If there’s one thing that Army Veteran Michael Keighley wants students to take away from the yoga classes he teaches, it’s that.
Defined as the process of turning compassion inward, self-compassion is something that Mike, an eight-year Army veteran and yoga instructor at the Travis Mills Foundation, didn’t always have for himself.
The Foundation’s Warrior PATHH (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) program and the journey Mike has been on since leaving the military has had an immense impact on him. Now he’s spreading the word about a program and practices that changed his life.
Learn more about Warrior PATHH >>>
From a young age, Mike was interested in aviation and even declared that he was going to grow up to be a military pilot. He joined ROTC at the University of Maine at Orono, where per his contract with the Army, he would study for four years before serving his country on active duty.
Mike was a senior in high school in Cincinnati, Ohio, when the 9-11 terrorist attacks occurred.
“I was in chemistry class,” he said. “I just remember confusion. We weren’t sure what was happening.
“I didn’t grasp at that point what it meant and especially what it would mean for my future,” he added.
Mike studied Business Administration at UMaine, graduating in 2006. In 2007, he went active duty and served until 2015.
Following earning his commission at UMaine, Mike became a Chinook helicopter pilot, transporting soldiers and supplies to ground forces during the Global War on Terror.
“For a long time, that was probably the most purposeful and the most alive I’ve ever felt,” Mike said, likening the experience to the yoga and meditation that he has dedicated his life to.
Yoga encourages mindfulness and being present, which was also required of Mike as a pilot.
In addition to conducting re-supplies, Mike also executed air assaults, which could mean large scale or targeted operations that included attack helicopters, as well as various other fighter and bomber aircraft.
Despite what he achieved during his military career, Mike said he doesn’t feel very accomplished.
“It’s funny though,” he said. “If I were to meet someone who had done what I did – led high value target missions, worked with SEAL’s and Army Rangers and flown Chinooks – I’d be so impressed.”
It was only a month into Mike’s deployment to Afghanistan that a good friend from college, James, was killed in country.
“James was invincible,” Mike said, tears in his eyes. “James was Superman.”
Mike will never forget receiving this devastating news of James’s death early into a deployment in Afghanistan.
“I took myself off the flight schedule for like, a day, but there was work to be done. It wasn’t until I was out of the Army that I dealt with those feelings and grieved James.”
A particular flight in April 2011 in the Kunar River area of Afghanistan, Mike said, was particularly impactful.
“We got word that there was a fallen angel – an aircraft shot down in theater,” he said. “We were told that we were the only crew who hadn’t flown that night and to get spun up.”
The crew didn’t know exactly where they were going – they were simply told to head north, pick up ground forces and be ready to put them into an unknown LZ near the downed aircraft.
They orbited near the crash site waiting to put their soldiers in as, “Other aircraft attempted to recover the aircrew, they got shot up,” Mike said. “I remember cleaning my pistol for the first time in country, thinking crap I may actually need this, it was oddly funny during a pretty terrifying experience”
Through the patchy radio, the crew got their orders from the brigade commander: “Chinooks, you’re up.”
“In all the chaos that was going on, I’ve never been more focused,” he said.
Mike and his crew were working with Apache pilots who they knew quite well by this time.
“We always flew with them. We knew their voices – it was comforting,” he said, adding that the Apache pilots successfully found them and escorted them into a suitable landing zone.
The mission, however, was not without casualties.
While Mike describes some moments in his military career as terrifying – including attacks by suicide bombers at his base – he formed close relationships with those in which he was deployed, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait
“It sounds cliché, but we were so tight,” he said. “Our unit in Afghanistan was amazing in the way we supported each other and supported the ground forces.”
After the Military
Mike left the Army in 2015 and only two days later, he flew to Georgia to hike the Appalachian Trail. On the trail, fellow hikers gave him his trail nickname, Archangel (from St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of law enforcement and military), which Mike now uses as a business name for yoga instruction.
