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Warriors at Peace

Combat veterans take refuge in yoga, discovering its ability to soothe and repair war-torn minds and spirits.

By Neal Pollack

Sensitivity Training

Anu Bhagwati is a former Marine captain and the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy and direct-services organization for service women and women veterans. During her second year in the Marines, she took a two-week leave to study at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne, New York, an experience she calls "a total mind warp, because I was very much militarized at the time." Then she returned to military service and promptly dropped her yoga practice.

When she left active service, Bhagwati found herself diagnosed with PTSD and depression. At her lowest point, her mind became "a dark and depressing place," and thoughts of suicide lurked close to the surface. She decided to do yoga again, she says,"because it worked when I'd done it before. It was natural, free, and good. I tell people it saved my life." This time, she took her practice further and became a certified yoga teacher. Now she gives a thrice-weekly class to veterans at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City. She doesn't feel the need to give her classes a hard edge.

"People who want to 'boot-camp-ify' their yoga haven't been in the military," Bhagwati says. "I heard of one group that advertised their yoga classes as 'blood, sweat, and tears.' Is that what you want to give the military community? They've got that already. Wouldn't it be OK to just learn stress-management techniques?"

Classes for vets often have a different look and feel: Students might face the door, to avoid the anxiety that comes with thinking someone might come in unseen, and they usually don't hear a lot of esoteric ideas. Washington, DC-area yoga teacher Robin Carnes, who teaches iRest at Walter Reed's program for patients with acute PTSD, says, "I never Om with my students. Why put that barrier in the way?" She also avoids the word "surrender" and doesn't call Savasana "Corpse Pose," so as not to upset her students.

Karen Soltes says the practice often brings out a side of the soldiers that has long been repressed. "Sometimes there's this very tender openness to life," she says. "They're not on some kind of spiritual journey. They just want to feel better. They come to it with innocence and no preconceived notion about what it should be. It's almost like they get out of their own way." Bill Donoghue says that the nature of military life can actually leave returning soldiers more open to a transformative experience than civilians are. "It can be a life-changing experience, sometimes for the better."

That's what happened to Paul Bradley. Since he's taken up yoga, he's experienced a spiritual connection that had been absent even before he went into the service. "Yoga brought spirituality into my life. I had no spirituality before. And after, I was just trying to get through the night and forget what I saw in the war."

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