Veterans experience positive results from weekly yoga class

By GARY DEMUTH | The Salina Journal, Kan. | Published: October 13, 2014

Paul Hand never dreamed a yoga class could change his life so dramatically. The breathing exercises, stretching and movement in his weekly yoga class have helped the 51-year-old Salina man lower his blood pressure, increase his flexibility, decrease his joint pain and perhaps most importantly, ease his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hand was diagnosed with PTSD after 29 years in the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserves. He led a firefighting unit in Bosnia in 1999 and served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

"The relaxation exercises have helped me breathe easier and increased my concentration. It really helps with my PTSD."

When a Yoga for Veterans class was offered nearly a year ago at Salina American Legion Post 62, 142 S. Seventh, Hand said his counselor urged him to sign up for it.

Hand admitted he was apprehensive the first day he walked into the class and met the Minneapolis-based yoga instructor, Melanie Back.

"I wondered if I could do what she asked me," Hand said. "But I found I could. It was no worse than what we did in the military every morning. It’s a lot easier. (Back) isn’t a drill sergeant."

The result of six months of yoga, Hand said, is a healthier body and mind. "The relaxation exercises have helped me breathe easier and increased my concentration," he said. "It really helps with my PTSD." The Yoga for Veterans class takes place from 6 to 7 p.m. each Thursday in the upstairs meeting room at the American Legion. Veterans from all wars are invited to attend. There is no cost, and floor mats and blankets are supplied.

At least they attend

An average of 10 veterans typically show up each week. Most are from the Vietnam era, but a few Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have attended. The oldest attendee has been a 92-yearold World War II vet, Back said. "Some come for a little bit and don’t come anymore, but at least they’re trying it," she said. The idea for the Yoga for Veterans class came from one of Back’s former yoga students. Joann Puls, a retired nurse who had worked at a veteran’s clinic in Salina, approached Back about teaching a free yoga class for military veterans. "We talked about how veterans could benefit from yoga," Back said. "There wasn’t anything in this area."

The least I could do

Back’s father and both grandfathers served in the military, so Back saw a yoga class for veterans as a way to honor their service. "I felt that volunteering to do this class was the least I could do," she said. Back and Puls met with Salinan Stan Britt, then commander of American Legion Post 62. Britt was intrigued by the idea of hosting yoga classes in the facility. "We decided we’d like to try it," Britt said. "And it wouldn’t be for just American Legion members or members of other military organizations. You just had to be a veteran."

Profound improvement

One of the first to sign was Britt, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1971 to 1975 and was stationed at air bases in Guam, Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Britt, 60, had a goal to ease his joint pain and increase flexibility through stretching. In the year since he started, Britt said he’s noticed a profound difference in his physical and mental condition. "You start out breathing and concentrating on your inner self," he said. "It gets you calmed down and prepared for the other stuff." Britt knows some veterans may be hesitant to attend a yoga class but encourages ex-military of all ages to give it a chance. "Basically, you find out you can do more than you think you can," he said.

Helps with joint pain During a recent Thursday class, Back led several veterans through deep-breathing exercises, encouraging them to expand air into their bellies. This was followed by a series of arm lifts and gentle twists while some veterans sat crosslegged on their floor mats. Dwight Bettenbrock, 68, is a Vietnam veteran who decided to try the class last spring to help ease his stiff joints. He admitted he was leery of doing yoga but was pleased at the quick improvement in his mobility. "It doesn’t cure you, but it helps," he said. "I still have trouble standing on one foot, though." Bettenbrock was a transportation unit platoon leader in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 during some of the heaviest fighting of the war. "I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into," he said. "I’m grateful I’m still alive. War changed a lot of us who came back, and not for the better."

Sense of inner peace

Bettenbrock said yoga has given veterans like himself a sense of inner peace and renewed physical strength, for which he credits Back’s gentle guidance. "She’s a good teacher, has a good heart," he said. "She starts with what you can handle. It’s not like basic training." Fortino Bonilla, 79, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956 and spent 20 years in the Army Reserves. He has been attending yoga class for about two months, hoping to ease some of his joint pain and increase his flexibility. "I’m beginning to see the difference, but you don’t see it overnight," he said. "Exercise never hurt me, so I got nothing to bitch and moan about."

From the wheelchair

Salinan Dale Parker is Vietnam-era veteran of the U.S. Army, having served in 1969 and 1970. Since 2010, he has been disabled from arthritis and using a wheelchair to get around. "I can walk a few feet, but whenever I leave the house, I have to use the chair," he said. Although Parker, 66, can’t get on the floor with the other veterans to stretch on a mat, he said he has gotten tremendous benefits from stretching and deep breathing from his chair. "I can feel the muscles stretching," he said. "Just a simple task of getting in and out of bed is easier now."

‘It’s fun to come here’

Parker said yoga is a discipline he’d recommend to all veterans, whether they think they can do it or not. "It’s fun to come here and see all the other veterans and stretch your muscles and everything," he said.