September is when the Air Force celebrates its birthday! In honor of that, we wanted to share stories from our Air Force members about their journey with yoga and meditation, their time in the service and why they share yoga with others today. Janel Norton wrote today’s piece and shares with us her connection to yoga and why it’s integral to her life today.
Originally from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I left my hometown to join the Air Force to become a Combat Camera Photojournalist in 1989. This opportunity led me to various combat assignments around the world including the Panama Invasion, Monrovia, Liberia and the Bosnian Conflict. In 1994, I left the military to work for the United Nations, documenting humanitarian aid convoys throughout the war-torn region before returning to the United States to start college in 1996. It was then that I felt something wasn’t the same. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) wasn’t in the forefront of medical diagnoses in those days, so I never made that connection. I just remember feeling very isolated and angry. I was one of the older students in my undergrad class, none of my classmates had heard of the Bosnian war nor any of the other places I covered overseas. I remember even the news aggravated me. I would constantly scan the channels trying to catch a glimpse of the people and places I was involved in, but it was barely mentioned; all of the reporting seemed so superficial. I had always been a very social person and enjoyed having a large group of friends; after returning all I wanted was solitude and to go back to where things seemed matter. It was in those places that I felt I had purpose. I withdrew, buried myself in schoolwork and probably drank more than I should have. I even sought out Bosnian Refugees to do my class projects on just to have some connection.
Fast forward 20 years. I began practicing yoga out of necessity to keep me sane at first. It found me when I faced a career change in my 40s and in the midst of working on an M.A. degree. A friend noticed my stress and anxiety when dealing with career struggles and life changes. “Try yoga,” she said and suggested a nearby studio. I attended my first hot power yoga class and was completely hooked! I carved out as much time as I could to spend time on my yoga mat. If only I would have had this when I was living in all those war zones! Realizing the benefits of yoga, I quickly pursued a yoga teacher training program to learn more about the practice and why it made me feel so good. After only a few months, I noticed significant changes in my body that I never imagined were possible. Plus, I felt I could finally handle stress so much better out in the world.
In an effort to share this amazing practice and reach others, I co-founded Veterans Alternative, a 501(c)(3) non-profit aimed at providing alternative therapies for veterans and active-duty service members returning home from war. I worked closely with veterans suffering from PTSD. I began to further my education in order to more effectively work with veterans by training with Warriors at Ease and iRest (Integrative Restoration — a guided meditation technique specifically geared toward people suffering from trauma). As a veteran, I found the Warriors at Ease training to be super applicable in bridging the gap. Let’s face it, yoga can feel a little “hippie-dippy” to us military folk. I felt I had come full circle being able to share my healing practice with my fellow veterans.
I’m married to a first responder who struggles with the same challenges our veterans do, so I presently work with that population through organizations like the Brian Bill Foundation and O2X Human Performance. Both of these organizations are founded by former Navy SEALS who are highly aware of the benefits of yoga and iRest provide. I’m so grateful to be able to share these practices with others. It has brought me peace and wholeness that I know everyone can access within themselves, all with a little practice.
Janel Norton is a veteran, Warriors at Ease Certified Teacher and iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation teacher. She’s also the co-owner of Trinity Yoga Studio in New Port Richey, Florida, where she and her husband live and serve members of the military and first responder communities. You can learn more about Janel and the work she does at http://www.trinity-yoga.com