Yoga Was My Survival Raft: A Journey of Healing Through Teaching Yoga
Author: Rayanne Hunter
For many years, my family’s Memorial Day Weekends have looked quite different from the collective norm. We look forward to the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar every year, where we gather with a family that we never expected to be a part of– our Gold Star Family. My husband, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Wesley Hunter, died on September 18, 2008, from injuries he received on February 26, 2008, while deployed in Iraq.
At TAPS Seminars, Everyone Understands
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, self-understanding, and growth in my grief journey. I always hope to spark that feeling in someone else. I have done yoga since I was 15 years old, so, for me, teaching fellow survivors has tied my two worlds together.
Yoga Helps Me Stay Balanced
I started making more time for yoga after my husband was injured. It provided me with “me time,” which helped me stay balanced throughout caregiving, having a toddler, pregnancy, having a baby, and our continued military service– all of it.
Indirectly, yoga even brought Wesley and me closer together. We would debate over whether it was a real workout or had any real benefits. I would show off new yoga poses that I learned or accomplished in a 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, providing me with that extra boost of strength to get through everything. When I felt less than, yoga provided me with self-forgiveness.
Now, I can help others discover that release for themselves. Every time I teach someone new to yoga, which happens a lot at TAPS, especially with 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 he and I endured, sharing how yoga can be more than just glorified stretching!
A Healing Family Activity
Yoga with family is always a special experience full of fun and laughter. I have done yoga with my children since they were babies, and now that they’ve grown older, we go to family yoga classes together. As I help them figure out poses or as they decide to climb or sit on me, yoga has connected us. One Memorial Day Weekend, I taught a morning family yoga class, and even to a normal yoga flow, children bring a sense of playfulness. Wes and I helped students do handstands against the walls.
When a family is grieving, it can be hard to have such light moments. That’s the beautiful thing yoga can bring– a place to let the walls down, be vulnerable, let go of the outside world, and be with the moment. And teaching yoga at a TAPS event compounds those feelings with double the safe space, allowing the potential for double the release.
Yoga has allowed me to reach so many different people throughout the years. At TAPS Seminars, I have taught gentle yoga, yoga for trauma, and yoga and mind-body nutrition workshops for adults, children, and families. When asked if I were willing to offer family yoga classes at TAPS Seminars, I was so excited! Yoga is a healing activity that they can continue together at home. So many times, I’ve seen yoga help families develop a deeper understanding of who their children are.
Yoga Teaches Trust
Trust is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from teaching survivors. 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 that someone else has, is, or will relate somehow. Using those experiences to talk about how yoga helped me has allowed 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, try new things, struggle and fall, try again, support each other, cry, and find a moment of relaxation and release— all within a single class— is 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 their at-home yoga practices and how my classes have changed and inspired them. In every session, I can see how people shift in headspaces from beginning to end.
I teach that yoga doesn’t have to be scary, offering foundations so that my students feel comfortable taking classes at home. I show that yoga can be for anybody– flexible or not. They learn to appreciate their bodies again, discover their strength, and find gratitude in the fact that they still have their bodies bringing them through every day. Hopefully, they find at least a moment to connect with their minds, acknowledge their bodies, and have a moment of peace.
Taps Yoga Lifts Hearts
The yoga and wellness programs at TAPS National Seminars have grown so much since those few classes I taught ten years ago. I love the discussion they create and the healing they allow. I am regularly overwhelmed with what being at TAPS Seminars over Memorial Day Weekends has done for my healing, for the burden it lifts from my heart in sharing space with other survivors. I enjoy seeing how yoga helps create the people my children are growing into– the confidence they have and the compassion they show to others. TAPS 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!
Rayanne Hunter is the surviving spouse of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Wesley Hunter.
Photos: Rayanne Hunter and Andrea Madge
This article was first published on the TAPS website on June 7, 2019, and is republished here with modifications.