Yoga class helps war veterans heal unseen scars
In a black T-shirt and black jeans, John Armendarez takes his place on a mat on the floor.
The 47-year-old veteran who was assigned to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has never taken a yoga class before, but has been trying new things lately and figures the experience couldn’t hurt.
Before class starts, Armendarez raises his left shirt sleeve to reveal a foot-long scar on the inside his arm, an indelible reminder of his service. Hesitant about going into it further, he added, “I’ve seen some action.”
Just like Armendarez, Tim Withee also served his country.
Withee, 60, is a Vietnam War veteran and had a rough time recovering from the effects of war until he discovered Kundalini yoga.
Since 2005, yoga has helped Withee cope and now he teaches yoga classes locally in the hope more veterans also can benefit. It’s not outward scars, but veterans’ inner struggles, where Withee feels he can help.
“A lot of men and women coming back from the war zone have a lot of injuries that you can’t see,” Withee explained. “When you get home and take that uniform off, everybody expects you to be the same person you were when you went off, but you’re never going to be that way. You see terrible things, maybe you even pulled the trigger. Kundalini yoga can help a person recover from a lot of things.”
Kundalini yoga, a series of techniques meant to promote flexibility and increase awareness, was introduced to the West in the 1960s by Yogi Bhajan.
The practice incorporates breathing exercises, meditation and reciting mantras that are meant to relieve stress and prompt serenity. Typically, instructors use a gong at the end of classes that releases a crescendo of reverberations and, as Withee is fond of saying, “scrubs your self-consciousness clean.”
Withee wants to invite more veterans into his practice as a way to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder is labeled an emotional illness that develops as the result of experiencing a frightening or life-threatening situation, a condition not uncommon among war veterans.
Those with the disorder may experience high levels of anxiety and may tend to avoid certain situations that could jog a traumatic memory.
For years, Withee battled his inner demons by trying to drown them in drugs and alcohol, he said.
In 1988, he got sober and has been so ever since, he said.
In 2005, Withee tried Kundalini yoga as he was looking for a way to regain flexibility. Almost immediately the yoga affected him more deeply than providing physical gains. It helped him deal with emotional baggage, he said.
“It raised me to a level that I didn’t even know existed,” Withee said. “Any age you start is OK. My mom is starting at 83. Obviously, you’re not going to get into poses that someone at 22 can get in.”
Several forms of yoga have gained momentum in recent years as a treatment options for veterans dealing with the mental and physical implications of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Since 2006, Walter Reed Army Medical Center has used yoga as a treatment.
Yoga also is used at the Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center to help veterans recover from physical ailments, spokesman Paul Sweeney said.
Withee can understand that there may be a perception of yoga that could keep veterans from trying it. Participants need not wear spandex, but comfortable, loose-fitting clothes are recommended. Participants do not need to be in good physical condition to practice yoga.
“If you can breathe, you can do this,” Withee said.
Because Kundalini yoga is practiced largely with eyes closed, an atmosphere of being watched or judged is minimized.
Most classes focus on beginning poses because most participants are beginners, Withee said.
He thinks veterans aren’t the only ones who could benefit. Those who have been in jail or prison and those battling substance abuse could be helped.
“It will get you in shape. It changes you and spirituality you’re uplifted,” he said.
After a yoga class on a recent Monday, Armendarez reflected on the experience.
He was able to do many of the poses and exercises and enjoyed the gong Withee rang at the end of class.
“It’s just like he said, it’s good for the mind,” Armendarez said. “I need this.”