Veterans reap benefits of Naperville yoga classes
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Rich Goulet's wife had been bugging him to try yoga.
The back pain that has plagued the Naperville man since he left the Army in 1970 wouldn't go away despite frequent visits to a chiropractor, and she thought yoga would help.
He thought it was for hippies.
But a few weeks ago, yoga in Naperville became something for veterans, too, as volunteer instructor Dana Fish began offering free classes through Connected Warriors, a Florida-based nonprofit.
The sessions are at Judd Kendall VFW Post 3873 and Naperville Park District's Alfred Rubin Riverwalk Community Center, not some trendy yoga studio. Sanskrit words aren't spoken, except for an optional "namaste" (which means "I bow to you") at the end of each hourlong practice. The instruction is trauma-sensitive, designed to respect the personal space and life experiences of veterans who may be dealing with post-traumatic stress.
"One of the important things is it's yoga being done with other veterans in the safety of the community of other veterans," said Fish, 37, of Naperville, and a yoga instructor at Thrive Integrative Wellness Center in Naperville.
And for Goulet, who showed up for Fish's first class and nearly every session since, the yoga already is producing positive results. He noticed the difference after attending his fourth class.
"For the first time I can remember," Goulet said, "my back felt normal."
Mind, body benefits
Sounder sleep, steadier energy, less stress -- Fish said she has experienced the positive effects of yoga for almost 10 years. And when she recently decided to begin teaching the exercise that's brought her so many benefits, she said veterans came to mind as people who also could find solace in yoga.
Judy Weaver, one of the founders of Connected Warriors, said the combination of mental and physical exertion in yoga helps veterans triumph over trauma because the lasting effects of overwhelming experiences reside not just in the mind, but also in the cells of the body.
"The issues are in your tissues," said Weaver, who started offering free yoga for veterans in 2010 and now oversees 175 classes a month in 11 states.
Thoughts may trigger memories of wartime trauma, but they also lead to physical responses that can be more difficult to harness.
"Some aspects you can't control, but that's where a mind/body modality like yoga comes in," Weaver said. "You can begin to have space between your thoughts."
Fish completed a four-hour training through Connected Warriors and offered her first class in October. The organization provided her with 10 mats and the expectation that if four or five people showed up, it would be a great turnout.
Using donations from family and friends, she scrounged up a bunch more mats, foam blocks and foot straps -- just in case -- packing it all into her SUV and becoming a "mobile yoga studio."
Her first class drew 20 people, many of them involved with the Judd Kendall VFW, including those personally contacted by her first recruit -- Vietnam veteran Mike Barbour of Naperville.
Barbour said veterans are realizing medications may not be the best treatment for the mental and physical problems that follow them home, so he wanted to help Fish provide yoga to others who have served.
Some participants, such as Ed Cunningham of Naperville and Al Infante of Lisle, have tried yoga before and gotten a taste of its benefits. But practicing with fellow military veterans was a first for both men.
"This was an extra opportunity for me to join up with some of the guys," Infante said.
Yoga, VFW style
The red, blue and green mats scattered across the floor and the quiet, acoustic and wordless versions of songs like Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved" and Coldplay's "Fix You" made the scene seem just like any yoga class. But the floor was a VFW hall more often used for spaghetti dinners. And its walls were decorated not with abstract art, but with an American flag and an Exchange Club Freedom Shrine displaying documents as storied as the U.S. Constitution.
"It's not hippie-ish like I thought it would be," Goulet said. "It's well-developed stretching."
Weaver admits yoga and veterans don't traditionally seem to mix -- at least in the eyes of society.
"When you think about the military culture and yoga, it's like, 'Wow, that doesn't really fit the mold of what perceptions are,'" Weaver said.
But changes to the location and vocabulary of the classes helps those who see yoga's potential give it a chance.
Fish said Connected Warriors provides a template for how to start and finish each class, but the poses in between are up to each instructor. At a recent class, she led participants through a sun salutation and stretching poses -- completed either on a mat on the floor or sitting in a chair for support -- such as the tabletop, gate and cobbler's pose.
The class was peppered with pieces of yogi wisdom, which Fish doled out as participants held their poses and took slow, steady breaths.
"When you let your head relax, the nervous system relaxes," she said as participants relaxed in the popular child's pose. Then, a few poses and groans of exertion later, "You're supposed to build heat internally. When we build heat, it gets out the toxins."
Brief moments of laughter interrupted the light rock playing throughout the session, especially when Fish instructed the class to get into downward facing dog, a position on hands and feet in which the body forms a triangle with the floor, the backside as the top point.
"If this is too much for you, you can come to puppy dog," Fish said, lowering her knees to the mat to a chorus of skeptical chuckles. "I'm not making this up; this is a real pose!"
Fish's free yoga classes for veterans are the first in Illinois offered through Connected Warriors -- so new, in fact, she's still bugging charity representatives to list the sessions on their website.
She said another local instructor is interested in offering classes, and the next frontier will be getting younger veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to give yoga a chance. Evening classes could help, as the current morning sessions on Wednesdays and Saturdays are more conducive to the veterans from World War II through Vietnam who have attended so far.
"The hardest part is getting the veterans to the mat," Fish said. "They kind of think, 'Oh, that's for chicks. I'm not doing that.'"
But if newly minted veterans keep an open mind, she said they may be drawn to the personal pursuit of achievement inherent in yoga. Fish said it's not about attaining perfection, because there's no exact right way to complete a pose. It's about living in the moment, being mindful and attentive to surroundings and enjoying the progress that's an integral part of life.
That mindfulness helps veterans separate their current reality from traumatic experiences in their past, forming the "space between your thoughts" Weaver says is so helpful to overcoming trauma.
"The hardest part of a yoga class is coming through the door," Fish said. "Then just breathe and do your best."
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