Warriors” (Available on Amazon). If you would like to use your warrior spirit to serve Veterans in your own community, please visit The Give Back Yoga Foundation, Walkaboutyoga or Malaforvets to find out more!