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Yoga Warriors



— February 6, 2020

Yoga Warriors

By Lisa James
  • Veterans and military personnel find healing on the mat.

Marine Alejandro Hernandez was training for deployment to Iraq when “I was in a Humvee accident in which I was the only survivor—I lost my entire team.

“They diagnosed me six years after I got out with PTSD,” says Hernandez, 40, who owns a welding company in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Eventually, he found yoga. During a meditation session, “I fell asleep; I had averaged maybe three to four hours of sleep a night.”

Hernandez is one of a growing number of veterans and active service members who are using yoga as one way to deal with service-related issues such as PTSD, injuries and military sexual trauma.

A Veterans Administration psychologist, Dan Libby, PhD, noticed that yoga helped veterans who practiced it. That led him to found Veterans Yoga Project, which offers 350 classes that draw about 800 vets every month.

Better sleep is one of the most common benefits veterans mention. Judy Weaver, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, YACEP, founder of Connected Warriors, says a combat medic told her, “I did one class and I slept for the first time in forever.”

How does it work?

One of yoga’s tenets is that emotions “get stuck in muscles,” says veteran Christian Allaire, VYP CEO and yoga teacher. The idea, he says, is that yoga’s movement patterns help “get those feelings to bubble up to the surface; yoga has the tools to help you start dealing with them.”

For some vets, especially men, the word “yoga” conjures up some un-military images. However, “if you take the label of ‘yoga’ away, you have the breathing, the meditation and the stretching,” notes Army veteran Monette Fields, 49, of Central Islip, New York.

That resistance may be lessening. “There’s been a shift,” says Allaire. “Yoga is a form of discipline, and discipline always rings true with people from the military.”

April Harris, 51, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, would urge her fellow vets “to give it a try. If I tell them about my issues and they ask, ‘what are you doing’ and I say ‘yoga,’ that’s a sale right there.”

Using veterans as yoga teachers has its advantages. “Without having any military experience at all, you can’t completely identify, even spouses and family members,” says Fields. Harris adds, “We like structure, we like things to be on time.”

Part of the problem is that since the end of draft calls in 1973, “less than 1% of every family in the US has someone serving,” says Weaver. “The people in your community don’t have any idea of what you’ve gone through.”

Libby, while agreeing that veterans have an advantage in teaching their peers, says that’s why VYP does “the training we do. We train yoga teachers and mental health professionals to understand that there are things we civilians don’t get.”

Part of this training is in trauma-sensitive yoga, which doesn’t mean “trying not to trigger your students,” Libby explains. “It means providing a safe, predictable and controllable environment.”

For example, Weaver, who teaches mostly Vietnam vets, is “cognizant of not playing music from that era: Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, all of that. And I won’t use the term “hover”; in Vietnam, the helicopters hovered to pick up the soldiers.”

Besides helping veterans sleep better, Allaire says yoga practice helps them “feel a little calmer. There is less pain, and there is a sincere enjoyment of the camaraderie and purpose of coming to the class.”

Sometimes, it’s the little things that count the most. Libby says that one vet told him, “For the first time in 10 years, I was able to clip my own toenails.” Another was able to “get down on the sand at the beach and play with his grandchild—and get back up.”

Hernandez appreciates what yoga has done for him.

“It blew my mind,” he says. “I was taught to go from 0 to 100, but not to go from 100 to 0—to have this calmness, this space.”

Photo credit: Film  produced by lululemon’s “Here to Be”: Kelsey Lynn Stokes & Debbie Lommel; Donation Match: Northwell Health

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