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Injured veteran who found healing in yoga to teach at HEAL Bflo retreat

People have made many choices when running from the memories of war.

Drugs. Alcohol. Isolation.

Dan Nevins could have picked any of them after losing his legs to an improvised explosive device a dozen years ago in Iraq.

Instead, he got busy.

He sold pharmaceuticals, then went to work helping the PGA tour promote and support veterans events and programs. He also worked with the Wounded Warrior Project to raise money, and hope, for soldiers like him who left the Armed Forces in different shape than when they had arrived.

Between the work, you often could find him on a bike, snowboard or wakeboard, or maybe rock climbing.

“I was always doing something,” he said.

Yoga was never on the radar. It wasn’t for tough guys. But things change. During the last two years, the 43-year-old retired Army staff sergeant who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., has been on a journey across the country, teaching Baptiste yoga to as many as 1,600 students at a time in parks, conference rooms and yoga studios.

“Yoga changes people – saves lives, even,” he said during a FaceTime interview last week.

Nevins will be the featured instructor Feb. 28 during the HEAL Bflo III retreat at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

“We’re very excited about bringing a special yoga teacher to Buffalo,” said Cheryl Scheff, who last year with Jocelyn Kowalczyk co-founded HEAL Bflo, a business that promotes the regional yoga culture.

Other instructors for the retreat next weekend include Catherine Cook-Cottone of Yogis in Service, Rob Savarino of Buffalo Power Yoga, yoga bootcamp instructors Kate Rodgers and Kathleen Englehardt, and Megan Callahan of Yoga Parkside and Osteopathic Wellness of WNY. Learn more here; register at healbflo.com.

Nevins will teach from 1:30 to 3 p.m.

The Baltimore native got his first taste of battle right after high school, when he fought in the first Gulf war. He joined the Maryland National Guard afterward and transferred to the California National Guard when he moved to Sonoma County, Calif. He was a squad leader with the latter guard’s Task Force Tacoma unit when he was severely wounded Nov. 10, 2004, while in a Jeep near the former Iraqi Balad air base, about 60 miles northeast of Fallujah. An IED explosion killed driver Mike Ottolini, a friend and fellow soldier, and tore off most of Nevins’ lower legs. Nevins lost his left leg shortly after the blast. He spent the next 18 months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. A series of surgeries during the next three years could not save his right leg. He received prosthetic legs, and moved on.

He threw himself into a bustling life devoted to showing himself, and others, the value and drive that wounded warriors can possess back home. While recovering about two years ago from one of his surgical procedures – he’s had 39 in all – he hit a wall.

“The whole environment at Walter Reed is conducive to healing and talking and working with people,” said Nevins, who wears a bracelet on his right wrist that bears Ottolini’s name. “I came home to recover after that surgery. I couldn’t run and couldn’t take care of my daughter, who was 3. It was tough. I learned through that process that I was not dealing with the invisible wounds of war.”

During his despair, he turned to a friend who happened to be a yoga instructor.

“She said the stupidest thing: ‘You need some yoga in your life,’ ” he recalled. “It was a huge no for that: ‘I’m a dude. I don’t own any Spandex. I don’t have a man bun and I’m never gonna. It’s not for me.’ ”

She talked him into practicing meditation and taking three private yoga sessions.

“My first was horrible, everything I knew it would be,” he said. “I did it with my prosthetics on. I went through the poses and I couldn’t feel it. My teacher was saying things like, ‘Root down.’ What does that mean? ‘Rise up.’ I can’t balance because I don’t feel the ground under my feet. ... I went back the second time and it was just as much torture. It was painful. It didn’t feel right. I couldn’t get into my body. We were halfway through and I was frustrated. I asked, ‘Can we try this with my legs off?’ She looked at me sideways and said, ‘OK, we’ll try it.’ Up to that point, no one – no one – got to see me with my legs off.

“It was so powerful,” he said. “I’m trying to get into this pose – Warrior One. I remember her saying ‘Rise up’ and I remember plugging in with my legs. A ridiculously strong surge of energy came up from the earth into my legs, into my body, and just lit me up, inside out. Tears were coming out of my eyes and I was like literally, ‘Holy (crap), what is this?’ It was like the earth was saying, ‘Where have you been for the last 10 years?’ ”

Despite the strong connection, things went slowly at first – and there were setbacks. He almost had a panic attack during his first group class. As he took off his legs, he felt the gaze of others and quickly ran through all kinds of assumptions.

“I was ruining everyone else’s practice,” he said. “I heard everyone talking and just knew what they were saying: ‘Why is he here?’ ‘Why did he practice next to me?’ ‘He’s throwing me off my game.’ It was miserable. And as I’m putting my legs back on to get the hell out of there, people kept coming by. They were saying how great it was I was there, that they were inspired, asking if I could practice next to them next time. I realized the (stuff) was all in my head, all that ego. This is my body. It’s what I have. I should love it just as it is. So that sealed the deal for me when it came to yoga. Four weeks later, I was in teacher training.”

Nevins teaches yoga classes regularly in Jacksonville, as well as during motivational speaking appearances. Before heading to Western New York, he is one of more than 90 speakers scheduled this weekend during the Wisdom 2.0 mindfulness conference in San Francisco. Seattle Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, Rush Communications CEO Russell Simmons and Google Vice President Bradley Horowitz are among others.

Nevins calls the Baptiste style “pretty militant” as far as yoga can be, “but not that militant.” On Feb. 28, he will wear his prosthetics as he wanders the Hyatt Regency Buffalo Grand Ballroom during HEAL Bflo III. He said he doesn’t have many stock pep talks as he runs students through yoga poses but that you can expect to hear “so good” when he is pleased with what he sees – and feels.

Expect a solid workout, he said, but one that is accessible to almost anybody.

“If I see someone who’s struggling – maybe it’s a lack of flexibility, maybe it’s an injury, maybe it’s an amputation, a burn – I give them space to struggle because sometimes that’s what they need,” he said. “If you give them a modification right off the bat you’re acknowledging someone is different when in fact, we’re all the same. You’re taking away the power for them to surprise themselves. I get a lot of thank yous for that. I’m OK with someone struggling to find something new in their yoga practice or their body. If they’re going to hurt themselves, that’s different. I’ll give them a tool or modification. A lot of the feedback I get is, ‘You kicked my (butt).’ That’s a huge compliment.”

 

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