Vets seek peace through yoga

Felice Brenner opens a letter from a veteran who has taken her yoga class on Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Photo by Ying Wang/ BU News Service)
Felice Brenner opens a letter from a veteran who has taken her yoga class on Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Photo by Ying Wang/ BU News Service)

By Ying Wang
BU News Service

It was a cloudless Thursday and Richard Jackson, 73, had just finished a weekly yoga class for veterans in Brookline. His navy blue T-shirt bearing the logo of Vietnam Veterans of America looked a bit worn, but Jackson was upbeat.

“I don’t miss classes unless I have an appointment at the VA (Veterans Affairs) hospital,” he said.

Jackson retired on disability after working for the U.S. Postal Service for 25 years. He said he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after doing a combat tour in Vietnam in 1967.

Jackson credits yoga with helping him to find some balance. “[The program] is helping me physically, but more mentally,” he said. “Through the Asana (a sitting yoga pose) and breathing, I learned to find a quiet place even when I’m outside.”

Due to his patrol experience in Vietnam, Jackson said he can’t sleep on his back. With enemy soldiers sometimes nearby, he would hide in spaces that induced claustrophobia.

“I felt like they could hear me even if I just gasped. It left a very weird feeling,” Jackson recalled. “It still affects me today.”

Jackson is fine with the Savasan pose, also called the “corpse pose” in yoga class, but his head has to rest on a blanket, otherwise he might panic. He said learning to breathe and relax through yoga helps. Jackson has been with the yoga program since it was launched in 2011.

The volunteer program directed by Felice Brenner, a yoga instructor, relocated from the VA hospital in Jamaica Plain to a Brookline studio last year. Brenner said she and a dozen vets, held class in a conference room at the hospital, but then were transferred to an approximately 100-square-foot hallway in the basement.

They made several attempts to get a permanent space at the hospital. Jackson said he emailed a hospital official early this year which lead to a meeting, however they were told that the hospital needed to form a committee to establish an ongoing program and there were funding issues to consider.

“It was a terrible meeting,” Jackson said. “The program is already established. [We] are not asking for any funding or props. All we need is two hours a week. We’re down there doing a proven program helping veterans with PTSD and physical problems.”

Jackson met Ted Silva, 72, in the program five years ago. Silva, who lives in Taunton, drives 45 minutes to Brookline every Thursday for the yoga class. He served at a missile station in Montana for nearly four years during the Vietnam War.

“I’m always late, but I’m always here,” Silva said. He is a fan of yoga, martial arts and Tai Chi.

Silva has taken yoga in other studios, but found it challenging to keep up with the fast pace. The program for vets is more his speed.

“Even though they put us to a few rigors like stretching your arms, you feel really good afterwards,” he said.

The program was initiated by a woman who saw her son endure traumatic stress after returning from his combat tour in Iraq. Shortly afterward, Brenner was asked if she could cover the teaching for a while because the woman was travelling abroad.

“When she told me, I was just fascinated by the idea of working with veterans, doing something that was meaningful,” Brenner said.

Three months later, when the founder of the group had to drop out, Brenner, 63, a native of New York, decided to soldier on with the yoga classes for vets.

Besides the conference room where the vets had to move chairs and tables every time, nothing else was supplied at the VA hospital when the program started. Brenner collected mats, blocks, and blankets donated by friends and other supporters.

“We didn’t have straps. I bought 10 men’s ties from Goodwill, ” Brenner said. “We didn’t really have much support from the VA.”

To design a course for vets not only requires yoga skills, but also knowledge of trauma, according to Brenner.

Brenner spent 100 hours taking a yoga training course to instruct special populations who have emotional or physical issues like PTSD and sexual trauma. She said her husband, a psychologist, has been very supportive by offering her resources to learn more.

Brenner and another instructor, Noreen Brilliant, have been making efforts to promote the course by visiting psychologists and therapists at the VA hospital. However, the lack of official association with the hospital makes it difficult to have new vets referred.

“People would come to the class and I had no idea how they ended up there or what their limitations might be,” said Brenner.

She said she never brings up questions about their personal stories unless the vet wants to share. She simply asks newcomers if they have any physical limitations or recent surgeries.

“Some people just come in two minutes before the class and [leave] a minute after the class. They just want to be there for the yoga,” Brenner explained.

She said the sessions include more breathing and quietness than a traditional class. She helps the vets make adjustments by signaling with her hand instead of direct touching. To make sure that the vets feel secure, she never stands behind them. Also, the music and lighting barely change.

Fed up with the grimy and huddled hallway at the hospital, Brenner talked to Elizabeth Dunford last year, who is a black-belt karate master and the owner of an expansive yoga studio in Brookline. Dunford agreed without hesitation to offer her studio and equipment for the vets to practice yoga.

“As long as we are there, and we have space, we are happy to help out,” she said.

Brenner looks forward to seeing more vets in the program, despite the uncertainty of not having a permanent location.

“I’m very committed to keeping it,” Brenner said. “Whoever walks in is very welcome by the teachers and participants.”

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