By Sandi Moynihan

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia—Justin Blazejewski knew something was wrong.

In 2008, the Marine Corps veteran — who had been working as government contractor in active war zones on and off since 2005 — noticed that the stress of his job near the front lines was beginning to take its toll on his mental health.

Justin Blazejewski sits during a VETOGA class. | Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

“The stress and depression and all that stuff started coming in,” Blazejewski said.

Aware that Blazejewski was battling depression and extreme stress, Blazejewski’s roommate at the time invited him to attend a yoga class with her under the guise that it might help him recover from a recent ankle surgery he had earlier that year.

“She was trying to trick me because she knew the meditation would help with the stress and the depression,” Blazejewski said.

But by the end of his first yoga class, he was hooked.

“I was like, there’s something special going on here so I have to get more of this and see what this is all about,” he said.

Almost immediately, Blazejewski began to incorporate yoga into his everyday life, practicing five to six times a week. After a year of attending classes and one life-changing yoga retreat in Bali, Blazejewski decided to become a yoga teacher so he could bring the transformative power of yoga to others like him.

1/6 Photos

A VETOGA class.

2/6 Photos

A student participates in a VETOGA class.

3/6 Photos

Instructor Daniel Steiniger teaches a VETOGA class.

4/6 Photos

A VETOGA class.

5/6 Photos

A student during a VETOGA class.

6/6 Photos

A VETOGA student practices breathing techniques during class.

A student during a VETOGA class. | Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

“I continued to go to more trainings, to educate myself, to refine that to what it is today which is VETOGA,” he said.

VETOGA, a nonprofit, brings yoga, meditation and spiritual arts to the military community through specialized yoga classes and 200-hour teacher trainings exclusively for active duty, reserve, veterans and spouses.

“Why it’s different [from other yoga classes or non-profits] is [that] people that happen to be military, veteran and spouses … are teaching other military, veterans and spouses,” Blazejewski said.

“[They] can empathize with each other instead of just sympathizing.”

In addition to teaching classes for military in and around the community, VETOGA also brings its specialized classes directly to active-duty service members as part of their physical training.

“So now they have preventive maintenance [thanks to what they learned in yoga],” Blazejewski said.

A student enjoys a quiet moment during a VETOGA class. | Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

“When they go and see some traumatic event … they’ll be better equipped to handle that so it won’t be as much of a trauma.”

VETOGA has a network of 24 teachers located throughout the country, with a new cohort of 20 teachers scheduled to graduate from the 200-hour training program in May 2017. Although the VETOGA teacher training is currently only for service members, veterans and spouses – with the occasional civilian exception – Blazejewski is open to the possibly of offering the training program to a larger, civilian demographic in the future.

“We want to start and work back from the civilian world into the veteran world into the active duty to help bridge those gaps,” he said.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.