Ancient art helps to calm modern warriors

By on Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

STUTTGART, Germany: Millions of Americans have turned to yoga as a form of exercise, but here in Stuttgart, U.S. service members are using it to improve their resiliency.

The 5,000 year-old practice of yoga can help stressed-out servicemembers restore their inner sense of peace and calm.

“People who have been down range are frequently in a state of hyper-vigilance – they have to be in order to do their jobs,” said Gabriele Evans, a local yoga instructor who volunteered to teach three early morning classes as part of U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart’s Suicide Prevention Month activities this month.

When servicemembers return from deployments, “they have lost the ability to relax,” she added.

Yoga teaches that controlling one’s breathing helps control the body and quiet the mind.

“By focusing on the breath – slowing it down – Soldiers learn to claim the nervous system and reconnect to their bodies. It helps them to relax,” said Evans, who teaches Vinyasa yoga at the Patch Fitness Center.

Evans took Soldiers from Headquarters, Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart; 587th Signal Company, and Special Operations Command Africa, through sun salutations, a standing sequence, floor postures, balancing postures and a final relaxation.

“It turned out to be way more strenuous and challenging than you would think – given the slow, methodical movement,” said USAG Stuttgart’s Sgt. 1st Class Richard Cooke, after attending a class at the Panzer Fitness Center Sept. 10.

“The meditation portion at the end is amazing – just focusing and relaxing. That’s hard for most military people to do,” Cooke said.

While the Army has always promoted physical fitness, mental, emotional and social well being is the focus of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.

“CSF uses a five-pillared approach to create stronger, more resilient Soldiers, family members and civilians,” said Cooke.

“The yoga class fell right in line with that – improving [Soldiers'] physical and, in some cases, spiritual fitness,” he said.

Yoga has been used as a therapy for rape, domestic violence and other traumas. The Defense Department now uses yoga to help treat service members with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This month, Stuttgart yoga instructor Ashleigh Smith began teaching a class called Peaceful Warriors.

She said the class is primarily aimed at service members and their spouses who are dealing with the stress that military life brings.

“Yoga and the breathing exercises and deep relaxation that come with it teach the student about their own autonomy over their mind and body. You learn to slow your worries down,” said Smith, who also teaches pre- and post-natal yoga classes.

Her class consists of gentle stretching for all ability levels and 25 to 30 minutes of deep relaxation using a guided meditation technique, call yoga Nidra – the ancient art of intentional relaxation.

The technique slows down the practitioner’s brain waves, Smith said. “It’s great preparation for sleep, especially if you suffer from any type of insomnia.”

Smith takes a trauma-sensitive approach to her class.

“We make yoga physically accessible to anyone with a physical limitation, for example a broken leg. We will find a way for them to participate,” Smith said.

Trauma-sensitive yoga also uses a special language. “We use inviting, inquiring language to allow the [student] to experience their own body … to re-associate the emotional body with the physical body,” Smith added.

It’s a subtle concept, but includes phrases such as “when you are ready” and “if you like,” and words such as “try” and “feel.”

“The emphasis is not on demanding students to do what I tell them … but to gently guide them through an experience with their own body,” she said.

Practicing yoga is beneficial because it helps a person deal with stress in a functional way, she added.

“If you can do it on the mat, you can take it into a relationship or job. When you find yourself in a high stress situation, you can come back to that calming breath,” Smith said.

Both instructors pointed out that servicemembers are not strangers when it comes to using focused breathing.

“They already know how to use these techniques when they shoot,” Smith said. “[Yoga] brings it into another part of their lives.”

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