Army Crew Yoga
Training peaceful minds at West Point
Illustration Credit: Warrior Crew by Donna Grethen
Imagine a workout room containing about 20 tall, lean, short-haired, clean-shaven, 18-year-old men. Uniform gray shirts labeled with their surnames are carefully tucked into black shorts. You can hear them breathe deeply as they work in unison. Right now they are holding what looks to be a standard push-up position and, just when you expect their commander to demand, “Give me fifty!” she says quietly, “Exhale to Downward Facing Dog!”
This scene is not boot camp but yoga as practiced under my coaching by the Men’s Novice Crew at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Yoga purists may cringe at how “Army Crew Yoga” deviates from “real” yoga. Our sessions rarely last more than 20 to 30 minutes, and the Army Crew boathouse is rarely quiet or calm. Years of practice notwithstanding, I am not a trained instructor; worse, I often delegate to the cadets the responsibility of leading the poses. (Each cadet masters one pose to teach when I’m away.) The mats, which do double duty as stamina circuits, would be banished from any decent yoga studio. In order to avoid alienating my audience (and I have lost one rower who thought yoga heretical), I eschew the word “spiritual.” But I have learned over the years that the beauty of yoga transcends circumstances.
In first introducing yoga to West Point rowers a dozen years ago, I assured them that, by improving their flexibility, yoga would improve their rowing technique, reduce injuries, and teach them to maintain calm under stressful conditions. I denied any interest in chanting, meditation, incense, or the path of enlightenment, other than, of course, through the act of rowing. Over the years, I have become more honest. Since I do not emphasize poses specifically recommended for rowers over those I enjoy teaching, I now admit that Army Crew Yoga is not really about perfecting the rowing stroke. Rather it enhances self-knowledge (Where is that muscle and what can I make it do?) and relaxation under stress (“Hold that pose—and smile!”). As a superb visiting instructor told one class, life challenges us to make honorable choices, and every yoga pose is an opportunity to act with personal integrity. But Army Crew Yoga also provides the team with a chance to laugh at bad jokes and silly poses and to lament that no PE instructors are present to reward them for their handstands.
Like “real” yoga classes, however little time we have, Army Crew Yoga ends with Shavasana or Corpse Pose. And perhaps Shavasana is the secret reason why I want my cadet rowers to do yoga. West Point cadets live under continual stress as they strive to fulfill onerous academic, physical, and military requirements. Few things could be more beneficial to their health and sanity than being ordered to spend five minutes in complete relaxation. And it makes my day to hear them call to me from the dock after a long, tough row, “Coach, is there time for yoga?”
Spreading Yoga to Unlikely Groups
- Make it brief: 20 to 30 minutes is fine.
- Start with basic poses like Plank Pose.
- Make every person learn one pose well enough to teach it.
- Talk just enough to whet their interest.
- Mix it up. There is no “right” set or sequence of poses.
- Remember to breathe.
- Find something to laugh about.
- Finish with Shavasana.