PORTSMOUTH, Va. (NNS) -- The Exalted Warrior Adaptive Yoga program continues to provide an alternative therapy to the Marines of Wounded Warrior Battalion-East Portsmouth detachment Jan. 28 as the program enters into its third year at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.
The program was brought to the medical center by the Exalted Warrior Foundation. It gives injured Marines recuperating from pos traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries (as well as physical injuries), an option for healing through this comprehensive, complementary and alternative therapy.
Since the program's inception, Ann Richardson, yoga instructor and owner of Studio Bamboo in Virginia Beach, has come to NMCP to lead the Marines in a weekly class, offering them an opportunity to relax and reconnect with themselves. For many, it is learning to connect to their changed bodies.
"I had worked before with friends who had been injured and used yoga to help them get back into their bodies after the injury," Richardson said. "To help keep them focused on what they are trying to do, you have to adapt the yoga to them. That's why it's called adaptive yoga."
Richardson began working with service members after one of her clients, retired Rear Adm. Tom Steffens, began the Exalted Warrior Foundation. Steffens served as a SEAL for 30 years and found yoga relieved pain from injuries that surgery and medication had not provided. His experience led to the foundation's creation and the implementation of the program at four military and five veterans' hospitals around the country.
"Adaptive yoga increases breathing, concentration and focus, and a calmness comes over them," Steffens said. "After the first session, some say, 'This is the first time I've been relaxed in several years.' It's hard to come down after all the training and deploying. For anyone who is injured or who has PTSD, dealing with this goes on for a lifetime."
The numbers in the detachment have fluctuated - up to 70 in 2011, now in the 40s - and Richardson has seen many new faces willing to give yoga a shot. But others are resistant to the idea that yoga can help them.
"I hear, 'I don't need yoga,' and I tell them to come in and give it a try, that they don't have to come," Richardson said. "Oh, they come back. I see them smile through the pain, and then they get it. They understand that they get relief from it. It's not so jarring to their system; they find their own body and for those who are physically injured, find themselves in a new body."
During each session, Richardson works the room, helping the Marines get into the preferred position. Sometimes she holds a leg and foot or an arm and a shoulder in place, sometimes she helps align backs and hips. She frequently places bolsters or blocks under bent knees or injured limbs for extra comfort and support.
The Marines' medical care at NMCP often includes traditional physical therapy to help them heal and become stronger. The yoga class supports the care they are already receiving.
"Many of them have orthopedic issues - injuries or amputations - and balancing is a big deal," Richardson said. "I have to be quick to tell them a modification so they can participate in every aspect of the session, but a lot of times they figure out a modification for themselves."
Sgt. Allan Olson, who has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and is being evaluated for a TBI, has attended only a few sessions, but has already figured out how adaptive yoga can work for him.
"I've had anxiety, nightmares and don't sleep well, so the nap time at the end is my favorite part," Olson joked. "Actually, I want to get into meditation and yoga for the relaxation, so I get a good workout on my own for the hour before and then stretch and relax for the next hour. It's some of the best stretching and helps slow things down. It's great because it slows down my mind and my body and gives me a break."
Melissa Marshall, the detachment's deputy officer in charge, has seen for herself the effects the program has had on her Marines.
"I think it's a great program," Marshall said. "The Marines are generally reluctant to participate at first, but that soon changes when they see it doesn't fit their preconceived ideas of what yoga is. I have seen some really fabulous results for some of the past participants. The relaxation techniques are very beneficial to the overall morale of the guys here."
About 10 Marines are able to take part in each session. With doctor's appointments and administrative tasks to juggle, the number of participants can fluctuate anywhere from a handful to nearly two dozen.
Richardson and the Marines make it their mission to work hard to stretch and relax. They end each session with the same relaxation technique.
"Draw all awareness into you, from your toes to heels to calves," Richardson said, as they laid on the exercise mats, eyes closed. "Take a deep breath and draw all awareness there. Draw all awareness from your calves to knees to thighs. Take a deep breath and draw all awareness there."
By the time they have worked up to the top, many of them have fallen asleep, and Richardson leaves them all to rest for about five minutes before she wakes them with a gentle voice. The group gets up, refreshed, ready to take on the next step in their journey of healing.
For more news from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, visit www.navy.mil/local/NMCP/.