After the six-month hike, Mike hoped that the experience would help him decompress from his years of service and allow him to reset before civilian life. However, that wasn’t the case.
Mike relocated to Las Vegas and struggled at his first attempt at a post-military career, and was severely depressed. He also now had time to reflect on friends he lost to both suicide and combat.
“It was overwhelming,” Mike added.
It was while in Las Vegas his ex-girlfriend recommended he try yoga.
“I was like, “Yoga isn’t going to help me. Stretching? Stretching isn’t going to help me through this stuff.”
While Mike’s time in Las Vegas didn’t last, his relationship with yoga began as a result of it.
Mike and his girlfriend broke up and Mike moved back to Maine. In trying to meet new people and be active, he joined a local yoga class in the Augusta, Maine area, and was hooked.
“I felt good when I was there and after a while, it seemed like outside of yoga, I started feeling better and sleeping better,” he said.
After three months, Mike’s instructor encouraged him to take a teacher training to learn breathwork and meditation, which he reluctantly did. Mike was scheduled to do a hike that same weekend in memory of his friends from college who were killed in action.
“I was really into those hikes,” he said. “But I decided to do this instead.”
At first, he hated the training, especially the 20 minutes of silent meditation.
“I was furious, I was so used to distracting myself and it was the first time I truly had to face myself,” he said. “Twenty minutes seemed extreme. At that time, 2 minutes of silent meditation was too long for me.”
It was Mike’s first lesson in self compassion and spending meaningful time with what was making him uncomfortable – first physically, then emotionally.
“We talked about breathing techniques and the science behind it,” he said. “Once I learned more, I became really curious.”
Yoga, Meditation and Warrior PATHH
Soon, 20 minutes of silent meditation wasn’t enough for Mike. When he feels anxious or sad now, he sits silently with his feelings.
“Guilt, shame, anger, fear, sadness – whatever I’m feeling, I bring my hands to the part of my body that is in discomfort and I say comforting things to myself and even ask myself, ‘What do you need to hear right now?’
Changing the relationship with himself, is key for Mike.
“It’s ingrained in us to be perfect,” he said. “And constantly in our heads there’s this inner critic telling us to be perfect.”
Mike began teaching yoga classes for Warrior PATHH (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) when it was instituted at the Travis Mills Foundation in 2019. The program, offered in only 10 locations throughout the U.S., is the nation’s first-ever program designed to cultivate and facilitate Post-Traumatic Growth in combat veterans and first responders.
“I wasn’t planning to go through the program,” he said. “When the opportunity came up, I took it because I figured it would help me become a better yoga teacher. I had been through several years of therapy and figured I was good.”
He didn’t sleep the night before the on-site program in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine and he showed up as late as he possibly could on the first day.
“Our class was small. There was only four of us,” he said. “I definitely remember sizing the other guys up and trying to figure out what was going on.”
PATTH Guide Dick Golden asked Mike if he was ready for the seven-day, in-person program at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat.
“I told him I was curious and he got this big grin on his face,” Mike said, smiling himself. “’Curious is a good thing,’ he said.”
By the first dinner, the ice was broken among the group and they were ready to get to work.
One of the modules in the Warrior PATHH program, “My Old Story,” explores intergenerational trauma. While he had explored the significant grief he felt over the loss of friends to both suicide and combat, this exercise asks participants to not only look back at their childhoods and upbringings, but to look at that of their parents and even grandparents.
“I had really not unpacked, to the fullest extent, my upbringing and family history,” he said.
“When you talk about veterans and PTSD it seems like it focuses on combat and the service aspect of their lives,” he said. “I realized it’s OK to look further back and realize there’s these other things too that impacted my life.”
“You get into adulthood and start to understand how you form relationships and why you do the things that you do,” he added.
