By David Westlake
“Hold on,” I declare as we make three very sharp swerves that even at a slow speed seems incredibly dramatic.
“Oh my god, What are those for?!” Darcy asks as she grabs the dash.
“You know… for car bombers or anybody attempting to smash through the gates,” I say nonchalantly as we move past these road obstructions and further into the base.
We are silent at the heaviness of that idea alongside the seeming normalcy of this wild absurd truth.
That pretty sums up why we find ourselves driving onto Elmendorf Air Force Base and heading towards the barbed wire windowless building that houses the TACPs (tactical air control party specialists) for our yoga classes with the men and women of this unit.
TACPs you ask? These folk are the closest thing that the Air Force has to ground based special forces.They go in with front line combat units and oversee air support; this puts them amidst total chaos. They have been deployed a variety of times, seen active war situations and return home living with the memory of experiences radically different than what they come home to. Often this transition is a challenge for many. A variety of symptoms and hardships may arise including depression, domestic complications, addiction and worst case scenario, attempted suicide (many of which are, unfortunately, successful). On account of this, a representative from the Alaska chapter of the USO reached out to us about teaching yoga as a way to re-connect with themselves.
We park and text the commanding NCO that we are here. Emerging from a gray door, he walks up to a secured gate to let us in. He continues on to walk us through a labyrinth of dim hallways and into a huge open gym area unbelievably full of exercise machines, rows of secured lockers and oddly enough a sauna resting in the back corner. There in the midst of all this is the space in which we will practice. Painted onto the floor of this soon-to-be yoga studio rests the unit’s symbol and motto: “Death on Call”.
I nervously start to set up, unrolling my mat and then letting it snap in the air before coming down. Something magic rests behind this little ritual. The dust of life and some dog hair shake off as the mat sets down, revealing a design of a raven upon it. I look at the symbol and then step onto the mat; this will become the center of our practice. We set up mats around in a semi-circle. Moments later, young men and women wearing government-issued exercise clothes come in and find a mat.
So by now I am feeling a little awkward and having one of those moments when I wonder: who I am to teach these folks anything? How can I even begin to understand their story and what brings them to this moment? And what they carry with them? Soon enough, the room fills and before me in easy pose sit 15 serious faced TACPs (and my wife with her gold yoga mat and a very high bun). The room grows quiet except for a buzz of machinery somewhere in the distance, oddly echoing softly like a metallic AUM.
These moments before a class, before any words are spoken, any practice begins… these are the real moments of truth. It’s the place of naked rawness when a teacher lets go, opens to the students before one and flows into the experience. Plans fall away, destinations disappear, only the awareness of the immediate need remains.
We bring our hands to our symbolic heart, greet one another, then begin to breath. Here comes the moment that connects, the breath flows and the practice begins. One pose leads to another and then to another. We move together, slowly breaking through the awkwardness.
Then it happens.
We begin to leave behind the gravity of life and discover the grace of inward freedom. Eyes close, breath deepens and even a sigh can be heard as we shift into the subtle. Time is unraveled and before I know it, we are heading into our final stretch before savasana pose. Darcy hands out eye pillows as everyone makes themselves as comfortable as they can on their mats. I offer a simple breathing meditation before letting them rest in silence. After a few minutes, I look over the crew assembled. Some lay still clenched in their bodies, others lay calmly while others have slipped into sleep as the tiny twitches in their bodies reveal. Under all of this is the breath and with that the shared experience of life.
This is the connection.
I close my eyes for a few moments and then start to speak, inviting them back to themselves. After a few simple movements they rise to seated poses, some looking at me with a little of daze in their eyes, others with uncertainty but most of all with a gentle warmth.
“Namaste,” I say.
Then, across the room “namaste” echoes back to me and then to one another. A few still seconds then it’s back to life. People rise. Mats are sprayed, wiped down, rolled up. Eye pillows are neatly put away. Some thank us for coming while others make small talk and ask about our plans for Thanksgiving. Soldiers moving this way and that way as we are led back through the dim labyrinth of corridors and out through barbed wire to the parking lot.
Until next time TACP’s, we still have places to travel together. Om Shanti…