Veterans in NYC Find Healing through Yoga
Yoga City, July 2009
By Ruth Curry
Step into the studio of the Integral Yoga Institute on a Thursday evening and you’ll notice many differences from a typical post-work Manhattan yoga class. Instead of the usual jockeying for mat space and props, one student carefully sets up an area for each of his fellow students: mat, blanket, bolster, blocks, a strap. The students arrive wearing baggy pajama bottoms, sweats, scrubs – no formfitting lululemon halter tops here. A few even practice in jeans. And while you’re usually hard-pressed to find more than one or two guys on the mat, tonight the group is almost all men.
This is Anu Bhagwati’s Yoga for Veterans class. Bhagwati, a former US Marine, started the class in June of 2008. She began her own practice while stationed in North Carolina, attending class off-base and sometimes bringing what she learned back to her fellow Marines. “They loved it,” she says, of her impromptu yoga instruction. When she left the service after five years of active duty, “I was really messed up,” she says. But, she discovered more yoga and a few teacher trainings – one through IYI, the other a therapeutic training with Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peal — led her to a place where, she writes on her website, “I no longer [had] to be a victim [of] my thoughts and emotions.” Bhagwati spent the years immediately following her discharge feeling disconnected from the military, but after a period spent working with HIV-positive students, “I wanted to be a part of the community again,” she says, and thus Yoga for Vets was born.
Any veteran or caretaker can attend the weekly Thursday class, free of charge. Through the New York veterans’ community — a network of organizations on hospital and college campuses as well as veterans centers, word has spread about this little class, and now Bhagwati teaches to a group of 20-25 regulars, about half of whom attend class during a given week. On a recent Thursday, she lead a group of eight students through about 20 minutes of pranayama (tripartite breathing, skull shining breath, alternate nostril breathing), eye movements, and an IYI-influenced asana sequence, concluding with a meditation practice and final relaxation. Throughout the class, she encourages the students to note the effects of the various techniques. She always gives the option to “simply rest.” Sometimes she teaches to severely injured students, in which case the sequence is more restorative. But “I always try to do at least 20 minutes of meditation and pranayama,” she says. “They’re the least familiar techniques, the ones this community is least likely to do — but they bring the most results.”
After class the students linger, making plans together, discussing other opportunities for mental and physical health in the veteran’s community. A hot topic is the medical establishment’s exclusive reliance on prescription drugs to treat injuries and PTSD instead of a more holistic approach. I asked the yogis how they felt after the class, and several responded later over email. “Reflective. Is the way we feel not the most important battle to fight and win? How you feel afterwards is what the true strength of yoga is!” James, a 35 year-old former Marine wrote. “What I really liked about the yoga was that it was a blend of muscle training, stretching, and relaxation, and all done at the appropriate times. After the class I had felt very loose and relaxed, even though many of the exercises were really hard,” said Adam, 25, an Army vet who had just attended for the first time at the suggestion of a friend.
I asked Anu what the most common reaction from the first time visitor was. She paused for a minute. “Thanks!” she said, smiling.