PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- A free yoga program called Connected Warriors, structured specifically to help veterans, is helping men and women of all ages and branches of the military to battle PTSD, injuries, depression and other issues when returning from war.
When veterans return from war, they find feel simple, day-to-day moments are too much to bear.
That was the case for Robert Mahar a few years ago, when he came back home from service in the U.S. Army. Today, he stands barefoot on a yoga mat in Kula Yoga Shala in Palm Beach Gardens. http://www.kulayogashala.com/
This is not the activity Mahar ever expected to try, much less embrace and enjoy.
Men and women of all ages and branches of the military file in to the yoga studio, greeting each other. They roll out rubber mats and sit in various poses, breathing deeply. As the hour begins, there are a few differences from a typical yoga class. There are no flickering candles, no open doors and no incense burning. The instructor, Mahar, is trained not to startle participants. Yoga classes focus on breathing and strength in the moment, emphasizing the body will feel different every day in different poses.
"Some classes you might have candles burning and incense going and different music going. Now, the returning vets, we're experiencing a lot of different things. So the flickering candlelight might bring back a flashback of a firefight. The smell of an incense might bring the smell of a village so with Connected Warriors we get rid of all of that. We just bring the brotherhood in, we embrace all that, give them a yoga mat and learn how to breathe," Mahar said.
Thomas Sheridan was a Command Sergeant Major in the Army Special Forces and a Green Beret.
"When you have several hundred jumps and you're fast roping out of a helicopter and you're coming down on rooftops just on a rope," he said.
Sheridan suffered a traumatic brain injury, a broken neck and a broken back, among several other injuries. Sheridan maintained his abilities as a natural leader, and found back home many other veterans were suffering from the wounds of physical or emotional pain.
"They're coming home and families are falling apart, and that's not what they signed up for," he said.
Sheridan found Connected Warriors. The organization provides free yoga classes to service members, veterans and their families in several states and cities across the United States, as well as in some military bases. The programs are based on "trauma-conscious therapy," a safe, aware environment for veterans. Yoga instructors, who are often veterans themselves, know not to startle a participant who might be facing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example.
The results have been dramatic for many. Participants say they've come off medication and become capable of handling stress again. Others have overcome addiction. Participants who are amputees or using devices like crutches or wheelchairs have gained strength and mobility.
Coming back to civilian life can be a difficult journey.
"Pretty soon you an have a table full of meds that you have to take every day and time when to take it and everything else," Sheridan said.
Finding ways to living in the moment when first returning from war can be a dangerous journey for some veterans with visible or invisible wounds, according to Sheridan. There are issues with homelessness, domestic violence and suicide. Estimates say 22 veterans every day commit suicide.
"The medicine just puts you in a vegetative state, it's the tools to help you deal with these things that help you exist in the moment, day to day. Versus not being able to get out of bed, not being able to leave your house, not being able to have a conversation with somebody," Sheridan explained.
Sheridan remembers the first time he met Mahar.
"Rob was hyper, he was a little inconsistent in showing up for class but he's very much into it now," he said.
Sheridan became a personal mentor to Mahar and several others. Six instructors started as class participants under Sheridan.
Mahar says, yoga has completely changed his life for the better, something he never expected.
"The deployments were high tempo, you're always on the move. You're going to this village, you're going to that village. You're hopping on an airplane. You're going on a convoy, so it's just boom boom boom. You're moving and moving and moving. And now all of a sudden here, you're like now what do we do? What's our mission?"
Mahar has found a way to deal with physical pain and PTSD. There had been times, Mahar said, when he himself contemplated suicide before finding Connected Warriors.
"There's 22 veterans a day that are killing themselves. So I was like, there was a couple of points where I contemplated that, you know because I didn't really want to deal with it. But yoga put me in a space where I could deal with it a bit," he said.
Unfortunately, he knows others haven't been able to deal with mental struggles before ending their lives.
"I don't want to see any more of it.. it's just.. um.. it's horrible," he said.
The mentorship and camaraderie of men and women with service in common can be life changing. Those involved encourage other veterans to give a few free classes a chance.
"That might just save someone's life, and it does," Mahar said.
Connected Warriors provides free yoga classes, along with free mats and t-shirts to participants. There are hundreds of classes offered each week around the world. Visit www.connectedwarriors.org to learn more.