St. Augustine and its surrounding communities continue to surprise. From rich historical and cultural intrigue, to culinary specialties and coastal beauty, there simply isn’t another place in the country like it. And now we can add to the list that one of the more inspirational people in America lives here.
His name is Dan Nevins, and he teaches yoga. Dan was seriously injured in Iraq with four other men when an IED detonated under their vehicle on November 10, 2004. His boss and friend Mike Ottolini was killed immediately. Dan lost his left leg, spent twenty months in Walter Reed Military hospital, and lost his right leg almost a decade later. “I thought my life was over,” he says. But after being exposed to yoga and meditation he found himself transformed. Now, he teaches Baptiste Yoga and motivates people worldwide to “get out of their heads and into their bodies.” Twenty-two veterans a day take their own life, and Dan is determined to lower this statistic. His message? “Invite a veteran to yoga. You might just save his life.”
Dan grew up just outside the Baltimore city line, where he witnessed firsthand high-end drug deals and gang violence. His mother left when he was thirteen and his father, a truck driver, spent long stretches of time on the road. He faced a silent despair that burned inside, forcing him to crave a better life. He knew that a happy family life was attainable, but not for him, not there. He needed out.
When the Gulf War began, he became acutely aware of the bonds portrayed by military folk on TV. He longed for such connection. “I could join the army!” he thought. But the war ended before he could go, so he served eight years in non-combative capacity. Eventually he moved to California, got married, built a house, and pursued a sales career. He joined the National Guard, figuring perhaps some day he would serve in real combat.
That day came. He was deployed with orders for 545 days. “We went to Iraq during the deadliest time,” says Dan. “We were told, ‘You’re going to be the ones kicking down doors.’” His group, by necessity, became a family. “Our National Guard Unit wasn’t ready. But when you start losing people, it galvanizes you. It’s this sort of toxic masculinity thing that happens, keeping people alive. Yet, when you return, you don’t need that anymore, and it becomes a real problem to transition back.”
He now spends much time talking people off that ledge, whether it’s PTSD or not, they have similar symptoms – “They want to be prepared for something awful to happen, so they can be the one who steps in.” Dan understands the multiple conflicting emotions veterans feel. “The military is a purpose driven life. You put on the uniform; you are going to answer the call. But when you’re disabled, it’s taken away. It’s a catastrophic fall, the contrast from being so in control to not being able to get out of bed.”
Less than a year after being deployed, Dan experienced such a fall when he and four other men were blown out of their vehicle early one morning. “I’m outside the truck; my legs are inside. They’re still attached, but I can’t get them out.” He lost a friend, but his team ensured he would survive. “I had to pinch my femoral artery, press, and pray, hoping that would give enough time for the medic to arrive.” Dan was airlifted to Germany. When he awoke the nurse said, ‘You lost one leg, probably you’ll lose the other.’ He thought, ‘What does a guy with no legs do?’
“I had to realize I could still do things,” he says. “I could ride a bike. In fact, I rode thousands of miles across the country with no adaptive gear.” He’s done incredible things since he’s recovered, even skydiving and mountain climbing. Dan is convinced everyone has that capacity, that personal courage to overcome, to believe in oneself. “Even those that are physically fine, who just can’t get off the couch, that ‘thing’ hasn’t been woken up. That’s my focus, waking that ‘thing’ up in people.”
“Yoga is about waking up,” he says. “It’s about everything that’s happening in your body.” After the removal of his right leg, he struggled with feelings of worthlessness. “I finally understood the 22 suicides a day.” He called a friend who said, ‘You need some yoga in your life.’ She taught him that meditation was about being completely present. “If you’re completely present, you can’t be anywhere else.” He taught his first class to a veteran who was struggling with suicidal feelings. Helping him reinforced Dan’s determination to pursue his teaching certification.
Dan now makes helping others his primary focus. He’s worked for the PGA tour, raising money for charities and the Wounded Warrior Project. He speaks motivationally and teaches yoga worldwide. “At first I wanted to teach only military people,” he says, “then I realized it wasn’t a military person that taught me, just a regular teacher. I want to teach everybody. The more people you reach, the more veterans you reach.”
He currently has plans for a non-profit called Warrior Spirit Retreat. His vision is to create an environment where veterans who are suffering can go to heal, where nature combined with yoga and meditation can facilitate healing and positive forward energy. His vision includes horsemanship, golf, and culinary education to teach healthy eating habits. Space for walking and reflection will abound. “With the curriculum, I can change people’s lives in five days.”
Learn more about the Warrior Spirit Retreat by visiting www.warriorspiritretreat.org. Photography by Mark Cubbedge.