‘Brewery yoga’ event in Columbia benefits healing arts program for veterans

For The Baltimore Sun

Dan Hill has set out to prove a simple premise: More men will sign up for yoga if they can try it at a local brewery and top off their session with a cold glass of beer.

Hill, a yoga and fitness teacher who founded DTM Fitness in 2005, started offering yoga-and-beer events last summer that he calls HopAsana to encourage more males to check out the ancient Hindu practice — though women and families are equally welcome.

The name combines "hop," from the hop plant used in beer, with "asana," a term for a yoga posture, said Hill, who lives in Columbia with his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

But Hill, who also teaches regular classes, has another reason for holding these nontraditional yoga sessions: helping his fellow veterans.

On May 28, to coincide with Memorial Day weekend, Hill will partner with Black Flag Brewing Co. on Snowden River Parkway to present a HopAsana event with a patriotic twist.

Hill, who is 40 and a U.S. Air Force veteran, will offer a 60- to 75-minute, donation-based class for all levels, followed by beer, food and a silent auction.

All proceeds will be donated to Vetoga, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides free yoga classes for military personnel, veterans and their family members as a way to promote meditation and healing arts. The program has a goal of training participants to become teachers themselves, with the idea that they'll pass the healing benefits of yoga on to other veteran communities.

Hill, a San Francisco native, says brewery yoga events are popular on the West Coast and in other parts of the country, but haven't caught on in Maryland. Creating a fundraiser to benefit veterans was a logical step for HopAsana, he said.

He knows how many veterans feel. After he was severely injured in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hill was flown in a coma to Germany, then to Washington and finally to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, for intensive treatment.

The then-26-year-old master sergeant had already served in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey when he was assigned to a combat infantry unit in Iraq. His sixth tour in the Middle East would prove to be his last.

He was riding in a convoy when an improvised explosive device hit, throwing him from the truck. He broke his back, crushed both feet, dislocated a shoulder and suffered a concussion.

"Doctors said I may never walk again," Hill recalled.

Following months of medical care and physical rehabilitation, he was discharged. He devised an exercise regimen to further his rehab and had begun working as a personal trainer when he discovered yoga.

Hill, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said yoga has done wonders for his body and, perhaps more importantly, his mind.

"For the first several years [after the incident] I focused on my physical body, but I continued to have nightmares and panic attacks," he said.

After moving in 2010 to Maryland from Arizona, Hill wanted to resume running in full and half marathons, but had trouble adjusting to the state's humid summers.

"I couldn't make it 3 miles," he said. "I felt like I was underwater."

To help his body acclimate, he decided to try hot yoga, a practice in which the room's temperature is 90 degrees and humid. That decision became a turning point in his life.

Yoga's spiritual benefits quickly became obvious to him, especially in treating his PTSD, which he says is incurable but has lessened somewhat over time.

"Yoga is a form of moving meditation," Hill said. "Nothing exists outside that mat when you're practicing. You're thinking about your body's alignment and about your breathing. When you can focus on one thing, you can prevent your mind from wandering.

"Gunfire, explosions and watching my buddy dying right in front of me … all those thoughts are dismissed when I'm on that mat."

Yoga also builds self-esteem, he said.

"Yoga taught me how to love myself again," he said. "In yoga, you're surrounded by a community of positive, like-minded people. That's one of the most important things about it."

Learning mindfulness is something everyone can benefit from, not just veterans, he said. Still, he's particularly interested to opening a new world for his military brothers.

"Many military men can be closed-minded about yoga and often have the misconception that it's just about skinny girls stretching," he said. But yoga can provide a coping mechanism after living through the hell of combat.

Fellow yoga instructor and mentor Emily Lodge, who also teaches classes at Main Street Yoga in Ellicott City, said she believes yoga has helped Hill.

"It's amazing the transformation I've seen in Dan," she said. "Stress doesn't derail him like it used to."

Justin Blazejewski, founder and president of Vetoga, is a Marine Corps veteran and full-time information technology contractor who also spent 10 years working for the government in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He's grateful to Hill for raising funds for his nonprofit, which flies veterans and their families from across the country to Washington for free training.

"There's an unspoken brotherhood between us," he said of Hill. "We support each other and are making an impact as brothers-in-arms."

Getting a physical workout while doing deep relaxation and breathing techniques helps veterans fight depression, Blazjewski said.

"After all those years in the war zone, I needed to recover my body and my well-being," he said, and that's why he decided to give yoga a try at a friend's urging. "Now I want to give back to that same demographic. My number one mission is to create community and a connection to society for vets."

Brian Gaylor, owner of Black Flag Brewing Co., which opened in July, said he and Hill first partnered to do a fundraiser for Ellicott City following the July 30 flood that devastated the historic mill town. Another benefit for #ECStrong is planned for July 8.

Hill now holds a HopAsana event the last Sunday of each month at Black Flag, and has also upcoming events at Hysteria Brewing Company, which is set to open on Berger Road in Columbia in June, and at Calvert Brewing Company in Upper Marlboro, among other places.

It's a win-win proposition for all involved, Gaylor said.

"These events introduce more men to yoga and more women to beer," he said, adding he finds the gender stereotypes of who prefers to drink what to be "slightly true."

The events, held in Black Flag's warehouse among the 1,200-gallon tanks and 15-gallon kegs, are a lot of fun, he said.

"I don't know why this hasn't taken off in this area yet, but it's heading in that direction," Gaylor said.

"I think as breweries become more prevalent, there will be more events like these," he predicted. "It was an easy proposition to say yes to."

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If you go

HopAsana will be held 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 28 at Black Flag Brewing Co., 9315 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia. All are welcome to attend. Donations to Vetoga to cover the cost of the event can be made online or at the door. Silent auction donations are also being accepted. Information: dtm-fitness.com/hopasana.

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