Justin Blazejewski began practicing yoga in 2008.
PHOTO: CNN
Justin Blazejewski began practicing yoga in 2008.
Now playing
01:29
Contemplating suicide, this Marine turned to yoga to save his life
IYW rescuing food for the hungry_00002008.jpg
IYW rescuing food for the hungry_00002008.jpg
Now playing
01:24
Rescuing food to feed the hungry
IYW time for trees_00011822.jpg
IYW time for trees_00011822.jpg
Now playing
01:28
The plan to plant 100 million trees
IYW bloom foster care_00005903.jpg
IYW bloom foster care_00005903.jpg
Now playing
01:21
Helping foster children and the families that love them
IYW mental health first aid TRND_00004103.jpg
IYW mental health first aid TRND_00004103.jpg
Now playing
01:28
Learning how to give mental health first aid
IYW village for homeless TRND_00004914.jpg
IYW village for homeless TRND_00004914.jpg
Now playing
01:21
Chronically homeless find a town to call home
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
02:13
Sexual abuse survivors find strength and dignity through fashion
IYW Girl Trek_00005202.jpg
IYW Girl Trek_00005202.jpg
Now playing
01:19
The health movement to save black women
IYW Trashtag video_00010916.jpg
IYW Trashtag video_00010916.jpg
Now playing
01:20
A viral challenge sends the internet on a garbage hunt
Syrian refugee Ahmad Alzoukani started with Refuge Coffee two weeks after arriving in Clarkston, Georgia.
PHOTO: Refuge Coffee
Syrian refugee Ahmad Alzoukani started with Refuge Coffee two weeks after arriving in Clarkston, Georgia.
Now playing
01:12
A cup of coffee is helping refugees join the American dream
Austin Perine, age 4, dresses up as a superhero to feed the homeless men outside a shelter in Birmingham, Alabama.
PHOTO: CNN/CNN
Austin Perine, age 4, dresses up as a superhero to feed the homeless men outside a shelter in Birmingham, Alabama.
Now playing
01:41
A 4-year-old superhero in a cape feeds the hungry
IYW team rubicon_00001722.jpg
IYW team rubicon_00001722.jpg
Now playing
01:21
Volunteers help hurricane-ravaged Florida panhandle
IYW Save the Children Rural Poverty Jennifer Garner_00001316.jpg
IYW Save the Children Rural Poverty Jennifer Garner_00001316.jpg
Now playing
01:19
Jennifer Garner joins fight against childhood poverty
IYW wellspring video_00003306.jpg
IYW wellspring video_00003306.jpg
Now playing
01:14
A path to healing for victims of sex trafficking
IYW Anti-Violence Project Transgender Murder Violence_00011903.jpg
IYW Anti-Violence Project Transgender Murder Violence_00011903.jpg
Now playing
01:23
Meet those fighting to stop transgender murders
IYW Memphis Inner City Rugby_00000422.jpg
IYW Memphis Inner City Rugby_00000422.jpg
Now playing
01:21
Rugby transforms Memphis teens' lives
IYW National Disaster Search Dog Foundation_00001018.jpg
IYW National Disaster Search Dog Foundation_00001018.jpg
Now playing
01:22
Training shelter dogs to respond to disasters
Fmr. NBA player Chris Herren speaks to students in Fresno about his battle with addiction.
PHOTO: CARY EDMONDSON/Contributed/Cary Edmondson-FRESNO STATE UNIV COMMUNICATIONS
Fmr. NBA player Chris Herren speaks to students in Fresno about his battle with addiction.
Now playing
01:21
Former NBA star helps others beat addiction (2018)
IYW Carter Habitat for Humanity_00003111.jpg
IYW Carter Habitat for Humanity_00003111.jpg
Now playing
01:33
Jimmy Carter's 32-year passion to build homes (2016)
GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: Dolly Parton performs on the Pyramid Stage during Day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2014 in Glastonbury, England.  (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Ian Gavan/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: Dolly Parton performs on the Pyramid Stage during Day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2014 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:09
Dolly Parton's mission to end illiteracy
Viola Davis and her mother Mary Alice Davis pose for a photo
PHOTO: Courtesy Viola Davis
Viola Davis and her mother Mary Alice Davis pose for a photo
Now playing
01:31
Viola Davis inspired by mother to fight poverty
World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall
PHOTO: The Jane Goodall Institute
World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall
Now playing
01:35
Jane Goodall's long-time fight to save chimps
Celebrity Chef Andrew Zimmern recalls his experience with homelessness and addiction.
Celebrity Chef Andrew Zimmern recalls his experience with homelessness and addiction.
Now playing
01:18
Andrew Zimmern uses past addiction to inspire new hope

