Marine veteran Michael Stickley, who was trained by VEToga, teaches a class at Soaring Spirit Yoga studio in Virginia. Photo by Justin T. Gellerson

VEToga founder practices what he preaches

Justin Blazejewski did not see combat during his five years serving in the Marine Corps but experienced it as a civilian doing contractor work in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In 2008, amid his time as a contractor, some physical injuries prevented Blazejewski from training for and running marathons.

“I ran a lot to deal with my stress,” he says. “That was my coping mechanism, and that was taken away from me. I was in a really dark place, I was really depressed, suicidal, very angry, agitated, reactive, so all the symptoms that somebody would have with PTSD.”

Not wanting to lose his security clearance, Blazejewski swallowed his feelings and pressed forward as best he could. Things didn’t get any better and Blazejewski was getting desperate.

Desperate enough to try yoga, he says.

“I'm glad that I did because, for the first time in over 10 years at that point, I felt a sense of peace and my parasympathetic nervous system, my rest and relax, finally kick in,” explains Blazejewski, a member of American Legion Post 24 in Alexandria, Va. “I kind of felt that hyper-drive, that hyper-arousal state that we're trained in the military, finally found that it turned off when I did yoga. That was a big turning point in my life, when I found yoga and I realized the power and the benefits of it.”

That eventually led Blazejewski to launch VEToga in May 2015. VEToga is a nonprofit that has certified more than 80 yoga teachers who then return to their communities to lead classes for veterans and their families.

American Legion Magazine recently spoke with Blazejewski about his service, VEToga and how yoga helps relieve PTSD. (For a related story on how American Legion posts are embracing yoga, click here.)

American Legion Magazine: Even though you did not experience military combat, did you, yourself, have PTSD issues?

Blazejewski: When I was in the Marine Corps, I never was in an active combat zone. As a contractor, yes, I was over in Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw a lot of activity when I was there just doing the job as an electrician and communications engineer, building a lot of satellite dishes, building a lot of radios, going out and doing radio operations for military and other organizations that were out there. I was not active duty but I still carried my weapons and performed when I needed to when we were attacked. I saw a lot of combat. I saw a lot of sides of war that most people don't see.

American Legion Magazine: How did you discover yoga as a solution to PTSD? How did you come to the realization that yoga was going to be something worth trying?

Blazejewski: In 2008, my roommate dragged me to a yoga class because she was getting sick of dealing with me and my stress, my anger and depression. Yoga wasn't accepted and big back in 2008 with the military and veteran community so it was kind of looked down as a very effeminate practice and something that we just never explored. When I went and I realized the benefits, I dove in and was practicing five or six days a week. This was in the middle of my TDYs (temporary duty assignments), so I'd go out for two to three months at a time into Iraq or Afghanistan. Then, I'd come home for a few weeks and I would be doing my yoga. Then, when I'd go overseas, I'd be doing my yoga and I would practice teaching the people over there because everybody liked it. It was something that calmed everybody down.

American Legion Magazine: How soon did you realize that yoga was helping you?

Blazejewski: In a typical yoga class, you go in, you sit down, you do some calming breathing and then you chant “ohm,” which is new to a lot of military people. Then, you get up and you do a series of movements for about 45 to 60 minutes. That's the physical yoga they call asana. Then, at the end, there's a pose called corpse pose where you lie on your back, you close your eyes. That's anywhere from five to 10 minutes. The physical part of yoga was great. My first class, I was soaked in sweat. It was a lot harder than I thought it was, so I immediately gave yoga some credit, saying, "This was a pretty good workout." As soon as I laid down and closed my eyes and the teacher was doing a guided relaxation, that's the spark where I felt relaxation and I felt my mind turn off, and all the chatter that was in my head, all the anger, all that stuff that was going on disappeared in that one moment. That was just my first class.

Once you get a taste of that, that sweetness, you know it's something special. I continued immediately and started going back, so I knew at that point, even in the first class, that there was something there. Every day, it was like a drug. I needed more of it because I felt that it was helping me with all my issues that I was dealing with. It was like a medicine, like, "I'm going to go to yoga class every day so I can get one of those medicines at the end of class," which was that relaxation, and get a workout, which I was missing because I couldn't run at the time.

