VFW Magazine — March 2017
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Building Bonds Through Yoga
Kelly Gibson

POST 1 IN DENVER OFFERS A WIDE VARIETY OF PROGRAMS ATYPICAL OF VFW POSTS. PROVIDING FREE YOGA CLASSES HAS OPENED DOORS AND BRIDGED THE GAPS BETWEEN VETERANS OF ALL ERAS.

On a Tuesday evening with threatening snowy sidewalks and icy roads, more than 20 people filter into the brightly lit front room of Post 1 in Denver. Yoga mats litter the floor, though instructors encourage the students to use their own if they’d prefer. Twice per week, students gather at Post 1 for a free yoga class. They introduce themselves, announce their military service and how they feel. The classes are taught by former Marines, which in itself makes the classes unusual — fitting for an unusual Post.

“The language is colorful,” said John Harry, Post 1 commander and Iraq War veteran. “Sometimes my language is colorful, too.”

Yoga at Post 1 — which claims it is “the oldest continuous Post with the youngest members” — is a good blend of mindfulness and physical activity. The program is open to anyone who wishes to attend. On one December night, two thirds of the participants were veterans, while the other third were friends or interested community members.

Classes include meditation, breathing and moving mindfully through a series of stretches.

The idea to offer yoga at the Post originated with Jarell Jones, a Marine veteran. He reached out to fellow Marine veteran Sarah Plummer Taylor, a Denver-based yoga instructor who had offered free yoga classes to veterans throughout the area. Taylor’s company, Semper Sarah, helps veterans overcome military-related trauma through mindfulness and yoga.

The Post has offered yoga since 2014, but today, instructors through Denver-based yoga studio Comeback Yoga and Team Red, White and Blue also teach classes. Each instructor is certified in trauma-informed yoga, and the classes are geared to any skill level.

“Comeback Yoga’s support really catapulted our program forward with additional donations of props, help with scheduling and later even paying some of the yoga teachers,” said Taylor, who deployed twice to Iraq with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU-1).

The program has grown in the past two years, and it attracts people from all ages and walks of life.

“We have veterans from all eras,” said Taylor, a member of Post 1. “Men and women, dependents and friends, beginners and experienced yogis. You name it, people practice there together. I love it.”

TAKING CHARGE OF HEALTH

Yoga is a VA-accepted form of alternative therapy for PTSD, but it has positive physical effects as well.

According to a study published in International Journal of Yoga Therapy, yoga “may provide an effective integrative treatment option for veterans with PTSD.”

The study posits that the use of breathing and concentration necessary to practice yoga can reduce the anxiety and hyperarousal affiliated with physical and emotional trauma.

“From the VA perspective, we’ve come to realize that yoga can be helpful as adjunctive treatment,” said Dr. Harold Kudler, chief of VA Mental Health Services “It helps people with anxiety sleep better.”

Kudler has worked with patients who have benefited from yoga, including people he says are “the last guy you’d expect to practice yoga.”

Of one patient, Kudler said, “He felt like yoga was the first thing that gave him control. Doing yoga on a regular basis really gave him a sense of being centered.”

Kudler stressed the importance of talking to your doctor. He also said it’s not a catch-all cure, but it can be helpful.

Alan Norton has seen benefits. Norton, a member of Post 1, served in Vietnam as a “mechanic by day, grunt by night” with Headquarters Bn., 1st Marine Div., from 1969-70.

“My joints were really stiff when I started,” Norton said. “Every morning I was taking pain pills and now I’m hardly taking anything. My balance is better.”

Before Norton began attending classes regularly in March 2016, he had problems standing up. He said he would lean in one direction and just tip over, but now he can stand upright in the shower without support from the wall.

Yoga wasn’t something he had really considered before it was offered at the Post.

“Just thought I’d try,” Norton said. “I heard some good things about it and needed a light workout, not a Marine workout.”

Other Post members and yoga students have noticed the difference in Norton, including weight loss and improved self-esteem. When he started attending yoga classes at the Post, he had trouble bending down to put on his shoes. After only two months of practice twice a week, Norton’s skin color and energy noticeably improved.

ESTABLISHING COMMUNITY

Jessica Hintze, a former Marine, teaches yoga at Post 1. She served from 2005-09 but did not deploy overseas. While Hintze said her trauma comes from “different types of things,” yoga has helped her cope with life and take charge of her health. She was on a number of medications and gained weight after leaving the military.

In 2012, with “complete supervision, assistance and agreement with the VA doctors,” Hintze reduced her medications, started doing yoga daily and changed her diet. She left her corporate job and started learning to be a yoga instructor.

She said she has seen the positive changes in her life and is happy to share her knowledge and experience with other veterans.

“Talk about trauma as long as you want, but I wasn’t going to change it like that,” Hintze said. “Yoga is what changed it for me.”

Yoga helped change Marine veteran Vanessa Mahoney’s path as well. Mahoney, who served from 1992-96, first tried yoga in 2001.

Mahoney said yoga “would come and go out of my life,” so in 2012, she made a decision to commit to her yoga practice. She finished her teacher certification in 2016, and occasionally teaches classes at Post 1.

“When I started here, I was not in shape. I was overweight, and I had a knee injury,” Mahoney said. “It really allowed me to feel comfortable starting again.”

That comfort is a unique aspect of yoga classes at the Post. Classes are accessible enough for beginners, but challenging enough to keep people coming back. These classes also offer a unique sense of camaraderie.

“It feels different within the veteran community than just going to a yoga studio,” Mahoney said. “It’s light here. It’s not serious. We joke, we swear, we don’t look at anyone weird. We’ve started to throw in an ‘ohm’ here or there. Everyone is open to it.”

That sense of community expands beyond just the Post members who attend yoga classes.

Post 1 Trustee and former Post commander Michael Mitchel, a Navy veteran who served during Operation Earnest Will in 1987, views programs such as yoga as “a platform to gather and bridge the gap.”

By offering classes at the Post, open to the public, members of the community and other veterans organizations have a chance to mingle in a way they might not have before. It invites people into the Post and appeals to all eras.

“People connect,” Mitchel said. “They can come relax if they are stressed out. They’ll go to bed a little easier and sleep a little harder.”

Post Trustee Sara Mize said yoga and meditation have allowed her to open up to herself and to others. She said she has enjoyed attending yoga classes at the Post. She brings her sons — one is 6 and the other is 4 — and they also benefit from “being quiet” and connecting through the practice.

“In the military, not everyone is open to sharing their feelings,” she said. “Shit happens, move on. With yoga, I don’t feel intimidated.”

Post leadership admits that implementing these types of programs is easier based on the Post location — in the heart of the arts district of a bustling city. But they also say members are open to new ideas and willing to support new ventures even if it doesn’t appeal to them personally.

“There’s something for everyone,” said Murphy Phanhdone, Post 1 junior vice commander and Afghanistan veteran.

Mitchel echoed Phanhdone, reiterating that the Post does what it does for all veterans.

“We don’t measure the success of a program by attendance,” Mitchel said. “If it helps one person, the program is successful."

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