For Good: Military vets find peace in yoga classes

Three men walk into a yoga studio -- and no, this is not the setup for a classic joke.

The first man removes his sneakers at the door and cracks jokes with his classmates as he sets up his mat in a sunny corner of the room. The second quietly unlaces his sturdy work boots, checks to make sure his blue jeans are securely belted, and unrolls his yoga mat near the front of the room. The third removes his loafers, loosens his collar, and empties change from the pockets of his crisp trousers before placing a mat alongside his wife’s in the center of the studio.

The footwear each gentleman removes at the door of Sarasota’s Garden of the Heart yoga studio every Wednesday afternoon may differ in style, but these three men share one powerful commonality, having walked in each other’s shoes and the shoes of 21 million other men and women in the United States: The shoes of a soldier. 

Vietnam War veterans, Steve Powers, J.R. Suarez, Bob Saun and his wife, Nancy, a veteran Army nurse who served in the Gulf War, have been regular attendees of Garden of the Heart’s Yoga for Veterans practice since the program launched in February 2014. The class is modeled after Warriors at Ease and Connected Warriors, two teaching techniques designed to provide yoga therapy for veterans and their families.

Taking a stance, finding peace 

The classmates stand at attention at the top of their yoga mats. At the guidance of Cheryl Chaffee, Studio Owner, Director and Yoga Instructor, they begin to connect their breath with the movement of their bodies in a rhythmic sequence of classic yoga postures called sun salutations. For the next hour, Chaffee leads the group through a series of strength-building and balance-challenging postures that promote focus, relaxation and body awareness. Practice closes with a few moments of meditative, restful repose on the mat.

“When my back hits that floor, everything that’s happened that day just disappears,” Suarez says as he re-laces his boots. 

Suarez says he practiced yoga irregularly in the past, but it was an anger management class that brought him to Chaffee’s Yoga for Veterans class in February. Today, he is committed to attending class each week.

“In the military, we have a saying, ‘Never volunteer for anything,’ but when the opportunity came up, I decided to volunteer for this -- and I haven’t looked back. … I’m learning all the benefits of the breath. You’re a little self-conscious at first, but if you can break through that wall and follow the techniques that they teach, there’s something magical about it, for lack of better words. It’s like a curative thing,” Suarez says.

Yoga for Veterans, a subset of the “Karma Yoga Outreach” program that was established in 2013 at Garden of the Heart, introduces the therapeutic benefits of yoga to all veterans, including those who experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), combat stress, depression, traumatic brain injury and physical disability. Additional specialized Karma Outreach programs at Garden of the Heart include yoga for Parkinson’s patients and for children with special needs.

“The goal of the Karma Outreach program is to bring yoga to underserved populations who could really benefit from its healing effects, but would not otherwise have the opportunity, the exposure, the interest or the knowledge to seek out yoga as a method of self care,” says Program Coordinator Harriet Roberts.

Florida welcomes veterans home to sunshine 

According to Roberts, approximately 1 million veterans live in Florida -- the third largest population of vets living in any state in the country. Sarasota County is home to over 48,000 veterans, and the surrounding counties of Manatee, Charlotte, Desoto and Hardee are home to an additional 80,000 vets. 

Statistically, 22 veteran suicides are reported daily in the United States.

“We send our young people to these theaters of war. They experience a level of horror no civilian can imagine, and they come back shredded physically and mentally, and then they have to integrate themselves back into civilian life. … This is a difficult thing for a 25-year-old. For many people who return this way, it’s still a struggle years later, at 65 years of age. … In the clinical setting, the answer to issues like this is pharmaceuticals. Yoga is truly an alternative health care modality,” Roberts says.

The studio is currently exploring the possibility of offering specialized classes to female veterans who have suffered Military Sexual Trauma (MST) -- a traumatic event that is reported by one in four military service women. 

Chaffee began teaching the Yoga for Veterans class at the Sarasota Veterans Affairs (VA) Center in February 2014. As the class gained traction in the VA, Chaffee expanded her offerings to include weekly sessions at the Goodwill Manasota Community Center and, beginning in November, at the Garden of the Heart Yoga Center. Chaffee says the growing program currently serves approximately 20 regular attendees.

