Monday, March 21, 2016

How Working With Blind Veterans Taught Me the Essence of Yoga

by Carly Sparks, CSOY alumni Class of 2014, Nurse at Blink Vets UK

The expansion of one’s consciousness is the fundamental principle which conjoins all Yoga, lest we forget it, after Gina Caputo's daily reminders in Yoga Teacher Training. Years of self-study, asana practice, trekking in the Himalayas and days spent in silence meditating at a Tibetan Monastery pale to insignificance when compared to my most recent spiritual passage and consciousness expanding voyage – a new career as a nurse at Blind Veterans UK.  The charity provides support to anyone who has served in Britain’s Armed Forces and developed a visual impairment, either as a result of degeneration, disease, or injuries sustained in conflict.
In my previous role, I was nursing people in a hospice, typically in the last two weeks of their life.  The hospice incorporated Eastern philosophies on a very rudimentary level though the parallels between nursing and yoga were obvious.  Coaching people on breathing techniques in order to attain focus on something other than their pain or their suffering was commonplace.  As nurses, we often talked about the lessons we learnt from the dying, not least, the ability to just “be”, to stay with a person when they need it the most, when they are facing their suffering and to recognise medications aren’t always the answer.  It takes time to be able to say, 

“I can’t even begin to understand how you’re feeling, but I will be here with you, no matter what.”

This recognition demonstrates something I’ve learnt through my yoga practice – to me, it means humility and being humble, but in yoga it’s ahimsa, non-violence, or loving others because we all have the same creator or Creator.   
So my new job was going to be a real change and initially I worried it might be a stark contrast to my life at home.  One where I spend my spare time reading books about spirituality, travel and yoga, cooking vegan foods and absorbing as much energy as I can from the nature around me.  Although I spent a number of years in the military, my life has taken a different path since then, and I feared I would struggle to balance the two characters I would be playing. It wasn’t long until I realized my preconceptions were just that.  
In my head, the work would be very objective, and indulge the hierarchical and structured setting that soldiers are so accustomed to.  Previously, I too had relied on this military structure and the ethos of following orders, but since finding yoga and traveling independently, I had become far more discerning. Although Blind Veterans UK certainly has very military foundations, it also embodies a nurturing environment that reflects the necessity to recognize the souls or the spirits of those it is serving in order to enable them to reach their potential.  When blind veterans visit the centre, they typically have an intention of what they hope to achieve during their stay. And as Kathryn Budig conveys, intentions can pack a lot of power.  
Each day, I’m surrounded by people who are living with intention and that is contagious.  
For not only do they set goals for their stay, when living with a visual impairment, they tell me it’s necessary to live so much more intentionally, to rely on other senses and to trust others to support them.  As we become their eyes, their guides, we have such a privileged opportunity to absorb these lessons.  To live with intention and to trust others are such powerful lessons and I make it my intention now to carry this with me every day, and so far, it’s made my little corner of the world feel happier.  
Maybe it is the juxtaposition of my ignorance, my tamas, being saturated by the overwhelming exposure to what can only be considered as pratyahara (or sense withdrawal) embodied by the blind people I work with, that makes this phase of my life feel so pivotal.  On my first day, I met Billy, an ex-army Staff Sergeant who went blind following his contact with a virus while exhuming mass graves in Bosnia.  Words can’t describe the feeling I had when I met Billy, it was like being in the presence of a wisened guru, someone who personifies an Extraordinary State of Being.    Despite being totally blind, I’ve rarely met someone as “all-seeing” as Billy.  His humility seems to reach out further than the eye can see.  His accomplishments are too many to be listed but include not least, the record he holds for being the fastest blind person to ride a motor bike (186mph?!?), his acting career comprising in part his role as the only blind drag queen in Europe and various sporting endeavours. Although he is the first person to admit that the road to the life that he now grabs by the balls, hasn’t always been easy. Despite only knowing him for five months, Billy has become my greatest role model, he motivates me to expand myself in every way possible and to me he sums up Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.5:
You are what your deep, driving desire is.  As your desire is, so is your will.  As your will is, so is your deed.  As your deed is, so is your destiny.  (Translated by Eknath Easwaran).

Each day I’m reminded that sometimes our greatest teachers are those who challenge us to see things differently, to drop our preconceptions and to sense things, to feel them in a different way. This year, I’ve met people who, since they have gone blind have, ran their first marathon, taken up archery, joined a bowling team, learnt to walk on prosthetic legs after their own legs were blown off in Afghanistan or simply found a love of cooking because the love of their life who used to cook for them, has died, and all without being able to see it.  It’s this spirit, this tapas, this strength, which makes me choose to face my fears, and remember the lesson that Kathryn Budig instilled in us during teacher training, to choose love over fear. 

I’m so grateful for this opportunity and the inspiration to say “fuck it” and choose the scary option, the one that makes my voice shake, but the one that I know will lead to me expanding my consciousness in ways I never thought possible.  

Thank you Blind Veterans UK for bringing so much light to my life.  
In 2016, three of my colleagues and I are taking part in a 100 kilometres (64 miles) walking challenge to raise money for Blind Veterans.  What makes this challenge special, is that each of us will be guiding someone who is blind or visually impaired and we will walk continuously throughout the day and night until we’ve reached the finish line.  We have been training as a team since January, not only to improve our physical fitness, but also so the people we are guiding can build their trust in us as we will effectively be their eyes as we climb over hills, make our way through woods and descend rocky paths. Please help Blind Veterans UK to continue their goal to ensure that no-one who has served in the UK should battle blindness alone and consider making a donation, no amount is insignificant. Additionally, if you are interested in supporting a local organization the Blind Veterans Association is doing great work to support US veterans.


Carly wants to live in a world where people are courageously authentic, books are long and captivating, and “being” is the new “doing”. As a Registered Nurse, she’s honoured to promote holistic health at Blind Veterans UK, having previously had the privilege to nurse in a palliative care hospice. Her earlier career as a Telecommunications Operator in the British Military led to her being awarded for active service in both The Gulf and Afghanistan. When she’s not in nursing uniform, you can find her volunteering with ex-soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder, running up and camping on mountains in Britain’s omnipresent drizzle, engrossed in feminist literature, or very occasionally having to call a friend to rescue her from her latest foot behind the head misadventure.

Her next big challenge is to act as the sighted guide for a blind veteran this summer as he competes alongside three other blind veterans to walk 100 kilometres (64 miles) non-stop.