Cows and guns loom large in Guy Duffner's memories of his childhood. The son of a Montana cattle rancher, he recalls the excitement of getting his first hunting rifle when he turned 10. "I hunted with my dad's rifle as a child and had no qualms about killing things because everybody did it," he recalls.
Now a hospital corpsman in the military, Duffner says he wants nothing to do with guns. He credits the change in his attitude to his yoga practice and its emphasis on ahimsa, or nonviolence. "The more I discovered yoga, the more I began to view the world in a peaceful, loving way," he says. "I've come full circle to the ahimsic way of life."
Duffner, 26, joined the Navy four and a half years ago, but was later assigned to a Marine Corps unit. That's when the pressures of military life began to close in on him. To cope, he decided to start a regular yoga practice. It has helped him stay balanced despite having to share a tent or an 8-by-10-foot barracks room while being restricted to a military base overseas.
"In Korea, we were staying in tents, and the insects were awful. Yet somehow I managed to find a DVD player and a David Swenson DVD," says Duffner. When he was deployed in Japan, Duffner discovered Kundalini Yoga with an on-base teacher. "In Japan, I lived to go to yoga—it was my only way of escaping the oppression of military life."
Because of crowded living quarters on a base in California, Duffner had to take his chanting and early-morning meditation to the only place he could think of: the back of his car. "It was cramped, but at least it was private," he says.
While it may seem contradictory to live like a yogi and be in the military, more and more people are doing it, according to yoga teacher Tuyen Le Smith, who has taught military members based in Okinawa for the past four years. "Your life is dedicated to serving your country, so your body does not really belong to you...and you need to be whole—spirit, body, and soul—to stay sane and keep things in perspective," she says.
At Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California, the Marine Corps Community Services Semper Fit program offers six yoga classes a week. "The soldiers are asking for more as they become more familiar with it and realize its benefits," says Barbie Simon, group exercise coordinator. On 18 Marine Corps bases worldwide, an average of 461 Marines and family members attend more than 43 yoga classes per week, according to a spokesperson for the Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.
Yoga teacher Melinda Allen has seen a similar growth on the Marine bases in Japan. The Florida-based vinyasa instructor, who has taught on bases around the world for more than 25 years, predicts the popularity of yoga in the military will continue to grow. "I think [military students] need yoga to detox from the constant go-go-go of training," she says. "It gives them the yin to balance their yang of being in warrior mode all the time."
As for Duffner, he has recently completed a teacher training program in Kundalini Yoga at Golden Bridge, a Kundalini yoga center in Los Angeles, and his decision could have far-reaching consequences. "It is absolutely amazing what this young man is accomplishing so far in his life," says Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, the director of Golden Bridge and one of Duffner's teachers. "He has the great opportunity, through his presence and example, to influence new thought patterns among his peers."
Duffner seems aware of the opportunity. He has already volunteered to lead his unit through morning yoga and meditation, in place of running in formation. "When I offered to teach, it was not well received at first. I got groans and looks of dread from the men in my unit," he admits. But his teaching sparked interest and appreciation. "I had Marines from other units asking me if they could join in."
Duffner will conclude his five-year tour of duty in November and plans to teach in Montana.