Reintegrating into society after war for many veterans is an isolating experience. They feel alone and without their comrades in arms, but in Merced one marine is overcoming those feelings with two unexpected things, a yoga mat and the internet. This story is part of our series “Common Threads: Veterans Still Fighting The War." Support for this series comes from Cal Humanities, as part of the War Comes Home initiative.
The InShape Health Club in Merced is a typical gym, weight lifting and runners on treadmills. But in the activity room a much calmer workout is in progress.
Sprawled across the wood floor of the dimly lit mirrored room are a mix of men and women, old and young, standing on mats arms stretched forward and back in a warrior yoga position.
Navpreet Sandher is their yoga instructor. He teaches the practice weekly at the gym and to students at UC Merced.
“Yoga can do a lot more than people think,” Sandher says. “We think of yoga and we think of flexible folks. I think it is much more than that. I think it’s about being a more balanced individual, a more flexible person in body and spirit.”
But Sandher hasn’t always loved yoga. He was sort of a rebel in high school and joined the military on a whim.
The 23-year-old Merced junior college student didn’t start practicing until about two years ago as a marine in a tent while stationed in Afghanistan with a video workout series as his instructor.
“A couple of friends of mine had the P90x DVD and they wanted to try the yoga x part and so we were getting made fun of by some guys in the tent like what are you doing? What is this yoga stuff?”
But despite the taunting of fellow marines, it was on Sandher's makeshift yoga mat in a foreign land where he had a revelation.
The practice of yoga gives him peace.
“Even though it seemed kind of like a goofy thing to do I felt really good after I finished doing the yoga after,” Sandher say. “So after that I started doing it more regularly.”
Whenever shots were fired or he had a rough day working as a mechanic at his base Sandher returned to his mat.
“I took a little bit of a small arms fire, but I honestly never had to shoot my rifle off,” Sandher says. “You want to do that kind of thing because you feel like it will prove something. But coming back years later you’re thinking maybe there’s a good reason you didn’t do that because it’s something you have to live with for the rest of your life.”
And when he got out of the military in 2013 he knew he had to continue his practice to find peace in the civilian world. So he took courses to become a certified yoga instructor paid through the GI Bill.
Ofelia Cruz is one of Sandher’s yoga mentors. She says he’s one of a kind.
“It’s very seldom to have someone that is strong as the same time calm,” Cruz says. “He has the quality of a yoga instructor. He’s awesome. He’s a role model.”
But it isn’t just yoga that Sandher says is helping him cope in society after four years in the service. A few months after he entered the reserves he was asked to join the South Asian Veterans Network Facebook group.
“I didn’t know that there were any other Indian veterans in the U.S. military,” Sandher says. “So I thought it was pretty cool and just re-acclimating to coming back home that helped me a lot.”
It’s in this virtual world where Sandher says he’s found a group of friends that truly understand him. They have two things in common: their East Asian heritage and similar military histories.
“We’re able to come here and voice our opinions without any judgment and to talk to them as ourselves even though I’ve only met a few of them outside the group,” Sandher says. “You know you find comfort knowing people are in the same shoes as you.”
That comfort Sandher’s talking about is what the founder of the Facebook group wanted to foster. Jasdeep Brar served as marine and realized that East Asian veterans have unique histories and once home face different issues than other military subgroups. For example, he says many Punjabi parents have a hard time understanding their military children’s patriotism towards both America and India.
“I was just trying to find like-minded people I could turn to myself but then in the back of my head I’d know there are people that understand the cultural as well as the military difficulties of having served in the military,” Brar says.
Brar’s main goal with the group is to remedy mental health issues by creating a safe space for veterans to open up. It’s in this online forum that he hopes to tackle mental health issues for East Asian veterans.
“I came back to a community that really didn’t understand mental health so if there is any kind of discussion that takes place it’s in a very uncomfortable setting,” Brar says. “As veterans we can bring this conversation up in the South Asian community."
And with the addition of Navpreet Sandher, the yoga instructor, Brar believes the group is moving in the right direction towards positive mental health.
Back in Merced, Sandher is about to finish instructing a one hour yoga class. It’s here on his yoga mat that Sandher says he’s working out the residue of war.