By Amber Avalona-Butler/ParaglideJuly 1, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - It's a typical humid morning for Fort Bragg, and Capt. Rachael Arabian assumes the standard physical training position - feet and palms flat on the floor, inverted arched spine and slow inhale of breath.
On the studio floor, supported by her yoga mat, Arabian assumes the danurasana (wheel) pose, and on July 7, she assumes the position of 42nd Military Police Detachment commander, 503rd MP Battalion, 16th MP Brigade.
A self-described fiery personality who finds freedom in the ancient discipline of yoga, Arabian turns PT into a test of flexibility, upper body strength and self-awareness.
Arabian's path to instruction began in Baghdad, when other Soldiers learned of her in-room sessions. They hoped to benefit from the mind-body discipline as well and asked her to lead a class.
"I was getting up really early in the morning to give yoga before missions," said Arabian, who studied the art since she was a teenager. "I loved teaching, so I thought, 'maybe I should get certified and learn the anatomical aspect'."
She finished the first 100 hours of instruction (basic ashtanga yoga) in St. Louis, then furthered her education with hatha yoga and Yoga Warriors programs in North Carolina.
"I think the military looks at yoga as a tree-hugging activity. Every time I give the class to Soldiers, they get on the mat and realize how hard it is," stated Arabian, who teaches exercises like the crow pose - an arm-balancing technique similar to a headstand, which is designed to strengthen the upper body.
O.C. Evans, assistant S-3, 503rd Military Police Battalion, reluctantly attended his first MP yoga class, "My initial impression was men don't do yoga, and certainly not combat Soldiers." Evans said he finished the class with a new respect for the yogic discipline, "I was shaken quite a bit. I didn't realize it was as strenuous as it was."
According to Arabian, yoga is a personal awakening of sorts, "You just do it for exercise and then it seeps into your life. You start eating better and doing more constructive things. I am more aware of my body and how it reacts.
"Everything we do is patterned within ourselves. Yoga is an unraveling of that pattern," said Arabian, whose military lifestyle and yoga training create a unique blend. She's an anomaly in civilian classes - the female officer and yoga instructor from Fort Bragg - and is helping to integrate holistic health with patriotic service.
"We know how to turn on Soldiers, but we can't turn them off," said Arabian, who adopted the motto from a Marine who works with Semper Fit, an organization providing fitness, nutrition, yoga, massage, and other wellness programs to active duty, first responders and reservists.
Soldiers are trained to be hypervigilant, according to Arabian, which can leave the sympathetic nervous system "switch" in the on position.
This system monitors the fight or flight response and is overstimulated in a go, go, go environment.
When Soldiers return home, the body can have trouble readjusting, which leads to problems with sleep, outbursts, depression and detachment from daily life.
"In the military, everything's judged - from what you look like, to how you run, to your job performance. Everything is on a scale. In a yoga class there's none of that,"explained Arabian, who started a free yoga program for combat veterans and spouses on Fort Bragg.
The classes, held from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on Wednesdays, are located at the Ste. Mere Eglise Community Center.
While deployed to Iraq, Arabian witnessed some of the events that typically trigger post-traumatic stress disorder or combat and operational stress reaction. Taking refuge in bunkers, Arabian and others listened to the thud of mortar rounds ("barracks busters") hit the forward operating base.
"I saw Soldiers break down and cry the whole time. They were absolutely terrified. It wasn't that they were any less of a Soldier, it just affected them on a different level," she said.
"Trauma victims can't typically talk through their trauma," said Arabian, who believes in Yoga Warriors because it offers a holistic approach to therapy in a low-key environment. "Behind closed doors my name is not Captain Arabian - it's Rachael, and you don't have to tell me your name, you don't have to tell me your rank. We're just going to practice together."