'Yoga was my survival raft'
Author: Rayanne Hunter
For many years now my family’s Memorial Day Weekends have looked quite different from the collective norm. Every year we look forward to gathering in Washington, D.C. for the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar with a new family I never expected to be a part of—our Gold Star Family. These fellow surviving families are learning to thrive under a new normal without their military loved one. My husband, Staff Sgt. Wesley Hunter, died September 18, 2008, from injuries he received February 26, 2006 while deployed in Iraq with US Army 1/71 Cavalry out of Fort Drum, New York. My son Westlin, 14, and daughter Tavie, 12, have grown up in this world with other survivors. Every year, as we enter the seminar hotel, they know that we will find familiar faces, old friends and new. They can relax and show every aspect of who they are. It’s an amazing, palpable release and sense of excitement. They can feel all the emotions they can’t always express in their everyday world. They know they are in a place where they don’t have to explain and can say anything on their minds. Everyone at the seminar understands how they feel and why they are there—everyone there has loved and lost someone who proudly served. We know that we are entering into a weekend full of fun, hugs, sadness, memories, support, experiences, connection and most importantly, a love that can fill us until the next TAPS event.
I started bringing yoga to TAPS in 2010. It’s funny thinking back on those days—it always tends to hit me in ways I don’t expect. I felt so many emotions as I offered fellow survivors a glimpse of something that I knew had brought me such healing, understanding of myself, and growth in my grief journey. I always hope to spark that feeling in someone else. For me, teaching fellow survivors has tied my two worlds. I have done yoga since I was 15.
Photo: Andrea Madge
Yoga became something I started making more time for after my husband had been injured. Yoga provided me my “me time,” helped me stay balanced throughout care giving, having a toddler, being pregnant, having a baby, his and my continued military service—all of it. It even indirectly made us closer. We would debate over whether it was a real workout or whether it had any real benefits. I would show off whatever new thing I learned or accomplished, in full-on “look what I can do” style. He definitely appreciated watching anything like that! Occasionally I even was able to get him to try a few basic postures to help him stretch out.
When Wesley died, yoga was my survival raft. It gave me a space to cry, release and find myself again. It gave me that extra boost of strength to get through everything. It provided self-forgiveness when I felt less than. Now I can help others discover that for themselves. Every time I teach someone who is new to yoga, as happens a lot at TAPS, and especially if I have military members involved, I have a little giggle in my head over the little debates my husband and I would always have. I smile about how I get to use yoga to help people going through things that he dealt with, as well as the things I have dealt with. I get to show people how yoga can be more than just glorified stretching!
Photo: Andrea Madge
Throughout the years I have been able to provide yoga sessions and reach so many different people. I have taught gentle yoga and yoga for trauma; workshops on yoga and mind-body nutrition; and adults as well as children in the TAPS Good Grief Camps. Over Memorial Day Weekend I taught a morning family yoga class. Yoga with families is always a special experience. I have done yoga with my children since they were babies. Wes and I would help students do handstands up against the wall. There was always lots of fun and laughter. As my children got older, we would go to family yoga classes together. Even when it’s a normal yoga flow, having your children there brings a sense of playfulness. It connected us as I would help them figure out a pose or as they decide to climb or sit on me! When a family is grieving it can be hard to have such light moments. That’s the beautiful thing yoga can bring. It’s a place to let the walls down, be vulnerable, to let go of the outside world and be with the moment. To get to teach any sort of yoga at a TAPS event compounds that. It’s double the safe space and the potential for double the release.
As a widow I still face the complications of finding help with the children so that I can do things. It’s so easy to put aside self-care as it’s one more thing that requires energy when you’re already low. It’s also difficult to have to depend on others for help. Many times I’ve had one or both of my children with me while I teach yoga classes. They participate, demonstrate asanas for me, or even sit in a corner coloring. There were many times that a mother would come with children because she heard that I wouldn’t mind. When I was asked this year if I would be willing to offer family yoga classes at the National Seminar, I was so excited! Yoga is a healing activity that they can continue together at home. So many times I’ve seen yoga help them develop a deeper understanding of who their child is.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in teaching survivors is to trust. I trust what needs to be said or done and that it will resonate with someone. I have learned to make my yoga classes personal. If I am going through something, there is a very good chance someone else has, is, or will go through it and can relate in some way. For me, to use those experiences to talk about how yoga helped me has provided more space for my own growth. I find that when I share myself, the class becomes a deeper experience for everyone. It also helps others to open up more as I trust them with my stories. Teaching from the heart, from that personal place, has taught me to understand them and myself better. I am a better observer of people. I can be flexible as needed, as yoga is always trying to teach us to go with the flow, and be in the moment. I find more compassion and love in everyone’s situation, including my own. To watch people push out of their comfort zone to try new things, to struggle, to fall, to try again, to support each other, to cry, to find a moment of relaxation and release — all within a single class— it’s a healing energy that’s indescribable. To have military survivors return year after year to my classes for that experience is so special. They fill me in on the practices they have continued at home, how the classes have changed and inspired them. I can see their shift at the end of every session. People leave the room in a different headspace than when they had entered. I teach that yoga doesn’t have to be scary, and give them the foundations to feel comfortable to take a class at home. I show that yoga can be for anybody, flexible or not. They learn to appreciate their bodies again, to see the strength they didn’t realize they had, to find gratitude in the fact that they still have this body bringing them through everyday. Hopefully they find at least a moment to connect with their mind and acknowledge their body and have a moment of peace.
The yoga and wellness programs at the TAPS National Seminar have grown so much since those few classes I taught almost 10 years ago. I love the discussion it creates, and to hear the healing it allows. I am regularly overwhelmed with what being at the seminar over Memorial Day Weekend has done for my own healing, for the burden it lifts from my heart in sharing space with other survivors. I enjoy seeing how yoga helps in creating the people my children are growing into—the confidence they have, the compassion they show to others. This was never a place I thought I’d find myself, but I couldn't imagine our lives any other way. We are ever grateful for all the support TAPS provides!
Photo: Andrea Madge
Rayanne Hunter is the surviving spouse of Army Staff Sgt. Wesley Hunter. She lives in North Carolina with their two children.