By Tresca Weinstein
J. L. Pizarro wears a silver bracelet with the engraving “Doc, Thank You.” It was given to him by several of the countless soldiers whose lives he saved during his deployment as a combat medic during the Vietnam War, and it is sacred to him.
“The words are so simple, but I know what they mean,” he says. “It’s a symbol of the power of the human spirit, the power of love, and the circle of life. It’s a physical reminder of their appreciation and of my having done something of value for the country and human beings.”
But Pizarro has other reminders of his service, which began in 1969 and ended with his honorable discharge in 1973. There’s his Combat Medic Badge, for one—the highest honor for a medic awarded on the eve of his 20th birthday. And then there are the less obvious and more insidious things he carries: traumatic brain injury caused by exposure to heavy artillery; a history of depression and anxiety that led to three suicide attempts and cost two marriages, several lost jobs; and, for a time, his relationship with his son. At one point, he became homeless as a result of his PTSD symptoms—despite holding two master’s degrees.
By then, Pizarro could not have been further from the future he had envisioned growing up in a middle-class suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico. He had wanted to be a doctor, fulfilling his parents’ dream, but he had never imagined the horror that a healer could encounter on the battlefield. He recalls an ambush in a minefield and losing count of the number of amputations he had to do to keep soldiers alive after mines severed their limbs. He can still hear the screams of “Medic!” as the men called for him as they fell, and remember the “deep trance” he entered to block out the terror and take care of them. “The trauma of trying to save someone in this situation, while the enemy is trying to kill you, is indescribable,” he says.
The memories locked in his body and mind were slowly killing him. And then, he found yoga and meditation. Pizarro took his first yoga classes at a VA hospital soon after his PTSD diagnosis in 2010. He began to feel the benefits immediately—particularly the benefits of yoga Nidra, also known as yogic sleep, a technique that gradually and systematically relaxes the body and nervous system. “After four years of chronic insomnia, yoga Nidra allowed me to fall asleep without medication,” Pizarro recalls. “I remember lying in Savasana [relaxation pose] at the end of my second or third class and feeling a sense of belonging and connection that I had never felt before in my adult life. The teacher said something magical: ‘This is your place on earth. No one can take that away from you. You can claim this space.’ I realized then that this place of belonging had been there all the time.”
Pizarro’s mission is to share with others the methodology that has been so powerful for him. He attended Kripalu yoga teacher training in 2014 with the help of a Kripalu scholarship. And he completed additional certifications in trauma-sensitive yoga with the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, along with training in mindful resilience for trauma recovery with the Veterans Yoga Project. Since his training, he has taught ongoing mindful yoga classes at the Hartford (Conn.) Vet Center near his home in Ellington, where he lives with his wife, Dawn. He does not charge for these classes.
“My calling is to teach yoga to combat veterans, to help them restore their body, mind, and spirit to its peaceful, natural state,” he says. “The trust they gave to me in combat is the same trust that enables me to help them today.” He also consults with yoga studios and nonprofits across the country, supporting their work with veterans.
Pizarro chose Kripalu Yoga for his 200-hour teacher training, he says, because of its focus on compassion and honoring your intuition and wisdom. Kripalu Yoga, he says, “invited me to reflect on what I was feeling, and begin reconnecting mind and body,” which often dissociate in the face of trauma as a survival mechanism.
According to Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, trauma is a somatic issue, which makes body-based modalities like yoga particularly useful (in combination with traditional therapeutic approaches). In a study done by his team, participants in a 10-week yoga program experienced significantly reduced PTSD symptoms: 52 percent no longer met the criteria for PTSD, compared to 21 percent of the control group. The yoga group also reported a non-statistical decrease in dissociative symptoms. But Pizarro says it’s important to remember to teach yoga with a sensitivity and understanding of trauma. The mat can be a metaphorical minefield. Drawing from his experience and extensive training, he has created Compassionate Warrior: Yoga for Combat Veterans, a yoga protocol specifically designed for this population. It takes into account what he describes as the four factors in all traumatic events: unpredictability, loss of personal safety, loss of control, and the failure of existing safeguards around the situation.
Along with relief from physical and mental PTSD symptoms, Pizarro has found spiritual and emotional healing in yoga, particularly in embracing the yogic values of ahimsa (nonviolence) and santosha (acceptance). These tenets, he says, have helped him to accept the gratitude of the soldiers he saved and to forgive himself for those he was unable to help. Along with his silver bracelet, he wears a strand of beads around his wrist made from purple fluorite and green jasper—stones that represent balance and alignment.