Relearning to Exhale, with Cindy Mastry

Cindy Mastry is co-owner of  the venerable Yoga Etc. Studio; a long-time teacher and student of yoga asana and philosophy, she is friend and mentor to many (including us).  I’d previously conducted a lengthy Q&A session with Cindy but then got so busy with the studio that I hadn’t posted it. Yesterday I apologized for the delay, and she said, “That’s ok, I realized I never said anything about one of the things that affects my teaching a lot—the Exalted warrior program at the VA!” Then she sent me this wonderful piece about her experiences working with veterans. If you feel so inclined, the foundation is currently competing in a Tampa Bay Storm CharityVote contest for funds. Cindy, take it away…

The Exalted Warriors

exaltedwarriorfoundationI started with the Exalted Warrior Foundation about two years ago. They needed someone and I was available, and I thought it’d be a nice thing to volunteer my time to — giving back to those who were willing to give their lives to their country. I’d never done anything like it before, and it’s been a very humbling and eye-opening experience.  Mostly positive, but sometimes, some of them can really get to me. I have what Annie (Okerlin, of Yogani, who started the Exalted Warrior program) calls “a high level functioning group”— which mainly means none of my students are amputees and most can move. I do have some in wheelchairs and always someone who has just come out of surgery. Most of it is chair yoga, but we do some standing poses: 1/2 sun salutations, a few balances, and for those who can we do a few seated poses and some lying down including savanasa — some have to stay in a chair for that. Lately in class I have a really nice man that has a seeing eye dog named Stevie Nicks. I love to have her in class.

To teach this kind of yoga is totally different than studio yoga and has required a lot of outside study — espeically along therapeutic lines. Thank goodness I took a lot of workshops and trainings in that area! This practice is not about fun flows or neat yoga tricks, or a “workout” — it’s about affecting people lives at the level of their very existence; their ability to exist and deal in the world, and accept who they are, what they’ve been through and accept the very troubling things that they’ve seen or had to do or deal with in war. Some things they are not proud of and have trouble admitting to. Some are Vietnam Vets who feel their country left them high and dry and feel very disrespected.

Most have never done yoga before and are not at all open to it but the PTSD program requires that they try two sessions. A few are totally resistant and sit in the chair with their arms crossed staring me down with a “you’re a f-ing hippie love freak and I’m not f-ing doing any of this!” and send negative glaring eye daggers at me the whole time. Some resist on religious reasons and won’t be convinced that yoga isn’t a religion — although I have convinced a few that yoga can bring them closer to Jesus (I have taught Christian yoga before); some of the men insist they aren’t doing any of that “girly yoga stuff” — until I explain that until the last 100 years women weren’t even allowed to do yoga. But for the most part, they respectfully try and lo and behold even actually like it.  We started out two years ago with just a few and several of them keep coming back. Most days we are at maximum capacity and have to turn people down. Some have said that they feel “lighter” after the practice and that it definitely helps them to relax. The repeat customers say it helps them deal in life. One of my weekly classes is in the Mental Health Facility (the lock-down room). We use Biodots that measure stress for them (since we only see them one time and it is funded through a Grant and the VAs need to justify that it is actually helping — hard to judge with only one class). Most all start with the black color — totally stressed out, and only one or two show no change in their stress level at the end of the class.

For me, I’m honored that I can be of help. Mostly it’s very rewarding, but sometimes it’s hard to watch and to process. You realize just how blessed you are, just how horrendous war really is (we knew that, but here is the proof in your face). You wonder what in the hell is wrong with people and why is it we can’t all respect different lifestyles, religions, etc.

Cindy Mastry, by Dannette Morse.

Cindy Mastry, by Danette Morse.

Some of the hardest hitting experiences that had the most profound affect on me were:

— trying to help one man to do something as simple as breathe. He just couldn’t exhale. I’ve never seen anyone not be able to exhale. I kept trying to work with him to exhale and finally he just burst out with “But how do I know if I’ll ever be able to  inhale!” I’ve never experienced anyone with that level of fear — so afraid that they couldn’t even exhale. Wow.

