Decorated veteran who lost legs in war inspires as he teaches

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  • LOREN BENOIT/Press Dan Nevins leads a group through a heated Baptiste power yoga class on Tuesday in Riverstone. Nevins, a double-amputee U.S. Army veteran, hasn’t let the loss of his legs stop him from spreading messages of hope and inspiration for everyone.

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    Tim Zasadny and his wife, Deaun, participate in a heated Baptiste power yoga class on Tuesday in Riverstone. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • LOREN BENOIT/Press Dan Nevins leads a group through a heated Baptiste power yoga class on Tuesday in Riverstone. Nevins, a double-amputee U.S. Army veteran, hasn’t let the loss of his legs stop him from spreading messages of hope and inspiration for everyone.

  • 1

    Tim Zasadny and his wife, Deaun, participate in a heated Baptiste power yoga class on Tuesday in Riverstone. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

By DEVIN WEEKS

Staff Writer

It was 4 a.m., pitch black and eerily quiet.

All U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dan Nevins could hear was the hum of the engine as he rode toward his next mission in Iraq.

Then an improvised explosive device detonated under his vehicle, shattering the early morning and engulfing the vehicle in a fireball.

Nevins was on the ground, confused, ears ringing, blood in his mouth.

He checked his helmet, which came apart in his hands.

He realized his close friend, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini, had been killed.

Then he felt his legs. Or what was left of them.

“That’s when I felt it — the unmistakable arterial blood spurt with every beat of my heart,” Nevins said. “I knew that I was going to die.”

Nevins recounted this gut-wrenching story Tuesday evening to about 60 people who sat silent on their mats in the CDA Power Yoga studio in Coeur d’Alene. They listened intently, Nevins’ words painting powerful pictures in their minds.

He said rather than his life flashing before his eyes, he experienced a slideshow of all the things he had yet to do. He was ready to give up, until the last image.

“It was my daughter, but she was all grown up and dressed in white, head to toe, and walking down the aisle without her dad,” he said. “And I just shot up, and said, ‘Hey, I am alive, I’m alive, I better do something to keep it that way.’”

Nevins’ left leg was amputated and he suffered a traumatic brain injury following the explosion on Nov. 10, 2004. He endured dozens of surgeries and many months in the hospital and eventually his right leg had to be amputated as well.

He went through hell. But he came out on the other side, finding healing in the most unexpected place — on his yoga mat.

“I coped with the invisible wounds of war for almost a decade before they actually started to show up in a way that affected me,” said Nevins, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “At that moment, everything I used to cope was physical: climbing a mountain, riding a bike, playing golf, hiking through nature, right? Five and a half years ago, I had surgery and I couldn’t do those things anymore and I was spiraling out of control. I wasn’t suicidal, but I started to finally see how that happens.”

A friend told him, “You need some yoga in your life,” to which he responded with skepticism. Reluctantly, he tried meditation, which worked for him. So he eased into yoga, “and it changed my whole life.”

“I had a breakthrough moment in my second private practice that changed everything, and by my third practice I signed up to go to teacher training,” he said. “I went to teacher training not to become a teacher, but to deepen my practice.”

Through an encounter with another veteran experiencing the darkness that comes with surviving war, Nevins realized he needed to spread the healing to other veterans. With his prosthetic legs, and sometimes without, Nevins now teaches Baptiste yoga (a form of hot yoga) and works with the Wounded Warrior Project, which awarded him the George C. Lang Award for Courage in 2008. He also serves as director of Warriors Speak, a select group of wounded warriors and caregivers who share their inspirational stories with the public; and he founded the Yodha Foundation, through which he is developing a retreat to help heal warriors and their families.

“Healthy body, healthy mind … There is no better practice to get present into your body, because we all take it for granted,” he said. “For me, I healed, I didn’t have to cope with the invisible wounds anymore. On my yoga mat, I saw how I was being in my whole life. I had the awareness from my yoga mat where it’s still, and it’s quiet, and I’m starting to see things.

“I learned to let go of all the fear, all the old hate,” he said. “I learned to let it go and it never came back.”

Kyle and Michelle Cooper own CDA Power Yoga and are veterans themselves. Michelle said having Nevins share his story and guest teach a master yoga class in their studio was “a dream come true.”

“He has a hunger for life and for service and for inspiring others to keep on living,” Michelle said. “It’s such a privilege and an honor to have him come and teach.”

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