American Legion Magazine: How often are you practicing now?

Blazejewski: Here we are 10 years later, I still practice three to five days a week. I teach one to two days a week. I have a full-time job still as a government contractor. And I run the nonprofit VEToga and it's finding the work-life balance of even being able to do the things I need to do with my yoga practice. I'll practice what I preach because I have a lot of stress in my life with the businesses. Now, I have 80-plus people underneath me through VEToga who are teachers depending on me for guidance.

American Legion Magazine: Let's talk more about VEToga. What motivated you to want to take this practice, which has helped you, and spread it out to others?

Blazejewski: Well, 2004 to 2014 was my war zone travel. Sixty percent to 70 percent of that 10 years, I was physically in a war zone. When I was back in the U.S., I would go do teacher training and I would do yoga retreats and I would teach my classes. I was building up all these certifications. I was doing all these advanced yoga classes, advanced trainings to educate myself so I could teach others to do what I do. I wanted to make sure that I knew as much as I could, especially the yoga for PTSD and the yoga for traumatic brain injuries, which I did a lot. I've done several of those trainings with different organizations.

The whole time, I knew in the back of my head I had the intention of creating something to give back once I stopped the war zone travel. My last war zone trip was December 2014. I promised myself I'd take a year off from everything and just do some self-study, some self-practice, and figure out what this vision was going to be. It was very short into that one year where I was doing therapy once a week, I was doing vision-boarding, I was writing my ideas out, and I was starting to find what VEToga was going to be.

It was clear, right after I stopped the war zone travel, all the fog got out of the way and it was very clear that I was going to share everything that I've learned with other military veterans and their family members. I created that mission statement of sharing yoga, meditation, and healing arts with military veterans and their family members. I started from the mission statement and, to implement it, I started teaching free weekly and monthly classes for military veterans and family members. Initial offering of the nonprofit was to give free classes, to be that light so that others that are out there like I was, living in the darkness, suicidal, people that were dealing with PTSD, drug addiction, the opiates, everything that I've experienced, I saw that this could be a light. It's the one thing that I was good at and that I was going to master and share it.

American Legion Magazine: Tell me about how VEToga went from concept to reality.

Blazejewski: We were doing weekly classes in Alexandria, Va., and Washington, D.C., and getting anywhere from 10 to 25 people weekly, monthly, in these classes, and knowing that was living the mission. We were reaching a small demographic locally. My secondary vision was to take VEToga and create a system, a yoga teacher training. In the yoga world, it's called a 200-hour yoga certification through the Yoga Alliance. I created a yoga school through VEToga. I got the accreditation from Yoga Alliance. In May 2015, we started VEToga and, the following year, we did our first teacher training.

The intention behind that was to create people like myself. We had 18 people in our first teacher training in October 2016. That was a mix between active-duty military, veterans, and family members. We saw that it worked, and, at that moment, it went from myself as one teacher for VEToga to 19 teachers in several states and multiple cities. The goal for VEToga teachers is that they go back to the city that they live in and they start teaching those free classes for military veterans and their family members. They become that beacon of light in their community.

American Legion Magazine: What is your vision for VEToga? What would success look like to you for the non-profit?

Blazejewski: Our immediate goal is to have money to provide these teacher trainings twice a year. That would be about $100,000 a year, just for the two trainings. We've done the trainings for a lot less, so the goal would probably be, in the next year, to get up to a $200,000 to a $250,000 budget for the non-profit to be able to make these trainings zero-cost to the participants.

In the next five years, if we wanted to put a goal on the five-year mark, I would like at least one VEToga instructor in all 50 states.

American Legion Magazine: Anything that we haven't talked about that you want to mention?

Blazejewski: We work with The American Legion on the local level. They have that beautiful space in Alexandria, Va., at Post 24. By them offering the space for us to do this training at zero cost for the veterans, it was a game-changer because that relationship started and changed the lives of 18 people and now more than 80 people who have gone through that facility. Finding organizations like The American Legion and seeing how we can support them is another mission we have and another goal we have.