Marine veteran teaches a new kind of warrior pose

Lauren Warner
October 08, 2018 - 10:09 pm

Photo courtesy of VEToga

Justin Blazejewski, age 38, has spent most of his adult life in combat zones. First, as a Marine and then as a civilian government contractor, Blazejewski lived in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight during 40-plus trips to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Photo courtesy of Justin Blazejewski

From the time he enlisted in 1998, Blazejewski’s parasympathetic nervous system (the one that allows you to rest and relax) hadn’t been activated. He found himself constantly on high alert and the stress continued to pile up. To get away from it all, he turned to running, participating in long-distance running events and marathons until an ankle injury from one of his many contractor deployments left him unable to run away any longer. 

In 2008, between trips overseas, his roommate dragged him to a yoga class and by the end of the class, Blazejewski felt himself relaxing for the first time in over a decade. The shavasana, a relaxation pose typically done at the end of a yoga practice, gave him hope. For the following six months he attended yoga classes daily and then enrolled in a 200-hour teacher training program in New York. 

"I love to sweat because it helps me find that calm place inside of me," explains Blazejewski. "It gives me an escape from thoughts and gives me a physical outlet that feels good no matter how stressed I am in my life."

Blazejewski knew that thousands of troops struggled with emotional scars, such as symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, as well as the physical scars. As he continued to travel overseas  he realized that these troops needed the escape that yoga gave him, and probably more so than he did.  He came up with a plan to share this practice that became his saving grace.

Blazejewski kicked off his pilot class of yoga teacher training in the fall of 2016 with 12 students in the American Legion Post 24 in Old Town Alexandria. This 10-day intensive, with thirteen and a half hours a day, probably seems like a cake walk compared to the sixteen hour days most servicemembers experienced during basic training.

Photo courtesy of David Logan Photography

The course covers many aspects of yoga, from meditation and anatomy to the history of yoga, multiple styles of yoga practice and how to tailor the program more specifically for teaching the veteran community. This course does cover everything necessary for basic yogis, however, there is a separate 10-hour training course especially focused on teaching people dealing with trauma, TBI and PTSD.

Interest quickly spread, with the initial class extending to eight states. Two years later, over 50 students have completed the VEToga program. This growing community is held together by a love for yoga, but Blazejewski also notes the camaraderie of being around fellow servicemembers helps to combat the disconnect many veterans feel in the civilian world.    

Photo courtesy of David Logan Photography

Once the ten days of training are complete, the trainees still have to complete a number of free classes, at the location of their choice, before finally completing all 200 hours for their Yoga Alliance Certified Teacher Training. The students then teach in their hometowns, offering donation-based classes that are free to veterans and first-responders, to continue to raise funds for the next class of VEToga students. The VEToga team has a partnership with 532 Yoga in Old Town Alexandria as well as a support system within Lululemon where students can teach their classes.

The support for the VEToga community and interest in the program continues to grow-- with coverage from CNN, The Washington Post, the NBA and USO -- there's no shortage of press which goes to show just how much of an impact Blazejewski's passion has made on the community.

VEToga currently holds two training sessions a year, with fundraising going year-round. Each veteran student is required to start a fundraising page with a goal of $2,500 to cover the cost of training while non-veteran students affiliated with the military & veteran communities pay the $3,000 a regular 200-hour teacher training would cost. Additionally, Blazejewski and his team put on a gala each fall, with an auction to help increase fundraising efforts. This fall, Blazejewski is taking his team to Hawaii for the first teacher training to be held outside of Alexandria, VA.

Photo courtesy of David Logan Photography

"When I think of bringing the healing powers of yoga and meditation to veterans who live in the dark like I did, it lights me up knowing I can show them the light," says Blazejewski.

 

For more information on VEToga, to donate or sign up for teacher training, click here.

 

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