[Women in Health & Wellness] Interview with Benef Verell: Bringing Mindfulness to the Military

December 11, 2018


Benef Verell retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel after serving twenty years on active duty. A West Point graduate, she received her commission in 1997 as a Military Police officer. Later, after getting her master’s degree in physical geography and teaching at West Point, she changed her career field to Information Operations.


It was during this time, while teaching at West Point with her husband deployed and two young children, that she began searching for ways to cope with the stress of her job and motherhood. In 2008, Benef attended her first yoga retreat and thus began a lifelong journey towards understanding mindfulness and its benefits on the mind and body.


After her deployment to Iraq in 2012, Benef attended the 200-hour yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It was here she learned the life-changing skill of being fully present in the moment. She applied this and many other valuable mindfulness tools to her daily life at work and at home. She has helped dozens of friends, coworkers, and family members work through their internal struggles by passing on the knowledge she gained from her personal yoga practice and life coaching.


She’s taught private and group yoga and meditation classes on deployments and in military communities since 2013. She’s a certified Warriors at Ease (WAE) yoga instructor and teaches trauma sensitive and adaptive yoga. As a retiree and an Army spouse, Benef continues to volunteer and serve in military communities. She enjoys traveling the world with her husband and two children and living wherever the Army takes them.

Sophie: You have such a fascinating story! Could you tell us about your background and how you came to write a book and work with a nonprofit bringing mindfulness and yoga to the military?


Benef: I retired from the Army in 2017 after twenty years on active duty. In 2008, I was stationed at West Point, NY with a baby and a toddler. My husband was stationed six hours away at Fort Drum, NY and I only saw him on weekends. He deployed to Iraq and I felt so alone. I was drowning trying to take care of two kids and work full time. I was depressed, angry, and physically sick. I attended my first yoga retreat in the spring of that year and began my personal journey to becoming mindful and understanding the benefits of yoga and meditation.


When I retired, I knew I wanted to continue to serve the military community by educating and advocating for meditation, yoga, and mindfulness in the military. My West Point classmate and good friend, Susan Alden, is the executive director of Warriors at Ease and nominated me to be on the board of directors. The WAE mission is to increase awareness about the power of yoga and meditation to support the healing of service members, veterans, and their families. This fit exactly with my passion! Plus, WAE trains yoga instructors to work with military populations and serve those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and those with missing limbs. My book “Military and Mindful: Eight Essential Elements to Manage Your Military Career and Motherhood” came about as a natural extension of my wanting to help people by sharing my own experiences as I learned to implement yoga, breath work, and meditation in my life.


Sophie: Why did you feel it was important to write this book and that you were the right person to do so?


Benef: That time in my life, 2008 — alone, working full time, caring for two kids — was the most difficult time ever. Everything changed once I had my children. Everything became so much harder and I could not get my act together. My work suffered. I was teaching cadets at the time, and it was a struggle just to make it to work on time. I was trying to do everything by myself and was failing miserably. It was not in my nature to ask for help, but God brought me to my knees. All the lessons I learned at that time and over the course of the next ten years, I write about in the book. If I had had someone to mentor me, perhaps I wouldn’t have struggled for so long. My goal in writing the book was to mentor other women having a similar experience — being in the military and being a new mother. I felt so alone and I didn’t realize that I actually wasn’t alone. I didn’t believe I could reach out and ask for help. This book is so women know that they are never alone. The Universe always has our back and we are stronger if we face our challenges together.


Sophie: What have been the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of writing this book?


Benef: To write this book and be able to connect with my readers, I had to be vulnerable and share some of my darkest moments. That wasn’t easy. I struggled with how much to share. My parents, my children, family, friends are reading my book. Yikes! But if I want to really be of service and help people through their struggles, I have to share my own struggles. It was tough and I cried while writing some of the passages but, once it was done, I felt a huge relief and it became a cathartic experience. There’s no going back and the whole process helped me during my retirement transition. I was in a funk for several months after I retired since I didn’t realize how much of my identity had been wrapped up in being a lieutenant colonel in the Army. All of a sudden, I was no longer in uniform and I didn’t know what to do, how to feel, or who to be. Writing helped me work through all those emotions.


Sophie: Do you have any advice for other women who are interested in writing a book related to health and wellness?


Benef: You do not have to do it alone. Whether you’re writing a novel or a self-help book, you’ll come up against some sort of resistance or some sort of fear that can stop you in your tracks and try and tell you that you are not good enough to write a book. You have to have a strong support network to keep you moving forward. It helped me tremendously to have a coach and a community of other authors when writing my book. I knew I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t the only one struggling. Clearly, I don’t like doing things alone anymore.


Sophie: I imagine that mindfulness and yoga can come across a little “woo woo” to military members. How do you deal with this?


Benef: Oh my gosh, yes! Even for me, a yoga instructor, I come across classes that are just plain weird to me. I’m familiar with the many different types of yoga but, for someone that is new to yoga, the word “yoga” can bring to mind all kinds of misunderstandings. Bridging that gap of misunderstanding is a big part of what I do with Warriors at Ease. Yoga is absolutely accessible for the military community. It’s not religious and using Sanskrit isn’t necessary. The principles of being present in the moment with the body, breath, and mind are universal. WAE trains its teachers to be sensitive to military culture and those who have suffered trauma in the language we use and the safe container that we create for each class. Once people experience a WAE class, they realize that yoga isn’t scary or weird and is beneficial for them.


Sophie: Do you have any advice for Supergirls who are trying to share mindfulness or yoga with friends or family members who are not open to the concepts?


Benef: You have to meet people where they are. It can be challenging for those of us that start on our mindfulness journey. We want our family and friends to experience these life-changing skills with us, but we each have our own path and can’t force others along. It does help to present information in language that relates to your audience. I recently spoke about meditation to our Protestant Women of the Chapel group here at Camp Zama, Japan. I used scripture to support why meditation is beneficial and how it can be spiritual. I could’ve used principles from Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, or Islam to make my case with different audiences. The concepts of meditation are universal.


Sophie: What are some key takeaways from your work that Supergirls could incorporate into their lives?


Benef: Remember that we are never alone. Someone somewhere is going through the same or similar experience. Connecting with people is what makes us stronger. Meditation does not have to be sitting for hours every day unless that is what you want to do. Just two minutes of focused breathing is meditative and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body and mind. Everyone has two minutes in their day.


About the author:

Anne-Sophie Bousset ("Sophie" to English-speaking friends), is a freelance marketer and community builder. She helps companies build their brand, attract clients, and build a community around their product. Her favorite things include sunshine, yoga, reading, and lazy Sundays in with her cat, Phelps. She can be found on Twitter @Sophie_Bousset.

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