— then there was the woman that went into a PTSD episode in the middle of savasana — in savasana!— because some guy fell asleep and snored. One snore sent her literally frozen in fear. I’d heard the term frozen in fear, but I’d never actually witnessed it before. Her entire body tensed so much she could barely choke out a breath. She shook balled up in a fetal position for nearly 15 minutes. Not knowing what to do, I just held her, rubbed her shoulders and tried to ujjayi breathe with her to calm her down. Finally she came out of it, relaxed and hugged me so tight in appreciation for just being there with her and having someone care enough to help her. Snoring took her back to the battlefield, at night, worried with the sounds of bombs around her and the sounds of her fellow soldiers snoring.

— several of the ones in the mental health facility just plain can’t sleep. No matter how many drugs they pump into them, they just don’t sleep— all fear. A lot of the time my classes in the mental health facility turn out to be like therapy sessions. I’ve really had to rely on my yoga philosophy studies. I am most definitely not qualified to answer the questions they throw at me (thank goodness there is always a VA recreation therapist with me), but I have found I always answer the questions with what I’ve learned from yoga philosophy.  “From a yoga perspective-they believe this,” or “yoga philosophy explains it this way.” I have to be really careful not to say anything that would contradict what their doctor is prescribing. The best example of this is when I had the guy with night terrors and how the doctors were trying to cover them up. I had mentioned that yoga will sometimes bring up stuff that we bury in the body and that started a conversation about how to deal with his night terrors. I’m not really a great writer, but the incident with that man inspired me to write this:


Society teaches us to bury the bad. Headache? Take a pill. Hard day? Eat  some ice cream, have a drink, smoke a joint. In other words, bury it. From a yogic standpoint, using drugs (legal or otherwise) or food to alleviate pain only serves to cover it up, leaving the underlying cause of the pain to gravitate to some other place in the body. Like in our neck, shoulders, hips, or back— or to create a chronic illness.

Teaching yoga at the Veterans Administration has been an awe-inspiring experience that has afforded me the opportunity to meet many Vets suffering from PTSD. Recently I worked with one Vet whose PTSD has manifested in night terrors so extreme that he wakes in the middle of the night screaming, shaking, sobbing, with sheets soaked in perspiration. To heal this, he has been prescribed medication that completely erases all memory of the dream. So now, he wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, shaking, sobbing, with sheets soaked in perspiration, with absolutely no recollection of why.

I realize I am no doctor, definitely no psychologist, but doesn’t this just bury the issue? Doesn’t this just push the issue down so deep that the root of the problem will never be confronted and the pain will continue to manifest as night terrors or maybe something even worse?

In yoga, we strive to master the concept of Samatva, or equanimity, which basically means maintaining calmness even in the most difficult of situations. A balanced response to all situations rather than an emotional reaction, whether the situation is good or bad. Sometimes, you just don’t know. What’s good may not turn out so good and what’s bad may not turn out so bad. Yoga philosophy defines Samatva as the sameness that underlies all phenomena; what remains when all activity ceases; a calmness; a union of the individual self with the inner (true) Self.

A consistent yoga practice will inevitably bring up the “bad” that we have buried deep within our bodies. And I would imagine in terms of war, there could be some horribly terrible things to bury. But allowing issues to surface also allows us to examine them, deal with them and then begin the process of healing. Examining the issues is difficult to say the least, for anyone, but all of our experiences, good or bad, are life lessons that are part of what make us who we are, a part of our growth, a part of our ability to transform. If we continue to bury them, they will forever have their hold on us. If we can find the strength to conquer them, we will then be able to let go; to find our true Self; to live in Samatva.

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I realize I have written you a book— sorry!!! But working with the vets for me have been one that points out right in your face just how fortunate we are, how much we have, and how much we have to be grateful for. Like being able to exhale without worrying where the inhale will come from.

– Cindy Mastry