Sally Denton responded to our call for interviewees and what follows is our discussion about her thoughts and tips on teaching yoga to veterans.
Priya: Please tell us a bit about your professional training and teaching experience in yoga.
Sally: I am happy to talk about my journey. I was a psychotherapist for nearly 40 years and the last 12 years were at Fort Campbell Army Installation in Kentucky. The work was so intense, listening to the trauma stories of soldiers returning from war––no doubt I suffered from secondary trauma. When I had time off, I would sit and watch the lake outside my windows, the birds and wildlife healing my broken spirit. This is when I found yoga and meditation.
In 2008, I was certified by the Chopra Center in La Jolla, California, as a meditation instructor and in 2012, I completed the 200-hour teacher training also at the Chopra Center. The town where I lived had only 2000 people and there were no yoga classes, so I began to teach for free at a State Park fitness center nearby. I got people from all walks of life and they packed into the room usually 25 to 30 once per week. The first row was a group of women in their 70s and 80’s!
The best training I received was from the clients that I worked with over the years. In particular, the individuals who came to my counseling practice, women who had been sexually and physically abused, then the soldiers who experienced unspeakable horrors, each and every one of them taught me how to open to pain, hold space, and facilitate healing. So it was no wonder that when the Accessible Yoga training came to where I was living in 2017, St Louis, Missouri, and my heart recognized the open hearts of Jivana Heyman and all of those in the room, I enrolled and felt I had indeed found my tribe.
Since then, I have volunteered to teach Accessible Yoga to vets at the Veterans Affairs (VA) facility in St Louis. In addition, I've presented workshops, with Jivana's guidance, to local yoga teachers and teacher trainees, and I teach Accessible Yoga at a studio in South County St Louis.
I continue to spread the word about Accessible Yoga to mental health providers. Last spring, I taught a group of social workers about the benefits of adding Accessible Yoga and meditation to their treatment planning for clients with trauma, anxiety, and depression.
Priya: It sounds like you have extensive experience instructing yoga to veterans. Can you share with us some of the specific poses, language, and techniques that you use for vets, and please explain why they are appropriate for this group?
Sally: I teach vets from the place in my heart that warms to their service and contribution. I am deeply respectful of their pain and sacrifices, so all of my connection and encounters with the vets come from that deep place. It is hard to describe but you will know when someone is acknowledging your worth. You will read it in their attention to what you say, and their eye contact, as well as how they carry themselves in your presence.
As a social worker and psychotherapist, I understand non-verbal communication. I approach the vets not from a place of weakness but from a place of strength. So it isn’t their trauma that I am looking for in the yoga classes I lead, but it is their code of honor, courage, and abilities. Of course I am trauma sensitive, but when I spend time talking with the vets before and after class, I am relating to them from their resilient spirit.
Here are a few suggestions for yoga classes for vets:
1) Always arrive a half hour or more before class and personally introduce yourself, shaking hands, and presenting yourself respectfully.
2) Allow time for each person to tell you who they are and anything else about themselves. Older vets often show up for yoga and rarely get the attention that younger vets receive. Women vets also find less acceptance and need time and attention. Notice people who seem to be outside the group and draw them in.
3) Don’t assume because many have experienced trauma that they don’t want touch or connection. At the VA facility, there was a general rule against touch during class. However, handshakes before and after with good eye contact and feedback about their progress was highly regarded.
4) Many teachers can become uncomfortable teaching a vet because of all of the warnings regarding trauma sensitivity. Don’t be intimidated. Connect in a meaningful way with speech and action. Look for opportunities to see success and acknowledge effort.
5) Don’t skimp on the inner work. My classes consisted of the routine poses you would find in any Accessible Yoga class. But I spent more time teaching breath work and meditation than asana. Vets benefit greatly from learning alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodana) to reduce stress and anxiety. That particular practice and a variety of other pranayama practices were the foundation of the class, along with meditation right at the beginning to set the tone of the class. A lengthy savasana at the end was also a rule in my class--sometimes preceded by a guided relaxation or yoga nidra.
5) Building community in the class is important for vets. When a new person joins the class, allow time for everyone to introduce themselves at the beginning of class. Encourage gathering after class. When the class does well as a group, let them know enthusiastically.
6) Take time to explain the movement of energy, the importance of long exhales, and other concepts important in yoga. Talk about the essence of yoga and the authentic self. Honor their ability to understand these concepts as well as any other group.
Priya: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us before concluding the interview?
Sally: I once had a vet ask me if yoga was a religion. From his expression, I could tell he was resistant, though he had been coming to class for a while. I asked him if a candle was religious. He said, "No, of course not." So I explained that yoga is like a candle––it can be used to benefit someone in their devotion to a religious practice, but that it could also be used by anyone who wants to benefit from it as a useful tool for a different activity.
We were not allowed to use Sanskrit at the VA, but I found that Sanskrit wasn’t necessary to teach the concepts central to the practice of yoga, the practice I love and happily share with those from all walks of life and all beliefs.
Sally F. Denton, LCSW, RYT 200, received a Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1983. After that, she practiced as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Kentucky and took courses including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Certification in 1995 and Prolonged Exposure Therapy Certification in 2013.
Sally received certification in Primordial Sound Meditation at the Chopra Center, Carlsbad, CA, in 2008. In 2012, she attended a 200-hr yoga teacher training, also at the Chopra Center, Carlsbad, CA, and in 2017, she completed the Accessible Yoga Training when it was held in St Louis, MO.
From 2016-2018, Sally was part of Accessible Yoga teacher training at Agape Yoga in St Louis and Studio Gaia, Edwardsville, IL. During that time and into 2019, she taught at the VA facility, St Louis, MO. In addition, from 2018 up to the present she has taught Accessible Yoga at South River Yoga in St Louis. Sally instructed yoga and meditation in Cadiz, Ky from 2008-2014 at a variety of locations.
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
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