The purpose, however, is not to make excuses. “The big thing I took away is getting out of that victim mindset,” he said,
“A lot of times, a PTSD diagnosis can be used as a get out of jail free card, as opposed to truly looking at your own behavior and putting in effort to be better” he said.
Warrior PATHH encouraged Mike to take responsibility for his own behavior.
“I’m not free to treat people poorly because bad things happened to me,” he added.
Yoga and PATHH
Many of the men and women who come to Warrior PATHH haven’t tried yoga before or have limited experience with it.
He tells students not to worry about being perfect. “Perfection isn’t real,” Mike added.
He also brings a well-loved copy of “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” by Chris Germer.
“It’s like my bible,” he said, adding that he uses the book to reflect and check in with himself – especially if he’s working through a particular issue in his life.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of stereotypes when it comes to yoga,” Mike said. “Some people think you need to be wearing leggings, wreaking of essential oils and covered in beads. It can be that, but that’s not for everyone. For the veteran population, a different approach is often more beneficial.”
Mike often runs into veterans who were made to do yoga after being injured while in service.
“The classes they were in wouldn’t give them options or let them modify,” he added. “It’s cool when they come up to me after and tell me they had been dreading yoga, but that my teaching style changed their minds.”
Mike has four years of teaching yoga at the Retreat under his belt and he’s enjoyed the challenge of teaching recalibrated veterans. Mike has also taught at an area jail.
“Working in these environments, you drop your expectations of what a yoga class looks like,” he added.
For some students, the barrier they experience when it comes to yoga is more mental than physical.
“The cool thing about yoga is that it goes beyond the mat,” Mike said. “What you experience on a yoga mat is exactly what you encounter in life. Our yoga mat is a place we can experience and work through different feelings, emotions, and sensations in a safe way.”
Sometimes, there is still resistance to yoga, and that’s OK.
“Trauma is trauma and the results or symptoms are often similar,” Mike said. “Joking can be a defense mechanism. They don’t usually become uncomfortable until the end, when I go into self-compassion. It can be the first time they’ve said kind things to themselves, which can be very uncomfortable.”
This is Mike’s advice to those who may feel uncomfortable practicing yoga at first: “If you feel the urge to talk, joke, or step away… pay attention. Where is that urge coming from? Can you stay with it for one more breath? and one more breath? If not, then at least you’re responding vs reacting.”
While Mike teaches yoga for both the Travis Mills Foundation Family Program and Warrior PATHH, PATHH yoga is more disciplined.
“I keep it more serious and trauma-informed,” he said, adding that he asks students to pay attention to any discomfort happening in their bodies – clenched teeth, breath holding, etc.
“It’s your body resisting,” he said. “Whether you’re on or off that mat, your body’s nervous system is reacting. I encourage students to lean into the discomfort, find their edge, and back off when necessary. Use their breath, their breath is always available to them both on and off the mat.”
The beauty of learning yoga and these practices, Mike said, is that you can use it in everyday situations where stress or discomfort presents itself.
It wasn’t until completing Warrior PATHH that Mike learned how to fully begin to heal his military, life experiences, and loss of multiple friends.
“It showed me the importance of unloading – getting that stuff out,” he said.
Combined with therapy and much hard work, Mike has found self-compassion for himself, improving his inner relationship and his experiences with others.
“Have grace and compassion for yourself,” he said. “It starts to spread out. I tone down my inner critic by asking myself what I need to hear to keep going. Instead of being my own worst enemy like I was before, I’m my own best friend.”
“Once you start to have compassion for yourself, you change that relationship with yourself, and once you change the relationship with yourself, you change your relationships with others.”
About the Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post 9/11 veterans who experienced life changing injuries while in service to our country. The Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat offers our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier free, all expenses-paid experience at its world-class retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. It offers various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. The Foundation also offers the Warrior PATHH Program (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) for post-911 combat veterans and first responders, the nation’s first of its kind program designed to cultivate and facilitate Post-Traumatic Growth. Learn more >>>