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Om in a Combat Zone: Story of Two Women Marines
When artillery fire is the sound you wake up to most days, you need all the yoga you can get. But the soundtrack to living in a war zone is just one reason First Lieutenants Leslie Borenstein and Lindsey May say four hours of yoga a week is their survival tactic. These women Marines flat-out never blow off sun salutations at 1100 hours, even after pulling an all-nighter in the line of improvised explosive devices. Here’s their story in their own words.
Born in: San Diego, Calif.
Home now: Norfolk, Va.
Job at Camp Fallujah: Transport of critical
What I miss most about home: My husband, Matt
First tried yoga: Two years ago,
soon after I joined the Marines
Leslie (right) and Lindsey emailed us about their story and sent photos they snapped on breaks in-between duties and downward dogs.
Born in: Houston
Home now: Swansboro, N.C.
Job at Camp Fallujah: Watch officer; searching women for contraband as they enter the city
What I miss most about home: Margaritas and Mexican food
First tried yoga: When I started rooming with Leslie here in Iraq
Why we do as much yoga as possible at Camp Fallujah
Leslie: Out here where troops are subjected to the circumstances of dangerous combat, our stress level is high. Everything is critical on a different level from anything I was used to at home. It has forced me to process stressful situations without letting them affect me as dramatically. Lindsey and I are able to maintain three to four yoga sessions a week, and we rely on them to keep us grounded. It helps me do my job without the stress affecting my judgment as much. I can consciously tell myself to breathe and react without as much emotion clouding my thoughts.
Lindsey: It would be a very difficult journey here if I didn’t have my yoga practice. The day I decided to extend my deployment, Leslie and I sat in the room for a good hour in our yoga gear and did random yoga positions, just talking through life and the next steps. Other Marines here will exercise to deal with stress — then go to the smoke pit and have a few cigarettes with a cup of coffee. It is very easy to fall off of the wagon of positive energy out here. I see it daily!
How we do yoga in the midst of gunfire!
Leslie: There is artillery right next to the compound, and there have been many times when the arty is fired while we’re practicing yoga. At first, we’d always laugh at the irony of us in Warrior II pose in a combat zone listening to arty firing, but now it’s just one more adjustment out here that yoga has helped us make.
Lindsey: I have a fear of loud noises. As silly as that sounds, I have the hardest time holding my composure when artillery fire goes off. At Camp Fallujah we are well protected — other Marines are getting shot at every day. But the artillery is extremely loud — often it shakes our room. When people first get here, they might mistake it for incoming rounds! But when it happens during yoga, I find that I can hold the pose and not lose my bearings. I think it’s the mindset of being in the “present” … my body and mind are engaged in peaceful practice.
Most frightening moment in Iraq
Leslie: A few days a month, I go on night convoys that transport items to other bases. One night a Marine thought he’d spotted an IED (improvised explosive device) and we had to wait while it was checked out. It was stressful ... two Marines from my unit have been killed by snipers and IEDs.
Lindsey: We’ve all lost quite a number of friends and peers out here. Most of our battalion leaves “the wire” (the base) daily. I was in a convoy one night and we called EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) to come check out a possible improvised explosive device (PIED). On their way back from our call, they were hit in the exact place that we had just been an hour earlier. They ended up losing three Marines in that attack. Our PIED turned out to be just a trash bag in the road. Another convoy had to watch as one of their vehicles burned to the ground after an IED attack with their squad leader trapped inside.
Most frustrating moment in Iraq
Leslie: A Marine of higher rank ordered me to not complete a task that would ensure that Marines at some smaller bases who have dangerous jobs and very unpleasant living conditions would receive fresh fruits and vegetables. Not doing this task would leave them eating only prepackaged meals. It seems trivial, but it’s part of my job, and I take it to heart because it affects quality of life for Marines already in very stressful conditions. I argued with the senior Marine but lost, and I took it very personally because it meant those Marines were going to suffer. I was so relieved to breathe into our yoga that day.
Best care package so far
Leslie: They usually revolve around making our room more yoga-friendly. It’s just our two beds and lockers. Our family and friends sent "moon" lights for ambient light, and two pretty tank tops. We have to wear green PT clothes outside of our room. We also keep our blue and purple yoga mats on the floor all the time (we think they’re pretty).
What fellow Marines say about our yoga
Leslie: I’ve been surprised — we get very few comments. Two other Marines have even started doing yoga with me sometimes, and one of the higher ranking Marines in our battalion (the one I lost the argument with!) is also dabbling in it. He stresses out all the time and his back hurts, so I convinced him to try it.
Lindsey: A few do make fun of us, but now that yoga classes have actually been started out here we’ve had a lot of men asking us what times the classes are!
Favorite yoga pose
Leslie: Camel’s pose — and I love the flow of sun salutations! Linds and I both suck at the backbends in one of the power yoga DVDs. We’re making progress and, of course, it’s the practice that matters and not the results, but they are very challenging for us.
Lindsey: It’s a toss-up between triangle pose — I love the stretch of my legs and waist; and upward dog — I feel like Gumby. I’m starting to be able to hold poses more comfortably … I can hold Warrior II for a few minutes without straining. Right now I’m working on headstands and handstands.
Words of wisdom
Leslie: One thing I've learned out here is that all lives have the possibility of containing the same stresses — just at different relative levels. I think yoga can help all people deal with those stresses. Maybe people are more apt to listen to someone who finds yoga helpful in a combat zone, but I've finally learned that stress is all relative!
Lindsey: Mind-body practice is essential to performing well at any aspect of life. It’s about being able to find that peaceful mindset anytime and anywhere. The power of the mind is incredible.