Story highlights

Justin Blazejewski founded VEToga, a yoga program for active military, veterans and their families

After more than a decade living in war zones, Blazejewski finally found peace in a yoga class

(CNN) —  

Marine Justin Blazejewski rolls out his yoga mat over a dock floating along the banks of the Potomac River. It’s a sunny weekday morning inside the DC beltway, where he lives and works as a military contractor.

“I stumbled upon yoga to save my life, basically, and I knew that I found something special,” he said. “And it’s taking me on a totally different path than I originally planned.”

After a quick warmup, Blazejewski folds over himself, the top of his head resting on the creaky boards beneath him. The soles of his feet rise into a bright blue, cloudless sky. He lifts both arms, vertical against his torso, until he’s in a full unsupported headstand or niralamba sirsasana, as the pose is called in yoga-speak.

Justin Blazejewski in an unsupported headstand or niralamba sirsasana.
PHOTO: CNN
Justin Blazejewski in an unsupported headstand or niralamba sirsasana.

Around him, birds chirp, water laps against the rocky shore, and a raft of wild ducks floats past him. It’s a scene far removed from the brutal landscape of war that led him to this moment.

“I served in the Marine Corps for five years and worked on the president’s helicopters,” he says. “After 9/11, I joined as a contractor with a lot of different government agencies. I was traveling extensively to Iraq, Afghanistan and some other countries.”

Justin Blazejewski working as a US military contractor in the Middle East.
PHOTO: Justin Blazejewski
Justin Blazejewski working as a US military contractor in the Middle East.

In order to stay alive, Blazejewski says, he internalized a “hyperarousal, hyper fight-or-flight mode” – one that constantly made him feel on high alert.

“When you’re in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, it’s the middle of the night, and mortars start coming in and exploding through the roof,” he recalled. “People are shooting at you, attacking you, you can’t see who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. You are trained to keep running into danger when the bullets are flying at you.”

For four years, he says, the stress kept piling up. He would return home to DC after months in war-torn countries, unable to switch off his fight-or-flight response.

To cope, Blazejewski turned to his passion for long-distance running and marathons.

Justin Blazejewski running a marathon before an ankle injury left him unable to run long distances.
PHOTO: Justin Blazejewski
Justin Blazejewski running a marathon before an ankle injury left him unable to run long distances.

“I’d do that alone,” he said, wanting to spare his family and friends from the dark thoughts circling his mind. “My anger issues and my reactivity and the stress from war … it was happening more and more.”

No more running

“A mortar came through the roof,” Blazejewski recalled of the night he was forced to stop running. He was in Afghanistan, working as a satellite engineer.

“We came out, and I tripped and hurt my ankle,” he said. “The next day, we had another explosion. It knocked me unconscious. I woke up and had several injuries and pieces of shrapnel in my ankle. That’s when, as a runner, it stopped for me.”

When Blazejewski returned home, a new battle awaited. The enemy: the turmoil in his own mind.

“When I couldn’t run and couldn’t deal with my stress, it was taking me to a dark place, and suicidal thoughts were creeping in, and I knew that wasn’t OK,” he said.

Justin Blazejewski as a young Marine in early 2000.
PHOTO: Justin Blazejewski
Justin Blazejewski as a young Marine in early 2000.

