Be sure to read Part 1 of this post and interview with Canadian Military Officer, Ashley Collette, about her yoga practice in the military.
LZ: How do you define compassion?
AC: I would say that I am compassionate when I am able to tap into another’s version of reality, or when I am able to make a connection with that person from a real place of understanding instead of judgment.
LZ: Do you see violence and compassion as opposing terms?
AC: No. I see violence as an act that a compassionate soldier would use only when absolutely necessary.
LZ: What does it mean to fight and is it always violent?
AC: Fighting to me is pursuing what I believe to be right at the possible cost of my life or the lives of those under my command. No, I do not think that fighting always has to be violent. When I was in Afghanistan fighting for the security of Nakhonay, one of my relatives was fighting her own battle against breast cancer.
LZ: What is the relationship between compassion and power? In other words, as a commander in the military and as a strong woman, how do you navigate between the power you have in your role and your value of extending compassion to others and yourself?
AC: I believe that a true powerful, strong and courageous warrior is also graceful, sensitive and compassionate. Being able to balance these attributes is not easy and requires a daily alignment of values and intent, much like a pure yoga practice does. If I re-evaluated my intent and core values on a regular basis, I am more apt to act compassionate when faced with a difficult situation. On the same token, if I have set the intentions and values for my team clearly and regularly, THEY are more apt to act with compassion when faced with difficult situations also.
LZ: How did you show compassion in Afghanistan? How were you shown compassion in Afghanistan?
AC: I put my life, and the lives of soldiers under my command, on the line every day in order to defend the security and freedom of Afghans who lived in the village where we operated. In turn, Afghans risked their lives to give us valuable information on enemy operations in the area.
I was also shown compassion in special ways from the women of the village. Much like with my own mother or grandmother, encounters with women always left my heart warm and reminded me that we are not as different as we seem on the outside.
LZ: Why do you want to be a yoga teacher and who do you want to teach?
AC: Yoga has changed my life. It has given me so many tools to discover the truth of who I am (and have the potential to be). It has aided me in learning how to listen to my body and feed it properly with exercise and food that will strengthen me and enhance my existence. Yoga has brought me to a more balanced, compassionate and happy existence. I will be happy to lead anyone who is seeking the path of yoga, to include soldiers.
LZ: What do you think the practice of yoga can teach soldiers?
AC: In addition to the body/mind connection and food awareness that yoga can bring to a soldier’s life, yoga can teach soldiers how to get to know themselves. A team built on individuals who have an awareness of self has the potential to be a much more cohesive fighting unit. I believe that strength of character is built on a foundation of self-awareness, including strengths along with weaknesses.
LZ: If you could boil down one yogic teaching and pass it to every soldier you fought with, what would it be?
LZ: How has being a soldier influenced your practice?
AC: Being a soldier has allowed me to develop into a stronger and more resilient human being. It has also pushed me into edges that I do not know if I would have had the experience to observe if I was not a soldier.
LZ: Why are you a solider?
AC: I am a soldier for many reasons, plain adrenalin addiction being one of them. On a philosophical level, though, I am a soldier because I believe that we live in a world where it is necessary to defend humanity.
Not everyone knows freedom.
LZ: Is your identity as a soldier and your identity as a yogi in conflict or are they interdependent on one another?
AC: Can they be both? I would say that both parts of my identity enhance the other. Once in a while, though, I find that a minor conflict in ideology from the two worlds will force me into a state of self evaluation where I have to ask if I am on the path that leads to my higher intention or not. I don’t see this conflict as ‘bad’ though, and it always leads to a deeper knowledge of my self and a more clear definition of my intentions.
LZ: Do you feel estranged from the yoga community because of your role in the military?
AC: Not normally. There have been few times that I have felt out of place as a military member in the yoga community. If anything, I was more nervous about my identity as a yogi in the military but the more comfortable I am with myself, the more comfortable every one else around me is with who I am. Military members are more open that I would have thought to yoga.
LZ: What do you feel when you are in warrior pose? How will you teach that pose in your classes to both soldiers and non-soldiers?
AC: I do not know that I would feel much different than a non-soldier in warrior pose. What do non-soldiers feel? When I am really in touch with my practice, I feel a strength drawn from the ground into my entire body and when I exhale and extend into the pose I feel as though I give that strength out into the world. Plus I feel beautiful.
LZ: Where else have you experienced war in your life other than in Afghanistan?
AC: I have experienced war in relationship and family experiences. I believe that human beings from all walks of life have the potential to wreak havoc if they do not align their lives and live by their intentions.
LZ: What role did your yoga practice have in your tour?
AC: I practiced asanas where and when I could with the intent to do so once a day. Even if I only did a couple of sun salutations and pigeon pose I was much more grounded. A couple of times I led a yoga session with some of the soldiers from my pl who had asked if they could join me.
There is a well known military term ‘tactical breathing’ which can be understood by the yogi as: ‘pranayama under fire’. When experiencing combat, I found myself tactically breathing to reduce my heart rate and calm my body so that I could perform under stress. In yoga terms, I would compare this practice to Ujjayi Breath. It works.
I meditated during most sunrises and sunsets – which served as an opportunity to remember the cycle of time and the fact that no matter what had happened that day, another day would come and I had a responsibility to live my life with focus and intention and lead soldiers through that day.
LZ: Do you think that war is a part of the yoga practice? If so, how?
AC: I have experienced inner conflict, where I am at war with my self on many occasions. I have learned the value of equanimity within inner conflict and this is was largely through yoga and other yogis who have blessed me with their stories and the sharing of their hearts.
How do you embody the warrior in your practice? Does your inner warrior embrace compassion in the midst of inner conflict?