Wounded veterans turn to yoga for strength, solace

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Yoga instructor Sunny Keays works with double amputees U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Chris Montera, left, and U.S. Marine Pfc. Isaac Blunt during a yoga class at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego on June 10. Headstands have helped amputees reduce pain. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

SAN DIEGO — Army 1st Sgt. Chris Montera, who lost both legs above the knee and suffered third-degree burns over 60% of his body in a mortar attack in Afghanistan, is doing a headstand, guided by yoga instructor Sunny Keays.

“It takes a lot of pressure off my back and spine,” said Montera, 33, who was on his fourth combat tour when he was hurt. “It helps with the pain.”

Marine Sgt. James Bernard, 25, who returned from combat in Helmand province in Afghanistan with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, is going through a series of stretching, relaxing and breathing exercises nearby, under the gentle guidance of yoga instructor Barbara Lyon.

Bernard’s wife, Keely, 25, said yoga is helping her husband regain the composure and self-confidence that he had before he went to war. She accompanies him to yoga classes at Naval Medical Center San Diego.

“He seems more aware now of who he is,” she said.

To help military personnel overcome the physical and emotional wounds from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hospitals run by the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are increasingly turning to the ancient Hindu practice of yoga and other alternative therapies, including tai chi, transcendental meditation and Reiki.

Although not a cure-all, such therapies can be helpful when used in conjunction with Western methods of counseling, medication, and physical and occupational therapy, according to military officials.

Preliminary military studies have found that the calming effect of yoga can assist PTSD patients in dealing with the hypervigilance, flashbacks, depression and anxiety common to the condition. For veterans with traumatic amputations, yoga can help strengthen muscles and increase flexibility, the studies suggest.

“There’s a natural resonance among our warriors with things with an Eastern ethos, with things that the samurai might have used,” said Navy Capt. Robert Koffman, a physician and combat-stress expert at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“Yoga is something that our warriors will actively engage in: It’s a challenge and it has readily evident results,” Koffman said, particularly when patients adopt it as part of their lifestyle.

As soon as Bernard leaves active duty and moves with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter to Mesa, Ariz., he plans to find a yoga instructor, either through the VA or a private studio.

“Yoga’s been helping people for thousands of years. Now it’s helping me,” he said.

At the San Diego hospital, classes offered at the therapy room of the Comprehensive Combat and Complex Casualty Care facility are often part of a regimen to get a patient ready for even more rigorous forms of exercise.

Read more at latimes.com