You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside. Wayne Dyer
My yoga teacher used to be a bit of a badass.
But today, he’s the farthest thing from it.
While it’s common for instructors to share personal insights and life lessons during class, Rafael Rivera hinted at an experience I would never associate with a yogi.
He’d been to war.
Raf’s background intrigued me; we met for a chat at the local Starbucks so I could learn his story.
Born in Queens, presently living in Baldwin and teaching yoga in Long Beach, Rafael has been to parts of the world we only hear about on the news. He joined the reserves right after high school and trained in mechanics. “I love to turn a wrench,” he says with a broad smile. After seven years of monthly service at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, he was called to serve in Iraq.
Raf was very eager to serve his country, but at the last-minute his orders were changed from Iraq to Afghanistan. The first word that came to mind when he heard about the switch begins with the letter F. (Yep, that’s the one!)
When he landed in Afghanistan his initial impression of the country was that it was “like looking at a piece of the Bible.” On his first night, Taliban rockets raced across the sky and exploded 300 meters behind him. “So this is life now,” he thought. He smoked two packs a day.
His duty was to run patrols and checkpoints, affording him the chance to meet a lot of the locals whom he described as “a chill, welcoming people, who wanted to be friendly to us.” His tour, as part of MP Company 372, lasted 10 months. It was there, he says, that he “made some of the best friendships you could ever forge.”
After his tour ended he took a two-week break, then returned to Afghanistan for a contracting job. This time life was very different. He took helicopters everywhere to avoid explosive devices, and found it particularly unsettling not to have a firearm strapped to his side. Raf says he came back more affected by the contractor experience than from his tour in the army. In the army he had been part of a brotherhood. As a contractor, he was on his own.
As fate would have it, he returned home for good right before Superstorm Sandy. Full of anger from his oversees experience, he wanted to “shoot and punch the water” as it invaded his Baldwin Harbor home. He was drinking heavily, overweight, getting into fights, riding his Harley, “basically conforming to stereotype,“ he says with a wry grin. Then he got divorced. Things weren’t looking good.
His turning point came when he saw a video on YouTube called Arthur’s Transformation. It’s the story of a disabled veteran who lost over a 100 pounds doing yoga. With tears in his eyes, Raf thought to himself, “I have to try this.”
Raf gives yoga all the credit for his transition back to himself. He got hooked on inversion poses and after some gentle encouragement decided to do the teacher training. He applied the same mindset he had been taught in the military. “Crawl – Walk – Run.” He lost a bunch of weight – and he quit smoking.
“Yoga gave me the tools for the shit that was coming up,” he said. “I learned to enter an observation stage and look for responses instead of reacting.”
It’s quite possible that teaching yoga has opened up an even bigger world than the one he saw in service. In addition to leading practice at Synergy in Long Beach (Wednesday and Fridays at 10:45 a.m.) Raf works with special needs kids, many who struggle with Cerebral Palsy and Autism. He loves it and says, “Kids are so present, they enjoy the physical and love to chant.”
During class Raf often quotes from the book, At Hell’s Gate by Claude AnShin Thomas, a Vietnam Veteran and founder of the Zaltho Foundation – a non-profit committed to ending violence by promoting mindfulness. The foundation works with combat veterans, victims of war, and sufferers of PTSD.
In his own way, Raf contributes to the mission of the Zaltho Foundation by working with several organizations here on Long Island. One is The Veterans Yoga Project, whose aim is to provide yoga classes and retreats for veterans and their families, and ease the suffering of PSTD and other symptoms of combat stress.
More locally, Raf is involved with United We Ohm and their program, Mission Yoga: Long Island. which provides yoga “For Veterans – Taught by Veterans.” Raf teaches a veterans class every Monday evening at the VFW in Long Beach from 7:30-8:30 p.m. It’s free, with no reservation required.
In closing I asked him. “What’s was the best thing you get from yoga practice?”
“Ummm. . . Ohmmm. . .” he stalls with a grin. “That I continue to learn.”
I’ll leave you with Rafael’s mantra that he shares at the end of class:
May all beings be happy and free. And may my words, thoughts and actions contribute to their happiness and freedom.
Polar Bear sweatshirts – 1
Below is a quote from the aforementioned book, At Hell’s Gate. I felt it worthy of sharing because it aligns so perfectly with the purpose of my blog.
“I can feel very alone on this journey because it is in fact a journey that only I can take, but I don’t have to take this journey in isolation. Telling our stories, sharing them, can lead to the creation of community, a loving community committed to really living life differently. This community of like-minded people can then assist, help, support, and encourage each other in the process of waking up.”
Coming up next on Short Stories from Long Beach: The therapeutic hands of Mary Pat Delay and her “Healing Oasis.”