South Tampa, Florida -- Soldiers returning from battle often have a long and difficult road back to recovery. Many of them face multiple surgeries and weeks of physical therapy.
Now some of those wounded warriors are finding that yoga can help in their recovery--both physically and mentally.
On a recent Thursday morning in South Tampa, more than a dozen veterans filled a room at Yogani Studios. They were there to take yoga classes--a free service from The Exalted Warrior Foundation.
Yoga instructor and Yogani Stuidos founder Annie Okerlin came up with the idea for The Exalted Warrior Foundation six years ago, after a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A former client, who happens to be a retired admiral, thought yoga could help returning war veterans. At first, the veterans weren't convinced.
"I used to walk through the hallways at Water Reed," said Okerlin, "And go, 'Hey! You look like a big strong guy. C'mon let's go do yoga!' And they're like, 'Ma'am--they're always extremely polite--ma'am, I don't do yoga. Yoga's for girls'"
After convincing them to try it, most of them liked it. Because for many it brought relief.
Through The Exalted Warrior Foundation, yoga instructors are trained to work with the special needs of wounded warriors--using yoga techniques, breathing exercises and poses to aid in their rehabilitation. The classes are offered for free at military bases across the country and the Marine Corps recently mandated them for all its wounded warrior detachments.
Okerlin says yoga offers veterans--especially amputees--special healing benefits. "The incredible core-strengthening capabilities and then the breath work. And ultimately we find the ease and the relaxation."
Sgt. Joel Tavera has been taking the yoga classes since 2006. Sgt. Tavera was severely injured in an Iraqi rocket attack. He lost his right leg, his eyes, a third of his skull and was burned on more than 60 percent of his body. He says yoga definitely helps him.
"I noticed over time that every day I did yoga, I slept much better that evening," said Sgt. Tavera. "After being blown up I felt very out of whack with my body. But after doing yoga, I got more in synch with my body which is quite nice."
Army veteran Charlene Griffin notices a change, too. She's been in treatment for chronic pain since 1999.
"I have more strength, more resilience...hope," said Griffin. "Thanks to Annie and the other teachers, I think hope has been brought back into my life."
The Exalted Warrior Foundation also offers weekly classes at the James Haley VA Hospital in Tampa and Bay Pines VA in Pinellas County.
Click here to learn more about The Exalted Warrior Foundation or to donate.