The First-Person Project

Robin Carnes ’83

Silver Springs, MD

Co-founder, Warriors at Ease

Major: English

I was born into a Southern Baptist family in Nashville, Tennessee. When I was four, my dad got a job with the federal government, and we moved to the DC area, to northern Virginia – a much more culturally diverse region. I was born in 1956, and my parents had a very classic middle class marriage with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked a lot, so my childhood was shaped by the gender expectations of the time. I didn’t really want to have the life that my mother had. To me it looked really constricting – but there weren’t a lot of other options. I didn’t necessarily want to be a school teacher or nurse, but I thought I would have some kind of career.

As it happens, my life didn’t turn out at all the way I thought it would. The 1960s hit when I was a young teenager, along with a lot of political and social upheaval. That cultural revolution was one influence that changed the trajectory of my life. There was a lot of family drama and family trauma during the time I was a young teenager. I got pregnant and I ran away from home and was gone for almost a year at age 14. That year, I experienced a dark and seedy side of life. Physical abuse, drug abuse, economic disadvantage. Living on the run. It gave me a different sort of education that I’m grateful for, but it left a lot of psychological scars.

From that point forward, my trajectory was never going to be high school followed by college. Instead, I was a teenage mother, married at 15, and divorced and on welfare by the time my peers were in high school. I tried to get back on track, earning my GED and going to see a doctor for symptoms of what I now know was depression. I was vulnerable and the doctor took advantage, starting a relationship with me. He was 36 and I was 17. I was overwhelmed; I had no education and didn’t know how I could raise a child on my own. I ended up marrying him and moving with him to Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was a wonderful place to live, and it was liberating because nobody there knew my history. I decided I had to go to school. I could afford Keene State and it was nearby, so I enrolled. I wasn’t part of the social life at Keene State; I went to classes, did my work, and went home. But I got a good education. I especially remember a seminar on James Joyce, and I remember having a lot of really good professors.

After I graduated, my then-husband and I moved to Boston, and I continued my education. I went to Harvard Divinity School thinking that I would become a chaplain or pastoral counselor. I could tell after one semester there the school wasn’t really going to lead me to a career path that I wanted. But I needed to get out of my marriage and had to figure out a way to make a living. I got an MBA at Boston College, which allowed me to make enough money to get out of my marriage. I got a job at Data General in Westborough, Massachusetts, as an organizational development person – the psychological side of business. That’s when I learned to be a trainer, to facilitate groups, and to design learning experiences for people. I learned a lot about corporate culture. When I left the marriage I moved back to DC and continued to do organizational development work. I was good at it and made good money. But it still didn’t really fit for me. I’m not a lady who wears pantyhose every day.

I’d tried yoga when I was 18, and I felt like my traumatized nervous system was regulated and calmed by the practice, though I didn’t have any language for that. Back in DC, I started doing yoga again and got really involved in it. I trained to be a yoga teacher, and took a three-month hiatus from my corporate consulting job to teach yoga – and never went back. I’ve been poorer but more fulfilled ever since.

I’ve been married for 25 years to a really wonderful person, and I’ve healed a lot of relationships in my family. My son is 44, and I have a 13-year-old grandchild. It’s been a good 25 years. I co-wrote a book on women’s spirituality called Sacred Circles: A Guide to Creating Your Own Women’s Spirituality Group. I gave myself permission to do things that were the most healing to me and the most interesting to me. I co-organized many national conferences on women’s spirituality, and I continued to teach yoga, with a special interest in bringing yoga and meditation to people who wouldn’t necessarily go inside a yoga studio. I worked in a locked-down high school with at-risk teenage girls, and I ran a volunteer program at a women’s shelter. I went into corporate board rooms to teach the same exact stuff. This is your nervous system, this is how it behaves, and if you do these simple practices you can calm your stress.

In 2006, a colleague of mine suggested using yoga with service members who have PTSD. She set it up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and her vision changed the course of my life. First, I was instructor in the first meditation study undertaken by the US military. I was then hired by a Department of Defense agency to teach daily yoga and meditation classes for active duty folks with acute PTSD and traumatic brain injury. As soon as I was at Walter Reed Hospital working with active-duty service members who’d had trauma, I thought, Everything I have ever done in my whole life led to this, because I need to be able to relate effectively with men, so my corporate work was really helpful, and I need to be able to talk in way that makes sense to people who are brand new to yoga and very skeptical about it; I need to put it in very practical terms and I need to hold myself with a certain kind of authority but still have this softness to me so that I create safety with them.

The results were very evident very fast. The service members had powerful experiences. They went from being angry that they had to do yoga and meditation to being angry that nobody had ever shown them what a simple thing they could have been doing for themselves. I heard story after story. Going from sleeping two to three hours a night to four, five, eight hours. Being able to go to a mall and do a breath practice while their wife shops. Getting in an MRI machine without having a panic attack. Stopping a fight with their wife or avoiding going into road rage. I got to be part of an amazing clinical team that was doing really innovative work, getting people psychological and physical therapy and getting them off medications they didn’t need.

As word of the program spread, I was constantly being contacted by yoga teachers who wanted to know how to work with service members and veterans, and I’d spend hours on the phone talking them through it. Then, when I was sitting in a meditation retreat, this blast came to me: you’re going to start an organization to train yoga teachers to work with military communities. I didn’t get a lot of clear messages like that, so I took it very seriously. I co-founded Warriors at Ease with some other pioneering teachers and we’ve been operating since 2009, training over 700 yoga teachers to work in military communities. We teach yoga teachers how to be trauma sensitive, culturally sensitive, and evidence-based in what they offer.

When we started, most of the teachers we trained were people who had never set foot on a military base. Now at least half of the people we train are active duty military themselves, vets or military families, and a lot of them are already teaching yoga and meditation in military settings. It’s been a big shift and we are really grateful to be some part of that. I served as executive director for many years. Last year I stepped down and I’m now mostly just doing direct work with vets, which I love. I also have a private practice as a certified yoga therapist in trauma and I give workshops on getting healthy sleep with mind-body approaches. I have written a couple of textbook chapters for social workers and other people on how to work with veterans.

I do lots of things for fun. I love to bike and hike and swim. I like to go to movies and read. I’m not an artist, but I like to make art as an expressive modality. I like improvisational movement. I love to travel. I’m in a 1970s cover band; we play for free at charity events. My husband, Peter Carnes, and I like to travel together, hike together, bike together. He’s an entrepreneur.

I look back on my life and I’m definitely noting that it’s been a long strange ride. I marvel at how little we have control of, and yet if we can embrace that in a certain way, there is so much beauty and meaning and so much to be grateful for. Things can turn out better than you imagine at the darkest times. I feel like I’ve had a beautiful life, very different than what I thought life was about when I was younger, much more rich and much more full of paradox. For me, my spirituality has been the most important thread in finding my way.