Lessons in Yoga

Yoga instructor Anne Platt guides a therapeutic yoga class for veterans. “Teaching at the VA has allowed me to refocus my practice and rediscover the reasons that drew me to yoga in the first place,” Platt said.

The room is softly lit, soothing music plays, the yoga instructor’s voice is calm as she calls out each pose to an unlikely group of yogis — combat veterans. Malibu resident Anne Platt uses yoga’s breathing and relaxation techniques to help returning veterans who are struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), injuries and combat fatigue.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a non-pharmaceutical approach can be very effective in helping to reduce stress and anxiety in longtime and just-returning vets — 20 to 30 percent of whom suffer from PTSD. Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol, Platt and the VA believe concentrating on breathing and quieting the mind is an “easier pill to swallow.”

Dr. J. Greg Serpa, a clinical psychologist with the VA, credits the VA’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program — which includes yoga — with greatly reducing stress and anxiety symptoms. Serpa says the program also reduced suicidal ideation by 50 percent.

Platt, a certified yoga therapist, has been teaching yoga to veterans at the VA campus in Westwood for nine years. 

“At first, many of them come in skeptical, but then get hooked,” Platt told The Malibu Times.

Veterans who have just returned from places such as Afghanistan and Iraq say they have found benefits in Platt’s class that they could never have imagined.

Mikwan Jones, a veteran who served in Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia, suffered a back injury and said he could barely make it through a class at first. Platt encouraged him to stick with it, and now he said he can make it through an hour class.

“Even though I have pain, it’s helping it go away. It helps me not think about it,” he explained, adding how much he appreciates Platt.

The veterans in Platt’s weekly yoga class are residents at the Westwood facility’s domiciliary where they are being treated for various injuries to facilitate their transition back to civilian life. Returning to normalcy can be a long road for many who suffer from anxiety, depression and pain.

Platt starts her class with deep breathing and then asks her students to “focus on what you feel grateful for today.” As the men transitioned into sometimes-difficult advanced yoga postures, Platt called for a Warrior One pose and told the veterans, “They named it after you guys.”

One of the students, Anthony Alvirez, served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I was using a cane for three months and now I’m not using it,” Alvirez explained to The Malibu Times, “and, thanks to yoga, it’s really helping me recover.” He said that after a nine-hour abdominal surgery, yoga has also been a “big stress reliever.”

“It’s been helping me relax, and showing me techniques to control my breathing and control anxiety and stress,” Armando Ontiveros, who served in Iraq, said. He called Platt amazing, adding that she is patient with the veterans and that he’s grateful for her.

“It helps me a lot with my stress management,” Iraq War veteran Raymond Navarro said. He explained that yoga helps him “gracefully flow out of stressful situations in everyday life and in managing my moods.” He said there is no judgment or stress in the class.

“We’re very grateful to have Anne here to give us the gift of yoga,” Navarro said. “She also puts on a lot of events for us. She brings in special guests.”

Those guests sometimes include prominent musicians who play live music for them, including Scarlet Rivera, best known for her work with Bob Dylan.

To help veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom transition from deployment back into the community, the VA has added complementary and alternative medicine along with talking therapies.

Dr. Beverly Haas of the VA explained that most of the PTSD patients have a lot of tension from being on alert in the military.

“It’s hard for them to turn that off, so we knew we wanted to have some type of relaxation and teach them relaxation tools,” Haas said. “I knew meditation would be important. I was very fortunate to meet Anne, who was already doing volunteer work at the VA.” 

Platt says she looks forward to every class because she sees “a wonderful, positive shift” in their lives. As the daughter of a military officer, she said she wanted to give back.

“I think I was put on this planet to do this,” Platt shared. “It’s my passion.”