Green Berets are the toughest, most effective, lethal group of men on the planet. Known for their focus, strength, and mastery of unconventional combat, the Green Berets were created to practice a more modern kind of warfare.
Yoga, an ancient system of physical and spiritual practice arising around 600 BCE, is characterized by flexibility of mind and body, self-aware movement, meditation, chanting, connecting with the vital power of the breath, culminating in heightened consciousness and peace.
A perfect match, right?
I didn’t think so either, until I spent a few days in Pinehurst, NC, at a gathering of Green Berets raising funds for their fallen comrades, by doing yoga. According to them, yoga is being increasingly adopted by the Special Forces community. Why?
It starts with the obvious and ends with something that only emerges after diving deeper.
Dan Pritchard Special Forces Sergeant First Class, said, “Like many guys I was brought to yoga by a very pretty girl. I went with her and it was a lot harder than I thought, and I said to myself, ‘I gotta do more of this.”
Dan went on to do yoga teacher training, and encourages fellow Green Berets to practice. “More and more guys I have introduced to it have said, ‘It is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, I’m sleeping better, I feel better about everything and it has increased my appreciation for what this body can do for us.’ There’s the misconception that yoga is easy. And I challenge any guy out there to come do a 90 minute hot yoga session at Hot Asana in Southern Pines. You will see a bunch of guys that have several combat rotations, that will gladly tell you it’s some of the hardest stuff they have done.
As a measure of Pritchard’s toughness, he felt like he let his team down because he was medevac’d off the battlefield against his will, just because of “a small, little skull fracture,” in his words, that he sustained from a grenade blast.
Josh Mattis, Special Forces Intelligence Sergeant, 3rd Special Forces Group, said: “The first time in the studio yoga kicked my butt bad. Green Berets by nature are very physical and we’re used to being the best at almost everything. It was a very humbling experience. I said, ‘I want to get better at this.’ After months and months my sore back and my knees and the clicking in my ankles was going away. And two and a half years later the sky is the limit. There’s no peak in yoga. You just keep going and going.”
Matt Daniel, 18 Bravo Special Forces Weapons Sergeant, 3rd Special Forces Group, said, “The first time I walked into (yoga class) I had this huge ego. I’m in a room full of these young women that had practiced dance since they were five, and they’re flexible, and they’ve been practicing yoga for three years, and, especially in the veteran community, you’re not used to not being the best at something. The perception I had was, ‘This hurts, this doesn’t feel comfortable, I’m not good at it.’ It took several years of practicing on my own in my apartment to understand the realness of you showing up on your mat.”
OK. Pretty obvious if you’ve ever tried yoga; it’s much harder than people think. And Green Berets are going to be attracted to physical challenges. But these guys weren’t just in it for that. They weren’t just powering out yoga classes between cross fit workouts. They went all in. Meditation. Learning about the other seven limbs of yoga (physical asana is the third of eight). Teacher training. These guys have really incorporated yoga principles into their lives.
Dan Pritchard said, “This whole time I was (in Afghanistan)…fortunately for me, having that skill set and doing the yoga, the meditation prior to being deployed, I was unknowingly curing myself…Yoga is not only physically challenging, it’s a place to take care of the soul of the warrior within. The body is just a vessel and the soul is going to be with you forever. Yoga meditation is really a way to take care of your entire self.”
Matt Daniel, who after nine deployments was treated for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, said, “The biggest thing yoga brought me was spiritual belief. They kept telling me in every hospital that I needed spirituality. And if you’d have showed me there was a god, I probably would have punched him, three years ago. Now I realize that the ideals that I was brought up believing as a spirituality practice aren’t necessarily the only means. Yoga has undoubtedly given me a more spiritual connection, which has had a massive impact on overall healing.”
After he went through a string of hospitals he left, and found healing his own way. “I filled my day with meditation, yoga, surfing, complete solitude, and with that recipe of being with nature, practicing yoga more intimately, daily, and realizing the longevity of the benefits if I continued doing it. In the meditation I found the first inclination of peace. Everyday I fight for that now.”
Daniel went through yoga teacher training and said he, “learned way more than just the physical asana practice, that just being one limb of yoga…It’s very possible I wouldn’t be here today without yoga.”
Josh Mattis sums it up this way, “Competition is something we’re huge on. And yoga is not about that. You can just go there and be on your mat. I don’t get that aspect anywhere else in my life. It’s almost my version of a spiritual aspect. My wife and I refer to going to yoga as going to church…My father is actually a minister, and I actually grew up in the church, and I lost my way a little bit, in combat, just seeing the things that I’ve seen. But yoga has brought spirituality, like my connection to the universe back. Now I’m more of a complete person. I’m really grateful for that aspect because that’s hard to find man.”
For guys who are skeptical of yoga, he adds, “You sit Indian style, with your hands down for grounding and palms up for receiving. I was always the guy with palms down, like ‘I’m not getting into this spiritual hokey stuff. I love the work out, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not going to receive everybody’s energy.’ OK. Give it some time buddy, because you will get into the spirit of yoga and it’s just an awesome feeling.”