Veterans Use Yoga to Fight PTSD

By Yaniris Monegro

The Bronx Vet Center is using yoga to help veterans deal with mental health issues and to give them tools for living a happier life. The free classes are held at the center on Morris Avenue every Thursday from 12 p.m.-1 pm.

“Veterans don’t need any level of physical capability to participate,” said Orlando M. Pellot, Director of the Bronx Vet Center. The instructor will adapt to the person’s ability, and we also have the right equipment to assist them.”

Veteran Wilfredo Llenza, 72, has been doing the class since it started a year ago. “Now I’m full of energy, I go up the stairs like nothing,” said  Llenza. “This was new to me, I never knew about it.” Llenza says he walks an average of 30 miles per week after he started doing yoga. “I went to the doctor last week, my blood pressure was good, my blood work was good, I can’t complain,” he said.

After serving their country, veterans come back to a different reality. Many struggle to adjust and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder that can occur after someone has been through a traumatic event. According to a report by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office, the Bronx has 452 veterans suffering from PTSD.

“Every time I tell someone I do yoga they laugh and look a me really funny,” said Craig Hirds, 40. Hirds is a navy veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he injured his back, knees and shoulders in combat. “But they really think that it is more for women. They think it is for older people, and they don’t really see men doing it, you know what I mean, like macho men doing it or anything of that nature.”

After doing the class for a year Craig says he is very grateful for it. “I’m more clear mentally,” he said. “and physically I have less pain, I’m more flexible, I’m able to move around more and I have more energy.”

A study, “A Yoga Program for the Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Veterans,” led by Dr. Julie K Staples suggests that this yoga program may be an effective additional therapy for improving some of the symptoms of PTSD.

The national survey showed that “PTSD alone out of six anxiety diagnoses was significantly associated with suicidal ideation or attempts.” This study was conducted on veterans who experienced combat trauma. The rate of death among veterans is an alarming. An average of 20 veterans died by suicide per day, according to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs.

The instructor for the class is a retired medical doctor, Penelope Sheely. She volunteers because she considers yoga to be a more sustainable treatment for PTSD. “It’s not just putting a bandage on something it’s given a person a tool to help themselves,” said Sheely.

Yoga provides both physical and mental benefits. “The breathing, noticing the thoughts, separate yourself from the thoughts, that’s meditation, coming beneath the thoughts, coming to a deeper level,” said Sheely. “That process triggers wonderful stuff in your body. It turns on your parasympathetic nervous system, it turns on your immune cells, it lowers the stress hormones, it has physical benefits that are measurable that you can do waiting in line. So we do them here for an hour but it gives you tools to use in your life.”

The class can accommodate 10 to 12 participants and veterans can also bring family members. “All veterans are invited, old and young, it doesn’t matter,” Director Pellot said. The class is set to run as long as there is interest.

“I recommend this class to all veterans,” said Hirds.

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