Janel Norton - Yoga Adviser

Originally from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I left my hometown to join the Air Force and become a Combat Camera Photojournalist in 1989. This opportunity led me various assignments around the world including Panama during the invasion, Monrovia, Liberia and the Bosnian Conflict. In 1994, I left the military to work for the United Nations in Bosnia to document humanitarian aid convoys throughout the war-torn region, then returned to the United States in 1996 to finish my college degree. It was then that I felt something wasn’t the same. PTS was not in the forefront in those days, so I never made that connection. I just remember feeling very isolated and angry. I was one of the older students in my undergrad class, none of my classmates had heard of the Bosnian war nor any of the other places I had been covering overseas and this aggravated me…in fact, I remember everything began to aggravate me. I would constantly scan the news channels trying to catch a glimpse of the people and places that I was involved in, but it was barely mentioned, and everything seemed so superficial. I had always been a very social person and enjoyed having a large group of friends, but now all I wanted was solitude and to go back there where things seemed to matter--to return to a place where I felt I had purpose. I withdrew, buried myself in schoolwork and probably drank more than I should have. I even sought out Bosnian Refugees to do my photography class projects on just to have some connection.

Fast forward 20 years. Yoga was out of necessity to keep me sane at first, it found me when I faced a career change in my mid 40’s working on an M.A. degree. A friend noticed my stress and anxiety and suggested I try Yoga. So, I attended my first hot power yoga class at a small studio around the corner from my house. It was hard as hell, but I slept like a baby that night and kept going back for more. I carved out as much time as I could to spend time on my yoga mat. If only I would have had this when I was living in all those war zones! Realizing the benefits of yoga, I quickly pursued a yoga teacher training program to learn more about the practice and why it made me feel so good. After only a few months, I notice significant changes in my body that I never imagined were possible. Plus, I felt I could handle stress so much better out in the world.

To share this amazing practice and reach others, I co-founded Veterans Alternative, a 501c3 non-profit aimed at providing alternative therapies for veterans and active-duty service men and women returning home from war. While working with veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I trained with Warriors at Ease and iRest Institute (integrative restoration) which is a guided meditation technique studied at Walter Reed Military Medical Center and specifically geared toward people suffering from trauma. They found that a 20-minute iRest practice was the equivalent of two hours of REM sleep, it’s like a huge power nap and gives us tools to help us fall back to sleep. As a veteran, I found Warriors at Ease training to be super applicable in bridging the gap. (Let’s face it, yoga can get a little “hippie dippy” to us military folk). I felt I had come full circle being able to share my healing practice with my fellow veterans. I am married to a first responder who struggles with the same challenges i.e., sleep issues, PTS, hypervigilance, so I managed to get him hooked on yoga. He is now a yoga instructor and we both work with several amazing organizations such as O2X Human Performance and the Brian Bill Foundation bringing yoga and iRest Yoga Nidra (guided meditation) to the special operations and first responder communities. I met former Navy Seal Robert Sweetman through this work and discovered the great things he is doing in the world of sleep science and technology. The more I work with these populations, the more it’s evident that sleep (or lack thereof) is inextricably linked to our wellbeing on just about every level. I’m so grateful to be able to share this with others, it has brought me peace and wholeness that I know everyone can access within themselves, it just takes a little practice.

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