Liz Thompson, our Marine Yoga instructor in Hellertown, PA talks about her experiences with her own personal yoga practice and in working with the Veterans at the American Legion. Take a moment and read what she has to say. As always, we encourage your feedback and comments on all of our blogs. please respond with the “Reply” button.
“On the heels of a recent article in Lehigh Valley’s The Express Times, I have found myself reflecting on the journey to the yoga mat.
After the article I received many accolades and congratulations on the front page story, “One veterans’ outreach: American Legion’s yoga classes prove therapeutic.” However, the congratulations and accolades belong to the Veterans who attend my classes; they belong to the veterans across the country who have found something healthy that helps them through the day, and maybe most importantly, the Veterans, who see or hear about this article and become inspired to try something “out of the box” to make them feel better, to feel connected to themselves and others.
I know all too well how difficult it is to admit to yourself that it is possible to feel better inside and out and yet more difficult, to take the first steps to try to feel better.
As a background, I found myself on a yoga mat in 2007. I did not go willingly. I fought trying a yoga class for a long time; I am a Marine. Yoga? I didn’t see that happening. I was anything but a granola eating, Birkenstock wearing, yoga doing hippie. How would going through some poses and perhaps looking like a pretzel help me sleep? Help me with my anger? Decrease my anxiety? Make me feel okay in my own mind? The VA’s prescribed medication and therapy wasn’t working. My own attempt to self-medicate with alcohol wasn’t working. After about a year of loud resistance and failed attempts to find internal calm on my own I got myself on a yoga mat.
Fast forward a few years. The effects of the yoga were so profound, I enrolled in a 200-hour yoga teacher certification class to deepen my own practice but most importantly so that I could share the benefits of yoga with other veterans as a certified yoga instructor. Yoga had helped me and now I was going to help other veterans by teaching them yoga.
Not surprisingly, I did not have Veterans lining up to attend my classes – even though they were absolutely free! I realized that I was not the only veteran who was hesitant to try yoga and, maybe more importantly, hesitant to recognize that things could be better. Knowing the passion and desire I had to bring yoga to Veterans I wasn’t going to give up.
In January of 2014, I found myself standing next to Thom, at a monthly member meeting at the American Legion in Hellertown, in front of a group of mostly Vietnam and Korean Veterans, presenting Meghan’s Foundation, the benefits of yoga and asking that they consider providing space and time for Meghan’s Foundation to bring yoga to the Veterans of the Legion once a week. The group was enthusiastic about the prospect.
Not only did the group unanimously vote to allow a yoga class for Veterans, many of the Veterans present at that meeting came to the first yoga class. Despite not fitting the yoga “mold” and doubting their ability, the meeting room has contained no less than four Veterans, some with their spouse, every week since that first class. The class started as strictly a chair yoga class however, some are now able to participate in some more traditional postures standing.
I understand what it may have taken for some of these Veterans to get to the yoga class – whether it be pride, “I don’t need that,” or the self-doubt, “yoga? Me Yoga? How is that going to help?” or their misconceptions, “I can’t do yoga” – they are there every week, they are doing something good for themselves. Even with lounge in the next room, the chatter of the patrons, the volume of the jukebox and Wheel of Fortune on the television, for one hour a week I can see the transformation in this group of Veterans. The group of Veterans currently in this class consist of Veterans who have been home and out of the service for decades, yet they are in class week after week. They are commenting that they feel less pain and that they are finding calm they didn’t know they could find. I see their attention turning inward and I see the difference.
There are at least a dozen stories of the transformations I have witnessed this group receive from a weekly class, however one really stands out.
During the first class at the Legion I learned of the back pain one of the Vietnam Veterans suffers from. In subsequent classes I could see in his facial expressions that he is feeling a bit more than a stretch or some sensation that is less than comfortable, I often used that time as an opportunity to gently remind the class that they can ease back if they find discomfort. This can be a difficult concept when you’re conditioned to believe “that no pain means no gain,” however, this gentleman follows the cue and eases up the stretch. I could see the frustration when he could not cross one of his legs over the other, some nights he couldn’t cross on either side. He continued to do what he could and learned to not push himself to pain.
After six weeks of regular chair practice we progressed through the class and to our seated Svasana (the final relaxation at the end of a yoga class). Typically, at this point I sit in the chair with my legs crossed Indian style, for comfort, this gentleman along with others would always chuckle and joke around about never being able to do that. Reminding them that they are finding “their comfortable seat,” regardless of what others are doing.
We progressed through Svasana, many of the Veterans had found so much comfort that they had closed their eyes and had tuned out the distractions next door. As class was ending and I scanned the room checking in with everyone, I noticed this gentleman who had pain whenever he would move his legs was sitting in his chair with his legs crossed in Indian style. He said, “look what I can do! I couldn’t do that when we started.”
A simple act of crossing his legs was making a huge impact to this Veteran, as well as to me. Not only did he show up to yoga every week, he too was finding some benefit.
Those who should receive the acknowledgement are the Veterans such as him, who are doing something to bring themselves some comfort. Veterans such as those in this class, who may have fought a battle just to try yoga and the Veterans who are continuing to fight for themselves every day.
If you are a Veteran, or know a Veteran, who may benefit from an alternative to approach to feeling better I suggest yoga. Yoga really can be for everyone.
I plead with you, do something good for YOU! Give yoga a try, I am sure that you will be glad you did.”