Navy veteran Patrick Johnson says that many wounded veterans struggle to find a new normal as they transition to lives outside of the military.
“Yoga classes help so many of us find ways to cope and process these major events in our lives. I’ve found that it is a great way to battle depression and anxiety,” he said.
For many like Johnson, Red Cross Yoga classes are a critical component to their care at military and veteran hospitals around the country. Both staff and patients note that these offerings are key to recovery and wellness.
Reconnecting to the body
“A lot of times people show up here at very intense moments in their lives, and we are here to provide comfort,” said Kathy Baird, who teaches Red Cross yoga and movement classes four days a week at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Baird says that in a hospital setting, yoga allows patients to reconnect to the body and learn to listen to what it is telling them.
“We’ve seen that this makes a difference in a patient’s care.”
For Baird, the ultimate goal is for these classes to add to the patient’s stay at the hospital. In class, adaptations are made depending on an attendee’s injuries or even how participants feel that particular day. “We want everyone to enjoy the benefits of our classes and to feel comfortable,” she said.
One patient’s experience
Johnson has been coming to Baird’s Wednesday Warrior Yoga Class for the past four years. He says that yoga is a time for service members and veterans to connect and meet each other in a different way.
“In yoga, it doesn’t matter who you are. No one is calling you by your last name. Your rank doesn’t matter — no one cares if you’re an officer or enlisted, no one cares if you’re an Army colonel or an ensign in the Navy. You’re just a person,” Johnson said.
Since Johnson’s medical retirement from the Navy 11 years ago, yoga has been an important part of his recovery. Two years ago, he took a job at Walter Reed as the Military Adaptive Sports Program site coordinator. He says one of the best things about the role is connecting with service members and sharing his experience of finding wellness through sport and fitness — “plus I get to attend Warrior Yoga on Wednesday.”
He says that many recovering service members struggle with sleep and search for tools to help them adapt to challenges that can often feel overwhelming.
“And that’s what this class does, it gives us time to slow down, stop and to get a break from everything else.”
Johnson says that he recently encouraged a young Marine to join the class. “And let me tell you, he was skeptical when I first asked him to come,” he said.
“But during the first class, this Marine was able to relax, he even fell asleep during the end of class — something particularly hard for him to do,” Johnson said. He says the Marine has been coming back to class for over a year now and reports that he’s now sleeping better than ever before.
“And that’s what these classes are about — giving people choices and tools to deal with these stressful moments.”
Adding to a patient’s experience
Kris Wright, who coordinates Red Cross Resiliency programs for patients, says that programs like yoga are designed to supplement existing care. “We fill in the gaps for some things that healthcare systems would love to do but aren’t equipped to do,” she said.
According to Wright, the staff caring for the most critical patients agree. She says that oftentimes, the nursing staff will rearrange care to ensure that their patients can attend yoga. “They see firsthand how this helps with recovery and are so accommodating,” Wright said.
“During the day, they have appointments, they have other activities that they have to go to.
Yoga is a time for them to give themselves time to restore and relax. Our classes offer a space for them to come home to themselves,” Wright said.
At Wednesday Warrior Yoga, Baird encourages participants, particularly those who are injured to move in a way that’s helpful and compassionate to their bodies. She says that she and her colleagues will continue teaching these classes for patients and staff as long as the demand for the Red Cross classes remains high.
“We’ll continue to find mindful movement, connect with our breath and inner wisdom, offer meditation and healing together,” she said.
Johnson says that Baird’s presence and personable manner help set the tone for healing and discovering that next chapter. “She’s so calm and makes us feel like we matter. The peaceful place that she offers in her classes makes a difference. I think everyone could use this in their life,” Johnson said.