An Oasis of Calm in Iraq
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this NEWS & NOTES.
Major Michele Spencer of the U.S. Army Reserve deployed to Iraq more than a year ago. By day, she's a medic training officer. Off duty, she teaches power yoga classes and runs a program to help educate and empower local Iraqi women. Major Spencer called us from Baghdad. She says the spirituality that attracted her to yoga also led her into the Army Reserve.
Major MICHELE SPENCER (U.S. Army Reserves): I'm very passionate and very purposeful about how I live my life. And I knew there is something bigger than me that moves my life. And trying to own that truth, I try to stay in that direction. And when the universe told me to join the military, I knew that I wanted to always share health in the Army, and I also want to represent it in my life and share it with my children and my family, and everything. Because I know that a healthy body, a healthy mind, a healthy spirit can help influence others. And when I teach yoga, whatever I do, it is about being the change. So, I want to - just to talk it, I want to walk it. I'm trying to be it.
And so when I when I received the mobilization alert, I knew it was my time. After 20 years, you eventually - you know, it's going to be your time. And I just put out that while I was deployed was - the first things I was going to do once I got here was to teach a yoga class. And then - so then you have others that are being more reflective; that they can go and do their work with a little bit more focus, and it really calls us while we're here to be more for our countries.
CHIDEYA: I want to go back first to your day job before we talk about the yoga, which is really a phenomenal story. You have a lot of duties with your unit and then you're also an advisor to the Iraqi Surgeon General's medical training director. So what would a typical day or a typical week look like for you?
Maj. SPENCER: There is nothing typical about our days. But it is typical of knowing that we are in transition. I work with two docs in my office. We do a lot of medical diplomacy, which is reaching out to the ministers and doing some health care. And that's like grassroots, you know, health, health care -winning and gaining the trust of he Iraqi people. So we're, kind of like, behind the fight.
CHIDEYA: So, as a medic training officer, you, basically, are training people who save lives.
Maj. SPENCER: That's correct.
CHIDEYA: Now, let's turn to some of the more holistic aspects of what you do health wise. You've got this pretty technical bent with the medic training. And then you have your yoga classes. And you have both the military and civilians based in Iraqi taking these classes. Tell me, how the classes came about? And what are your students like?
Maj. SPENCER: When you ask me about what my passion was and I said it was really about teaching and health. It is important for me to do something different like out of the box. Yoga and the holistic fields are very alternative. And for me to be able to share it with all the different people, the military and some civilians, with us carrying our protective gear, our body armor, there has been more back injuries, tight shoulders and then you're holding your body in ways that you just wouldn't do it at home. So, we already have the habit of slouching.
So what yoga is able to do - it makes you, it forces to be able to sit up straighter, be able to breathe deeper. And I always hear that when you're sitting up from your - lifting up from your pelvis and you're rolling your hundreds back, it automatically opens up your heart. And for me to teach that there is a heart center bringing your hands together into namaste. And, of course, namaste means: the divine in me honors the divine in you. And if we can come with that sense of greeting, we know that my Indian counterparts that are here, my Egyptian, my Iraqi friends, that we're all in this planet together to try to heal it.
CHIDEYA: So, when you talk about namaste and heart center and mindfulness, but I'm imagining a burly guy who's been carrying body armor all day, coming to your yoga class. What is he going think about namaste and mindfulness? I mean, do you ever get pushed back? Like, hey lady, that's some fluky-fluky stuff.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Maj. SPENCER: Oh my - yes, absolutely. Oh, I'm not going to do that. Oh, hands seem to be too tied. I'm not going to wear tights. I mean, all the excuses and, well, because of the ratio of men to women here anyway - I have 90 percent males in my class now. I teach Power Yoga - Power Vinyasa. So, number one, when they finally come, they are definitely going to get a workout. Yoga to me is definitely the perfect exercise of strength, flexibility. And once they come, more than likely they always will come back. Now, at the end of my class, when I'm chanting ohm…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Maj. SPENCER: Now, I may have some reservations right then, but they have opened up to more for themselves.
CHIDEYA: Speaking of more, you also started a program called "Women With Voices." Tell me a little bit about that.
Maj. SPENCER: The program "Women With Voices" was simply to inspire, educate and empower women. And, of course, we had the coalition forces, civilians and Iraqi women. And it was important to showcase that there's a lot that happens to women in war-torn countries, and educate them. And show them that there is a better way, and we're right there with you, sister. You know, we understand what you're, you know, going through. And they want the same things that we do. They just need to know that there are other women out there that know their plight and that we believe that they can do better.
CHIDEYA: Do you think that they ever look at you, wearing your uniform and just say, wow, what a strange way to be a woman? Or do they see you as just doing your own thing? Do you ever look at them in more traditional garb and say, wow, what a strange way to be a woman?
Maj. SPENCER: You know, after we get, you know, past the whole, you know, what do you have on kind of thing - you know, we where surfing the Body Shop. You know, they knew about the Body Shop, you know. And we're talking about fashion, and all these wonderful things. You know, girl stuff, you know. And, I'm like, man, she's just like me. You know, she's just like me. And I know she was - you know, we were saying that to each other, you know, about the kids. You know, one of them was saying the other day that the children were naughty. I'm like, you have naughty children? You know, it's just like, oh, I don't think that they don't have the same issues, you know. And then I want to say, what is up with your hair? Don't you just want to let your hair down? But, you know, it's the same with American women. There's so many times I've met an American woman that, I'm like, you shouldn't really wear that skirt. You know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Maj. SPENCER: Or, did you look at the mirror before you walked out? Or, whatever, or you're still working that job, or whatever it is. You know, we're going to pass judgment, you know. But once you just, like, really, you know, look into someone's eyes and you give someone their present time, you know, you look at them and going, wow, you're just the same. We're just in a different culture. We talk different languages. We eat different food. But man, you and I, we have the same dreams. I think that that is really an American thing, too - is to be very arrogant, and like, we're better, you know, when we just need to like, just really embrace another's culture and go, you're just fine as you are.
CHIDEYA: Well, it sounds like you're embodying the spirit of Namasday.
Maj. SPENCER: Namasday.
CHIDEYA: Major Michele Spencer of the U.S. Army Reserve. She's been stationed in Baghdad since June of last year, and will return home to Gainesville, Florida next month. You can see a picture of Major Spencer in tree pose at our Web site, npr.org/newsandnotes.