War Veterans Seek Peace Through Yoga

A group of war veterans has turned to yoga, an ancient Hindu spiritual practice, to cope with the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

At the Central Massachusetts Yoga Studio, an hour west of Boston, teacher Joan Platt leads a meditation for veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm and Iraq.

They lie on their backs in "Shavasan" position. Some of the veterans are lean and muscular while others are paunchy and arthritic. Together, they represent half a century of major conflict.

Painful Memories

Michael Jakonski, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, says he spent 40 years "scraping by" with his anger and depression. Before the Iraq war, he used to scoff at post traumatic stress disorder.

"But the Iraq war really threw me for a loop. [I] found myself on the top of a mountain crying one day, and thought, 'I've got to do something about this.'"

Jakonski first turned to yoga to help a stiff neck. But he found that it helped his anger, too. He's not alone.

"Anger is a problem that all combat veterans have," says Tom Boyle, a Vietnam veteran and a counselor at the Worcester Massachusetts Veterans Center.

Boyle started the veterans yoga program two years ago to help veterans like Jakonski.

"[Anger] becomes part of you," Boyle says. "It is just an instinctive response to any kind of threat."

Tom Connor is another veteran whose old memories were triggered by the new images on the news from Iraq. He served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.

Despite efforts to suppress his painful memories of combat, Conner says he started losing sleep and having nightmares.

Finding Peace

"Everything [teacher Joan Platt] is doing is about relaxing, slowing down, becoming mindful," Boyle explains.

During the yoga class, Platt asks that all those in the studio feel happy, peaceful and liberated.

PTSD does not go away, Boyle says. But you can learn to live with it, and that's where the yoga classes come in.

"There is a theme of peace that is woven into just about everything that is said," he says, "because that is what the philosophy of yoga is: It is about attaining peace."

So far, most of the veterans have been paying for the sessions themselves, but Boyle hopes the Veterans Affairs system will start to offer yoga nationwide.

He already sees PTSD and other symptoms of battle stress in troops back from Iraq — and he knows thousands more are still to come.

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