“I’m not a veteran. I’ve never served my country, but I wanted to find a tangible way to give back. I asked myself, ‘What am I good at?’ -- and the answer is: I’m good at yoga. I thought, ‘OK, I can teach these guys and really help them,’” Chaffee says.

Chaffee notes that the yoga classes she teaches to veterans and their families differ only slightly from her “typical” yoga classes in that they place greater emphasis on breath control and promoting the idea of relaxing gently into postures, rather than practicing in an effortful or strict, alignment-based manner.

“I am not as much concerned about technique as I am that they’re exploring and becoming comfortable in their bodies. My main goal is to get them to quiet their minds. … I’ve had one guy tell me he’s had more benefit from taking my yoga class once a week than seeing a therapist the past few years,” Chaffee says. 

Judy Weaver, founder of the Connected Warriors program, emphasizes the value of training vets to use the breathing techniques of yoga as a method of recovery from combat stress and PTSD.

“You go to war and you don’t come back the same. Trauma hijacks your body. In order to survive and to stay present in war, they’re living in their sympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘Fight-or-Flight’ response. If you stay there for any length of time, you’re in a state known as hypervigilance. We humans do not have an automatic switch to turn that hypervigilance off,” Weaver says.

Teaching tools to turn around lives

Connected Warriors was established in Boca Raton 2010. The organization attained 501c3 status in 2011, and today serves more than 1,200 veterans in 13 states. Garden of the Heart is the first studio in southwest Florida to provide classes for veterans based on the Connected Warriors model.

“What this practice does is teach vets techniques or tools to turn that switch off and bring them back into their parasympathetic nervous system. … The practice of yoga is about breath control, and when you work from the breathing perspective it calms the nervous system, calms the heart rate, lowers the blood pressure, and creates the ability to be present in the moment,” she explains.

Vietnam Veteran Steve Powers says he attends the weekly class at Garden of the Heart for both the physical and emotional benefits.

“Like everybody else, we want to improve our range of motion and try to maintain health, or even improve it a little as we get a little older. Yoga helps me to remember the importance of breathing to unify my mind and body; to be more aware. If your body feels better, your emotions are going to tag along to some extent. It really does help your mood,” Powers says.

The program is intended to provide support not only to veterans, but to their loved ones.

“The vicarious trauma that occurs to family members who are here during and after multiple deployments for their loved ones is a real issue,” Weaver explains. “Trauma can only be healed in a community, not in isolation. For us, we believe so much that healing has to include their inner circle.”

Yoga for Veterans regular Gaye Meade says she initially took the classes with her husband, a Vietnam vet, and continues to attend for her own benefit, even when her husband does not.

“My husband is a vet and I am not. When I found out about it through the Veterans Association, I hoped he could get some benefit from it, and we came together for awhile. He’s come a long way because of the VA and programs like this. For me, it’s a time to relax and be at peace, and physically it’s helped me to become much more mobile,” Meade says.

Yoga for Veterans is a free class offered twice weekly in Sarasota, at the Garden of the Heart yoga studio on Wednesday afternoons, and at the Goodwill Manasota Community Center on Tuesdays. Funding for the program is provided through Connected Warriors’ sponsored charitable status with Goodwill Manasota, as well as through donations to Garden of the Heart’s Karma Outreach program through the studio’s partnership with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Sarasota.

“What keeps me coming back is what a wonderful teacher Cheryl is,” says Nancy Saun. “Her style of teaching yoga is so incredibly mindful and meditative. It respects the abilities of every person in the room.”

Saun is a veteran of Desert Storm, as is her husband, Bob, who also served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the span of a 42-year career in the military. 

“My husband never wanted to try yoga, but I always wished that he would because I believed he could really benefit from it,” Saun says.

Today, twice a week, Bob Saun leaves his shoes at the door and places a yoga mat next to his wife. Together they move through their yoga practice, breathing to heal and standing strong, side by side, in the classic posture fittingly named: Warrior Pose. 

Similar yoga lessons for veterans are available in studios and at Goodwill centers throughout the Tampa Bay region and Florida. If you can recommend others, please use the comment section below to share with 83 Degrees Media readers.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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