Dec 05, 2016

"As a trauma-informed yoga teacher, I believe that the flip-chips are fantastic,” wrote Naval Special Warfare veteran and Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT) instructor Anthony Scaletta in a message to Yogaflipchip. Eager to support Anthony in his work as a trauma-informed yoga teacher, we sent some flip-chips his way. MYT is one of the five programs of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, which supports and funds certified yoga teachers of all traditions to bring yoga and mindfulness techniques to underserved and under-resourced segments of the community. In his work with the MYT program, Anthony shares the transformative power of yoga with various trauma-sensitive populations and with veterans in particular. Jessie, our fearless intern, recently conducted an in-depth interview with Anthony. What follows is Part I of their illuminating discussion about yoga, healing and resilience. Enjoy!

Jessie: Thank you for being here, Anthony! I’m very excited to be able to learn from you today. Right now I am still a student, and this whole world of yoga and meditation has been opening up to me, so it will be truly an honor to hear your story.

Anthony: We're all still students. When describing my role I don't even like to use the word teacher. I’m more of a facilitator who has the privilege of sharing learned practices with others. It's a never-ending journey of studentship. There's no end point with any of this, and that, to me, is really beautiful. That’s what I love about being a yogi.

Jessie: Tell us about your yoga path and how your practice is evolving.

Anthony: ‘Evolving’ captures it all perfectly. If you’ve been given the gift of embodiment here on this earth then inherent to the process of living is that we are constantly evolving. You're either going to fight it and cause suffering, or you're going to step into it and really honor the process. And a lot of the time, ‘evolving’ is not necessarily sweet, neat and pretty. At times it can be downright messy.

But that’s okay as long as you realize that the obstacles are the path, not blockages to the path -- which is how we tend to think of obstacles. As my practice progresses and evolves, I find myself tapping into more subtle dimensions of yoga, and particularly meditation, which led me to energy healing work. The path keeps evolving, and I try to remain open and just kind of flow with it. It's really beautiful when I have the opportunity to feel that opening up and just let it come naturally.

Jessie: That is really beautiful. I love what you said about the obstacles being the path.

Anthony: They are not my words. But as a combat veteran who has dealt with all kinds of obstacles -- physical, mental, emotional—I adopted this philosophy as a matter of survival. It’s helped me understand that what we call obstacles are really just opportunities to go deeper and do the work, if we’re willing. And then we find we’re much more resilient than we ever imagined. Which is to say that committed spiritual practice cultivates resilience.

Jessie: When did you come to yoga? 

Anthony: I like to think that yoga came to me. When I was serving in the military I had my first experience with yoga, probably somewhere around 2000-2001. Back then yoga was about to become mainstream. I didn't know much about it, but there was a senior ranking officer at my command who once in awhile offered a yoga class in place of our normal training—which was really huge because in Special Forces we had a heavy emphasis on physical training -- and here we were with this opportunity to practice yoga instead of the typical workouts we always did. At the time I probably thought it was just a lot of stretching. As an athlete my entire life, I'd really only connected with my body physically, as a means to higher performance.

When I left the military, yoga wasn’t on my radar. I threw on a big traveling backpack and went to Europe. I traveled for a year straight and spent all the money I had saved in the military. I didn't know it at the time, but I was running away from having to deal with the transition to civilian life, along with unresolved trauma on multiple levels.

I've come to realize now, many years later, that for any veteran, the act of separating from the military is traumatic in its own right because it's such a huge shift; you lose your family. Especially for those who join right out of high school, the very first thing you know as an adult is the military. Even for people who make a career out of it, when they get out, they can become totally lost as a result of that disconnection.  

I really believe that facilitating a way for veterans to reconnect on all levels and reintegrate into civilian life is where the healing happens. And there’s probably an infinite number of ways for that to happen; yoga is just one of them but it happens to work really well for those who are willing to give it a shot.   

Returning from my European backpacking trip, I didn't know what to do with myself. So I enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, and that's when things really started to crumble for me. I couldn't communicate or connect with anyone. I felt like a ghost floating around campus. That's also when the physical pain started and I could hardly sit through a class. I became very isolated. I had no idea the level of PTSD I was dealing with, I really didn't think it applied to me.

Jessie: What was the source of the physical trauma?

Anthony: In the military I suffered a serious injury to my lower spine, where the bottom-most lumbar vertebrae connect to the sacrum. Being in Naval Special Warfare, I operated fast-attack RHIB boats. They are small, about 30 feet long, and they’re racing boats, so they launch off the waves. And every time we launch off a wave (which is every few seconds when you're out on the open sea) we get airborne and then slam back down, and that puts tremendous G-force on the body. It really beats the heck out of you, and I did that for almost five years.

And my attitude was, “I'm going to power through all of this.” And that's a very common attitude, not only because of our yang/masculine-dominated culture, but also because of the military ethos. Only I found that could not power through it. In fact I dropped out of school because I couldn't even sit through a class. I wasn't able to interact with people. I just bounced around for a long time, really struggling with severe depression, PTSD, anxiety, and this chronic pain.

