Where to Find Free Yoga for Veterans


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While deployed to Iraq as an Army combat medic, Nicole Jirtle came under direct fire. The bullets flying by her face were so close that she could feel the trailing shockwaves of each round. The shooter, a fellow U.S. soldier experiencing a breakdown, was only a dozen feet away.

“To this day, I still don’t know how he didn’t actually hit any of us,” says Jirtle. During her deployment, she also experienced mortar attacks as well as ER shifts during mass casualty events. After the Army, Jirtle went straight to college, where she felt out of place among civilians and had difficulties adjusting to her new environment. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was prescribed a battery of medications by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The meds made her feel worse. A suicide attempt soon followed.

Eventually, Jirtle found solace through yoga. “Yoga helped me more than anything else—and I’ve tried it all” she says. “I used to feel like a victim but now I feel like I can handle anything with more confidence and more autonomy. Yoga fulfills a spiritual thing inside of me that was missing. It brought me inner peace.”

Finding Support Through Yoga for Veterans

There are numerous anecdotal stories of yoga’s success in supporting veterans and data supporting the effectiveness of the practice in helping address PTSD symptoms has been emerging. A 2018 study published in Military Medicine reported that post-9/11 war veterans with PTSD found weekly yoga reduced their symptoms and decreased their insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

More recently, the nonprofit Veterans Yoga Project, which offered more than 4,700 classes last year for veterans, found that in-person yoga participants reported reduced mental distress in more than eight of every 10 sessions. They also indicated reductions in pain during 64 percent of their sessions with an average pain reduction of more than 30 percent.

An obstacle in getting some veterans to try yoga, according to those familiar with the situation, can be the perception that yoga is easy. But more veterans are realizing the profound benefits of the practice—and then evangelizing to other vets.

Jirtle is now a yoga instructor at Veteran Foreign Wars (VFW) Post #1 in Denver, a nonprofit that “helps fill in governmental assistance gaps for U.S. service personnel, veterans, and military families.” She estimates that up to 60 percent of the students in her classes are veterans.

“A lot of my students are people who you wouldn’t expect to see in a yoga studio, a lot who have never tried yoga before,” says Jirtle. “And, because most are vets, I get a higher percentage of males than you’d see in classes elsewhere.”

Initially, many students seem to fight the notion of practicing yoga, she explains. ”One day they just get it, and it clicks. That makes me so happy, and it makes them so happy, too.” She frequently hears from veterans that they also feel physically better after yoga, whether their back pain is alleviated or it’s just easier to move, she says.

Making Yoga for Veterans Accessible

For anyone in search of trauma-informed, veteran-focused yoga classes, the VA is another source. “A veteran can pretty much call us and say, ‘Hey, I wanna do yoga’,” says Alison Whitehead, Program Lead with the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation.

Vets may receive slightly different answers, depending on which local facility they call, she explains. Yoga has been present for a long time at some facilities whereas it’s still taking hold in others. “But there are generally points of contact in every VA facility that would be able to answer that question for a vet,” she says.

Whitehead points out that free yoga is one element of the VA’s Whole Health program, which focuses on complementary therapies such as tai chi, mindfulness classes, nutrition consultation, acupuncture, and health coaching.

Virtual yoga classes are also offered through many VA facilities and serve veterans who may not live nearby or aren’t ready to attend in-person. The CA War Related Illness and Injury Study Center at the VA Medical Center in California, for example, offers multiple on-site, virtual, and pre-recorded yoga and meditation classes. The Cincinnati VA Medical Center offers telephone-based meditation and weekly virtual (as well as in-person) yoga classes.

“We’re just trying to meet the veterans where they are,” says Shari Frensemeier, a primary care physician, health psychologist, and Whole Health Section Chief at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. “So if someone can’t come in, or maybe just prefers to practice at home, they can take a class virtually.”

A sampling of the classes provided to vets, both online and in-person, include Yoga Nidra, advanced Ayurvedic, Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) training, guided meditation, slow stretch, breathwork and gentle yoga, power yoga, chair yoga, rest and restore yoga, and yoga basics for women.

Finding Yoga for Veterans

There are alternate options for vets who seek yoga beyond local VA chapters. Below are some of the online and in-person options available at no cost that are led by trauma-informed instructors with an awareness of the needs of veterans. Some yoga studios also offer discounted rates to veterans.

Veterans Yoga Project

Founded in 2011, the nonprofit Veterans Yoga Project provides online and in-person classes at no cost to veterans. Instructors are trauma-trained and classes are free to vets, their families, and their immediate caregivers. In-person classes are held at VA centers, American Legion halls, and other community venues.

“We measure the veteran’s levels of pain and stress before and after class to really look at how this is all working for them,” says Karen Schneider, the organization’s marketing director. “We now have tangible proof that yoga works for these vets.” Veterans Yoga Project also offers scholarships to the trainings it offers, including a 200 YTT.

VEToga

Founded by a former marine in 2015, the nonprofit VEToga provides “yoga and meditation to veterans, their families, the military, and the community.” Based in Washington, D.C.,  the organization holds free classes as well as veteran-specific trainings, which include Post-Traumatic Growth, Adaptive Yoga, Yoga Nidra, and 200- and 300-hour vet-themed teacher trainings. The organization also leads a 1000-hour yoga therapy program.

“We attract veterans who want to serve veterans through the modality of yoga,” says VEToga board member Nahaku McFadden, a 30-year veteran of the Air Force. “But first and foremost, we’re here to combat veteran suicide. That’s the most important thing we do. This is why we serve.”

Wounded Warrior Project

During three deployments, former infantryman Ryan Taniguchi suffered two traumatic brain injuries as well as other physical impairments that continue to limit his movement. He found yoga, and a new sense of ease, through the Wounded Warrior Project, which uses “adventure-based learning to help warriors with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.”

Taniguchi is currently a physical health and wellness coach for the organization, which offers a no-cost, 12-week mental health program for veterans known as Project Odyssey. The He says every soldier carries a burden of some sort. “It’s just a question of how heavy it is and how they deal with it,” he explains. “Our program allows vets to understand that burden and carry it. We can help them manage their burdens by working on their breathwork, inner strength, and flexibility.”



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