Mental Health Matters: Body, Soul, Mind of a Warrior

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YMCA partners with the VA to offer therapeutic yoga program for veterans battling PTSD

By Drew Menard | Photos by Ashlee Glen

The sacrifice of our American heroes in defending freedom goes beyond the time and distance of service, and the physical offering of their bodies, be it through blood, sweat and even lives. In protecting our country, many soldiers have carried home with them an unseen burden—scars of the mind.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that some 10-20 percent of veterans are affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or PTSD-like symptoms after returning from military service. As high as 31 percent of Vietnam veterans are afflicted by PTSD.

PTSD symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic, include persistent, distressing memories, hopelessness, negative thinking, irritability, trouble sleeping, self-destructive behavior and overwhelming guilt.

In cooperation with Lynchburg’s Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) office, the Downtown YMCA established a Yoga for Warriors program to help veterans who have suffered physical or emotional trauma as a result of military service and combat deployment.

There are close to 25,000 veterans in the Central Virginia region and their struggles “should not be ignored,” explained Kathy Thomas, Director of Healthy Living for YMCA of Central Virginia. “Research shows that programs like Yoga for Warriors at the Downtown YMCA can help individuals build physical, mental and emotional stamina to overcome issues caused by combat or non-combat trauma experiences.”

A group of veterans first presented the idea to the Y last summer and a pilot program for 10 veterans was held that fall. Since then, a yearlong program has launched with approximately 19 active participants in 2018.

“This was a grassroots effort of veterans working in our community to help other veterans heal and recover from PTSD,” Thomas said. “The YMCA and the VA have the tools and skills to be of service and we are grateful to be participating with veteran groups to support the program.”

Participants are recommended by the VA after undergoing proper medical care and group counseling sessions.

“YMCA Yoga for Warriors helps veterans who have experienced traumatic events during active military service deployments and are working to overcome physical, mental and emotional issues remaining from the experiences,” YMCA Yoga for Warriors Instructor Gary Sullivan said. “Trauma builds up in the body and has a detrimental effect on mental and emotional stability. In the yoga program, we work together to restore peace of mind and recover physical capabilities needed for active daily living.”

Sullivan evaluates the individual needs of each veteran and works with them to establish personal improvement goals over the course of the 12-month program.

“Yoga poses and movements help strengthen and stretch the body to overcome physical limitations, while restoring range of motion without pain,” Sullivan said. “Our goal is to achieve the full pain-free range of motion available to the body. We build strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and physical stamina in each class.”

Weekly small group sessions provide the tools and instruction to help veterans reach their goals.

“The weekly yoga class at the YMCA allows the individuals to participate together in physical exercises and mind body techniques to eliminate stress and anxiety,” Sullivan explained. “These include breathing techniques and yoga to relax the body, quiet the mind and restore present awareness.”

The rest of the week, participants are encouraged to continue the prescribed practices daily and Sullivan is available to evaluate and encourage them along the way.

“Each participant has reported steady progress, including weight loss, improved strength, better flexibility with better balance and physical coordination,” Thomas said. “The program has helped reduce physical pain and improved emotional stability as well.”

Mark Davis said he joined the program for stress relief after learning about it from a fellow veteran at a medical clinic in Lynchburg.

“Participating in this program has helped me with increasing the range of motion of my right arm and has helped with other physical limitations,” he said, noting he still must proceed with caution due to the nature of his injuries.

The best part of the program, he said, has been the positive, supportive community.

“Connecting with fellow veterans has been helpful to me all the way around,” Davis said. “Participating in the program has turned out to be a very positive experience for me after years of being mostly housebound due to physical limitations and illness, both mental and physical. I am grateful to Gary for all he has done.”

Robert Clay joined the Y with his wife in January, hoping to spark a healthier lifestyle.

“I had struggled with my weight and pain management since leaving the Marine Corps,” Clay, who served from 1997-2003, recalled.

He learned about the program after chatting with his spin class instructor, who happened to be Sullivan, one day.

“The guys in the group are fantastic and it’s nice to revisit the bond that I shared with my fellow Marines,” he said. “I also appreciate the different approach to managing my lifestyle goals that Gary coaches us on. He is also very willing to help everyone on a one-on-one basis if more is required.

“Physically, I have lost almost 25 pounds and I feel much more flexible,” Clay continued. “I also have a very high stress job and the emotional release that yoga helps me achieve is better, in my mind, than any prescription medication that a doctor can prescribe.”

Vietnam veteran Steve Bozeman served as a Marine helicopter mechanic and machine gun door gunner, experiencing many near-death situations.

“I saw enough carnage to last a lifetime,” he said.

Bozeman, who has two Purple Hearts and 18 Air Medals, struggled after his service ended, but found solace in exercise.

“When I was discharged from the Marines in 1970, I would put my combat boots on and go up to the local high school track and jog about 3 to 5 miles to help deal with the stresses of Vietnam,” Bozeman described. “Didn’t know it at the time, but … tens of thousands of other Vietnam veterans were dealing with the same stresses. It was called, ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ back then.”

Today, the syndrome is understood as PTSD.

Bozeman is very active in the local veterans community and was among the first group of yoga warriors.

“I have lost about 8 pounds and I know at age 72 that doing yoga will help me be more flexible and strengthen my core and muscles,” he said. “I feel more in the ‘present’ with my mind and body while doing yoga, blocking out all the ‘stuff’ that clutters the mind.”

Part of the initial grassroots effort, Bozeman has been actively promoting the program to other veterans.

“The other veterans, I’m sure, are seeing the same benefits and want to support each other, knowing the camaraderie we shared in the military is not over—it continues for a lifetime,” he said. “Gary Sullivan has been the perfect person for this as he does an excellent job leading us through the warm ups, stretches and encouraging us to do more as we warm up. But he also stresses to not do anything that hurts and stop at that point.

“The highlight is at the end of the hour of stretches and yoga movements that we can lay on our backs stretched out on our mats and start to relax and get into some mindful meditation for 10 to 15 minutes.”

Sullivan said it is rewarding to see the veterans achieving their goals.

“It takes commitment on their part to do the work, but the results are amazing,” he said. “We build lasting friendships and support one another. I have seen life-changing results and am truly grateful for each one of those who join our program.”

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About Author

Drew Menard is a passionate storyteller, currently content to call Central Virginia home, along with his wife and three active boys, as he works to complete his first novel. In his professional career, Drew has written articles and other pieces for a number of publications, websites and organizations and he’s an award-winning columnist. His creative journey has included editing screenplays, consulting on stories, helping construct speeches and even producing videos. Drew holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in strategic communication, which enabled him to publish a thesis on the emergent trend of transmedia storytelling.

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