Barry Peterson is a West Point alumnus and instructor who teaches courses in genocide, the Vietnam War and nonviolence at the University of Nevada, Reno. Peterson has observed life from diverse perspectives, beginning his career in the military as an infantry officer and later becoming a Bikram Yoga instructor. Now, he’s bringing the two together.
Tell me what you’re involved in right now.
I teach three courses, and I teach yoga. I’ve also got some projects that relate yoga with the military. … I went to Germany in November, and I’m going again later this month to the U.S. military bases. … The overall goal is to create a place where veterans and their family can come in a social environment and do yoga and other activities to help them with reintegration and helping them feel good about their lives. I also organized and conducted a workshop for veterans in New York in September. We worked with the group—Team Red, White and Blue—a pro-veteran nonprofit that does a lot of athletic activities with veterans. … We’re going to do that again this September.
What are the benefits of yoga in the military?
It helps with physical flexibility and strength and to reduce the negative effects of stress, which, for the military, is particularly important. They are in a high-stress environment. There are physical demands on their bodies that take a toll over the years. PTSD and the symptoms of it come to the surface more in really stressful situations. When we have high stress, our tempers are shorter; we tend to react more extremely to emotional situations. When you look at the life, the career, of a service member, introducing yoga early on can really help them health wise. … There’s actually a lot of common ground philosophically about doing one’s duty and about facing adversity without resentment. … If service members are clear about what their duty is while they’re serving, there’s a hope that it will lessen the symptoms related to guilt or resentment about what they did or didn’t do.
How did you come from the military to yoga?
I had many years after I got out of the military where I never even thought about yoga. Then I had a phase where yoga came into my life not really by choice…It felt good for my body. Then over the years, I started to see the commonalities, and I felt that there was something in yoga that I wish I had when I was in the Army. There was a period of time, that’s kind of uncomfortable for me, when I intentionally distanced myself from the military. I held nonviolence and yoga and then the military in these two different areas. I was always angry. I was always judging. But I have arrived at a point where I don’t see that anymore.
How did that anger and separation come about?
I worked for the Department of Defense when 9/11 happened. After 9/11, I went to this extreme, to nonviolence and yoga, and I stayed in that angry place for many years.
How did you get from there to here?
In ’06, I went to my 20-year West Point reunion. I sat down on the shuttle bus next to one of my classmates, and we started swapping stories. He was a lieutenant colonel, and I was a just a full-time yoga teacher. I thought he was going to laugh me off the bus, but he wound up having a really serious conversation with me saying, “Barry, we need yoga in the Army.” It was that conversation that really oriented me to the possibility.