What truly saved my life and kept me alive, and I mean kept me from either overdosing on drugs or alcohol or ending up in jail, was the yoga. At a minimum it kept my head above water. It wasn't a miracle fix or anything like that, but it was always there on some level through all the ups and downs.

I started without the guidance of a yoga teacher. I was just acting on instinct. I just remember lying on my bedroom floor, moving and stretching and getting into my body because I was in so much pain. And I noticed that if I moved in certain ways, I would feel so much better afterwards, especially if I stayed on the floor. I didn't know it at the time, but I was ‘grounding’ and that was soothing to my nervous system. These early experiences are what eventually led me to take a deeper dive into yoga.  

But that was only after four years of specialists, X-rays and scans, culminating in spinal fusion surgery in 2007. Because the discs of my lower spine had been completely ground down. The surgeon said my spine was like that of a 70 or 80-year-old man.

Jessie: What happened then? Did you return to school?

Anthony: Yes, I re-enrolled and completed my studies in International Development and Cultural Geography. That led me to East Africa and Northern Ireland – doing peace and reconciliation work. I came back to Pittsburgh and got a job as a caseworker for newly resettled African refugees through an AmeriCorps program. That was my little foray into the professional world. That was when I realized that I loved service work. On the other hand, it just did not work for me to be stuck at a desk all day. Physically, mentally, it felt too stagnant. And then everything became very clear. As Joseph Campbell would say, I needed to “follow my bliss.”

Jessie: So, how did you get from your bedroom floor to your yogic path?

Anthony: There were no yoga studios where I lived, so I just started devouring books, VHS tapes, and a few public classes in gyms and churches. But my journey was very much on my own, an inward-turning journey, which was exactly what I needed at the time. Yoga met me where I was, as it always does. I felt that I was being called to step up and study yoga so I could share the practice with others.

The practical problem was, I had absolutely no money. I was living off food stamps, didn't have a car, and was really scraping by. So yoga teacher training was just not feasible at the time. On some level, I was also struggling with the idea that it wasn’t going to be a legitimate ‘career.’ And people in my life and particularly my girlfriend at the time were not supportive. They would say, “I don't think this is a good path for you, I don't think this is going to provide you with any kind of stability or financial footing.”

This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Practicing yoga for many years before turning to formal training helped me not only to cope and manage day-to-day stresses but also to digest and process all that had happened, and I appreciate the perspective that it brought to my studies later on. 

Jessie: I’m an artist and I feel the same way about acting. I was performing for years and diving into character before I started training. And it's wild because a lot of the things that other people teach you, those lessons take hold much more fully and organically because you have this foundational experience to draw from.

Anthony: I couldn't agree more. I would say that knowledge is more in the outer world - more masculine and yang in nature. Whereas wisdom is discovered only after you’ve taken the outwardly focused teachings and internalized them and made them your own so that you can then reflect it back out into the world in an authentic manner. I believe it’s a process of first integrating the knowledge and then it becomes wisdom. You can study any topic, with the best instructor, but until you are able to internalize that knowledge, it's not really all that useful or meaningful.

Jessie: You are doing incredible healing work with veterans and vulnerable populations. Can you talk a little bit about what you do with Mindful Yoga Therapy and Give Back Yoga?

Anthony: Mindful Yoga Therapy is an arm of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, which is our parent non-profit and our main supporter and funder. We run several different programs. We have a program that supports people with eating disorders (Eat Breathe Thrive), the Prison Yoga Project, yoga4cancer, the Yoga of 12-Step Recovery program (Y12SR), and Mindful Yoga Therapy. Mindful Yoga Therapy is trauma-informed yoga for veterans and other underserved populations. More info can be found on all five of these programs at www.givebackyoga.org.

Although MYT is my area of focus, I would love to be involved in all five programs at Give Back Yoga, because it is all really great and necessary work. I think any program that's helping to bring yoga to underserved populations is awesome. That would also include The Mighty Pen Project, which is hugely empowering for veterans. As you said, Jessie, everyone has a story to tell and if you feel marginalized then getting your story out there is cathartic and opens new channels for healing.

Let’s say we hosted a retreat for veterans, and they had the option to practice, among other things, writing and yoga. For some, the yoga would resonate, but for others, they're never going to want to touch it, and that's fine. The same goes for writing. The point is, there are lots of tools for empowering people, and those of us with an opportunity to share these tools with others are really blessed. I am really just a conduit - letting the teachings via the various tools of yoga pass through me so that the people we serve can embrace them on their own terms and in their own time.

People are really diverse in their beliefs and experiences, so it makes sense to offer many different pathways to healing. Storytelling is wonderful because it comes so naturally to us and is universal to all cultures. As you might know, it's how a lot of yoga and Ayurvedic philosophy was passed down originally.