AN EXPLOSION in Iraq led to the amputation of both of his legs. Then Army veteran Dan Nevins faced 36 surgeries, a divorce and an emotional battle with the invisible wounds of war.
The years after the 2004 attack left him anxious, restless and plagued with nightmares. Nevins knew he needed help.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t wake up,” said Nevins, now a retired Army staff sergeant. “I was spiralling downhill fast.”
In 2014, upon reaching a new low and trying to find his way out, Nevins called a friend, Anna Dennis.
He told her that he was overwhelmed with anger and despair. She replied, “Dan, you need some yoga in your life.”
A certified yoga instructor, Dennis offered to give him three private lessons.
“I said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard’,” recalled Nevins, who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, near Jacksonville. But he eventually agreed to give yoga a try.
At his first lesson, he found himself frustrated, wobbling and unstable on his prosthetics. “It was painful, and I was angry because she kept telling me to press my feet into the ground,” he said.
Finally he told her: “Quit saying that word! I don’t have any feet!”
And then in a fit of resentment, Nevins took off his prosthetic legs and flung them aside, a radical move because he was ashamed of his stumps – only his doctors and family had seen them.
His friend instructed him: Root down and rise up. This time, he imagined roots growing downward from his stumps.
“I raised my arms, and it felt as though life was shooting out of my hands,” he said. “Tears were streaming down my face.”
Nevins couldn’t wait for his next lesson and then the next. Now Nevins, 46, a single father of three, has made it his mission to encourage others to find yoga, whether wounded in war as he was or just hoping to find new motivation and direction.
“The fact is, all of us are living with the invisible wounds of some kind of war,” he said. “Yoga helps you to let go of the things that don’t serve you anymore.”
Now an advocate for the Wounded Warrior Project, Nevins travels the world as an international yoga instructor, hoping to bring a sense of calmness and purpose to others’ lives.
If you had told Nevins that he would one day be teaching “downward-facing dog” and “half-moon” poses as a double amputee to hundreds of people, he never would have believed it, he said.
“I would have said: ‘Come on. Dudes don’t do yoga’,” he said, adding that he grew up in a tough neighbourhood in Baltimore.
After his first yoga class, Nevins tried a few more sessions without his prosthetics, then signed up for Level 1 teaching training, hoping to intensify his yoga experience. He didn’t plan to actually teach.
Then one of his Army buddies came to his place one night, and Nevins could tell something was wrong.
“He finally told me that two days earlier, his wife had found him in a closet with a gun in his mouth, seconds away from pulling the trigger,” he said. “I sat there and all I could tell him was, ‘You need some yoga in your life.’ So right there in my living room, I taught my first class.”
Nevins signed up his friend for yoga classes and received a phone call three weeks later. “Thanks for saving my life,” he recalled his buddy telling him. “Yesterday was a bad day, but instead of grabbing my gun, I grabbed my yoga mat.”
That’s when he knew he wanted to become a teacher.
He now teaches about a dozen classes a month – near his home and at military bases overseas when he gives speeches for Wounded Warrior. He sees himself as a “yoga ambassador”.
A common refrain from his students is that he saved their lives. Scott Almhjell, 48, served with the Army during Desert Shield and Desert Storm and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when he returned to Arizona to run an auto repair shop.
Once suicidal, Almhjell said he became a “new person” after attending one of Nevins’ intense yoga workshops.
“He reminded us that we are warriors, and what that really means,” Almhjell said. “It might sound stupid and hokey, but Dan gave me my life back.”
One of Nevins’ Army friends, Mark Hicks, who now works as a welder in Washington, said he decided to take yoga after attending one of Nevins’ Florida retreats. Before the retreat, the two hadn’t seen each other since Iraq.
“The last time I saw Dan, he was on a stretcher, getting loaded into the medevac chopper,” said Hicks, 34, who was also suffering from PTSD.
“The first class was two hours of physically demanding yoga – something I wasn’t sure I wanted,” Hicks said. “But then, I thought, ‘What kind of excuses can you come up with when the guy at the front of the room has no legs?’ “
The attack in which he lost his legs happened on the morning of November 10, 2004, when an improvised explosive device went off beneath Nevins’ Humvee.
Nevins was inside the vehicle with a friend, Sgt 1st Class Mike Ottoloni, who was killed. Nevins feared he would also be found dead in the dirt.
“I tried to stop the bleeding, and I thought: ‘This is it. I’m going to die right here’,” he said.
After he was rushed to a military hospital, doctors amputated what was left of his left leg below the knee and managed to save his injured right leg.
But when infection set in three years later, Nevins had to have that leg amputated. He spent almost two years in and out of surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre.
When he became comfortable with his new prosthetics, Nevins threw himself into adaptive sports, taking up golfing, skydiving, skiing, even mountain climbing – scaling Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. In 2015, Marvel Comics called on him at the Wounded Warrior Project to help provide insight for their latest sci-fi adventure about Flash Thompson, a double-amputee war veteran.
Just one year earlier, Nevins said he probably wouldn’t have been up to offering advice.
“Everything looked great on the outside,” he said. “But inside, I felt disconnected and ungrounded. All of the sports I was doing helped with my physical healing, but the invisible wounds had caught up with me.”
And he was embarrassed about his prosthetics.
“I was ashamed for people to see me without them,” he said. “I’d always been proud of my legs. They were my best feature.”
After his aha moment during his first yoga class, he never went back.
“At that moment, I realised I had a connection to the Earth,” he said. “It was like the Earth was saying, ‘Dan, where have you been for 10 years?’ I couldn’t wait for my next lesson.”
Nevins said that losing his legs was “worth it” if it helps him to share the most important work he’s ever done.
“I have a great life. I wouldn’t trade it,” he said. “On most days, I forget that I’m an amputee. Because of yoga, it’s not even a thing. Life goes on. I’m grateful for every breath.” – Text and Photo by The Washington Post