Health Team

Contemplating suicide, this Marine turned to yoga to save his life

Marine Justin Blazejewski rolls out his yoga mat over a dock floating along the banks of the Potomac River. It's a sunny weekday morning inside the DC beltway, where he lives and works as a military contractor.

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Mayra Cuevas (CNN)
(CNN) — Marine Justin Blazejewski rolls out his yoga mat over a dock floating along the banks of the Potomac River. It's a sunny weekday morning inside the DC beltway, where he lives and works as a military contractor.

"I stumbled upon yoga to save my life, basically, and I knew that I found something special," he said. "And it's taking me on a totally different path than I originally planned."

After a quick warmup, Blazejewski folds over himself, the top of his head resting on the creaky boards beneath him. The soles of his feet rise into a bright blue, cloudless sky. He lifts both arms, vertical against his torso, until he's in a full unsupported headstand or niralamba sirsasana, as the pose is called in yoga-speak.

Around him, birds chirp, water laps against the rocky shore, and a raft of wild ducks floats past him. It's a scene far removed from the brutal landscape of war that led him to this moment.

"I served in the Marine Corps for five years and worked on the president's helicopters," he says. "After 9/11, I joined as a contractor with a lot of different government agencies. I was traveling extensively to Iraq, Afghanistan and some other countries."

In order to stay alive, Blazejewski says, he internalized a "hyperarousal, hyper fight-or-flight mode" -- one that constantly made him feel on high alert.

"When you're in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, it's the middle of the night, and mortars start coming in and exploding through the roof," he recalled. "People are shooting at you, attacking you, you can't see who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. You are trained to keep running into danger when the bullets are flying at you."

For four years, he says, the stress kept piling up. He would return home to DC after months in war-torn countries, unable to switch off his fight-or-flight response.

To cope, Blazejewski turned to his passion for long-distance running and marathons.

"I'd do that alone," he said, wanting to spare his family and friends from the dark thoughts circling his mind. "My anger issues and my reactivity and the stress from war ... it was happening more and more."

No more running

"A mortar came through the roof," Blazejewski recalled of the night he was forced to stop running. He was in Afghanistan, working as a satellite engineer.

"We came out, and I tripped and hurt my ankle," he said. "The next day, we had another explosion. It knocked me unconscious. I woke up and had several injuries and pieces of shrapnel in my ankle. That's when, as a runner, it stopped for me."

When Blazejewski returned home, a new battle awaited. The enemy: the turmoil in his own mind.

"When I couldn't run and couldn't deal with my stress, it was taking me to a dark place, and suicidal thoughts were creeping in, and I knew that wasn't OK," he said.

A Marine turns to yoga

Isolated from his military community and struggling with deep bouts of depression, Blazejewski contemplated suicide.

"It was a really dark time for me," he said. "I just wanted to stay home."

His roommate offered to take him to a yoga class, but yoga was not something Marines did.

"We consider it something only girls did and definitely made fun of it," he recalled. "My roommate pretty much dragged me to a yoga class. I went kicking and screaming."

In 2008, a two-hour Friday night yoga class changed his life.

"I got my butt kicked, and I was sitting in a puddle of sweat," he said, smiling at the memory.

But it was during shavasana -- a rest pose usually done at the end of practice -- when Blazejewski understood what yoga could do for him.

"I felt just relaxation for the first time in over a decade," he said. "It really was the point in my life where everything started to change and I knew there was hope out there for me."

Blazejewski dived into his new practice with the spirit of a Marine. He went to yoga every day for six months and then enrolled in a 200-hour teacher training program in upstate New York.

"My teacher said the best thing you can do is to share the practice that you're learning, especially in war zones," he said. "So that's exactly what I started doing."

VEToga = Veterans + yoga

Blazejewski returned to his contracting work, living most of the year in forward operating bases.

"If we had firefights or anything went on that was a high-stress day, I was teaching yoga," he says. "We were in the dirt just doing the practice, and the students were coming. Even these big Special Forces dudes were coming and like, 'Hey, what are you doing over there?' 'I'm doing yoga and meditation.' "

Blazejewski realized he had become a gateway for his military colleagues to discover the healing effects of yoga.

"I wanted to prevent suicide, and I know yoga is one of the coping mechanisms that I can teach," he said.

So in 2015, Blazejewski created VEToga, a nonprofit that works to bring yoga, meditation and healing arts to military veterans and their families.

A yoga program for veterans

At the core of VEToga is its grueling 200-hour teacher training program designed for the military community.

For two weeks, students from all over the country converge in the DC area for 15-hour days jam-packed with lectures and workshops.

During the training, they learn how to teach to a population suffering from trauma, depression and post-traumatic stress. They also examine how to adapt poses for students with physical disabilities, injuries or prosthetics and how to integrate emotional support dogs into the practice.

"The students themselves, they don't feel judged for having a prosthetic. They don't feel judged for not being able to put their foot on their head. They're just there with others like them, and they just let go, and they learn and that's where the real yoga starts," Blazejewski said.

A military community

Navy veteran Bernadette Kilcer has been practicing yoga since 2000 and now attends one of Blazejewski's classes.

Her yoga practice, she says, has helped her deal with trauma and resulting weight gain. But when she found VEToga, it became about being part of a community.

"It doesn't matter if you got off of active duty yesterday or 30 years ago," Kilcer said. "You meet a fellow veteran, and you have this instantaneous connection, and that's what this makes this program so special."

Blazejewski's new mission is to have VEToga programs in all 50 states within the next five years.

"My life has changed for the better, and the more people I help, the better I feel about myself," he said. "Seeing these people, hearing their stories of how yoga saved their life over and over again, it keeps my flame lit, and it keeps me doing what I'm doing."

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