A Marine turns to yoga

Isolated from his military community and struggling with deep bouts of depression, Blazejewski contemplated suicide.

“It was a really dark time for me,” he said. “I just wanted to stay home.”

His roommate offered to take him to a yoga class, but yoga was not something Marines did.

“We consider it something only girls did and definitely made fun of it,” he recalled. “My roommate pretty much dragged me to a yoga class. I went kicking and screaming.”

In 2008, a two-hour Friday night yoga class changed his life.

“I got my butt kicked, and I was sitting in a puddle of sweat,” he said, smiling at the memory.

But it was during shavasana – a rest pose usually done at the end of practice – when Blazejewski understood what yoga could do for him.

“I felt just relaxation for the first time in over a decade,” he said. “It really was the point in my life where everything started to change and I knew there was hope out there for me.”

Blazejewski dived into his new practice with the spirit of a Marine. He went to yoga every day for six months and then enrolled in a 200-hour teacher training program in upstate New York.

“My teacher said the best thing you can do is to share the practice that you’re learning, especially in war zones,” he said. “So that’s exactly what I started doing.”

Justin Blazejewski sets his rifle and body armor next to his shrine as a way to embrace his past.
PHOTO: CNN
Justin Blazejewski sets his rifle and body armor next to his shrine as a way to embrace his past.

VEToga = Veterans + yoga

Blazejewski returned to his contracting work, living most of the year in forward operating bases.

“If we had firefights or anything went on that was a high-stress day, I was teaching yoga,” he says. “We were in the dirt just doing the practice, and the students were coming. Even these big Special Forces dudes were coming and like, ‘Hey, what are you doing over there?’ ‘I’m doing yoga and meditation.’ ”

Blazejewski realized he had become a gateway for his military colleagues to discover the healing effects of yoga.

“I wanted to prevent suicide, and I know yoga is one of the coping mechanisms that I can teach,” he said.

So in 2015, Blazejewski created VEToga, a nonprofit that works to bring yoga, meditation and healing arts to military veterans and their families.

VEToga is a yoga program designed to build a military community around a shared yoga practice.
PHOTO: CNN
VEToga is a yoga program designed to build a military community around a shared yoga practice.

A yoga program for veterans

At the core of VEToga is its grueling 200-hour teacher training program designed for the military community.

For two weeks, students from all over the country converge in the DC area for 15-hour days jam-packed with lectures and workshops.

During the training, they learn how to teach to a population suffering from trauma, depression and post-traumatic stress. They also examine how to adapt poses for students with physical disabilities, injuries or prosthetics and how to integrate emotional support dogs into the practice.

“The students themselves, they don’t feel judged for having a prosthetic. They don’t feel judged for not being able to put their foot on their head. They’re just there with others like them, and they just let go, and they learn and that’s where the real yoga starts,” Blazejewski said.

"Yoga Joes" displayed on a shelf inside Justin Blazejewski
PHOTO: CNN
"Yoga Joes" displayed on a shelf inside Justin Blazejewski's apartment.

A military community

Navy veteran Bernadette Kilcer has been practicing yoga since 2000 and now attends one of Blazejewski’s classes.

Her yoga practice, she says, has helped her deal with trauma and resulting weight gain. But when she found VEToga, it became about being part of a community.

“It doesn’t matter if you got off of active duty yesterday or 30 years ago,” Kilcer said. “You meet a fellow veteran, and you have this instantaneous connection, and that’s what this makes this program so special.”

Blazejewski’s new mission is to have VEToga programs in all 50 states within the next five years.

Justin Blazejewski had been practicing yoga for seven years when he founded VEToga in 2015.
PHOTO: CNN
Justin Blazejewski had been practicing yoga for seven years when he founded VEToga in 2015.

“My life has changed for the better, and the more people I help, the better I feel about myself,” he said. “Seeing these people, hearing their stories of how yoga saved their life over and over again, it keeps my flame lit, and it keeps me doing what I’m doing.”