February 27, 2011 | 1:32pm
A bunch of grizzled veterans sit around in a hot room, bending into strange contortions. No, it's not an off night at the Elks Club. It's a new program that offers free yoga classes to armed-services veterans.
The "Connected Warrior" classes
, currently at Yoga South
in Boca Raton, are led by instructor Judy Weaver and by Ralph Iovino, a combat-wounded Vietnam vet who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Weaver started the program after one of her students, Beau MacVane, was killed while serving in the U.S. Army.
The afternoon session on Friday saw the highest turnout to date, with over a
dozen former service members laying out their mats and gathering bolster pillows for an hour of gentle breathing exercises, basic poses, and a meditation session.
The class is geared toward beginners with no yoga experience, but it can be quite challenging, as your faithful New Times yogi-correspondent can attest. Gentle music played as lithe assistants circulated through the room, nudging elbows into place and compelling the veterans to stretch just a little bit further. Most participants emerged with a sheen of sweat -- but this time it came from peaceful activity, and the loudest noise in the room was the occasional popping joint... even when Weaver led the class into the Happy Baby "wind-relieving" position.
"You spend years masking the PTSD," says Bob Conway, who fought in Vietnam from 1970-72. "That's what men are supposed to do. You never really get rid of it... but this helps." Conway says he doesn't expect a lot of younger vets from the mideast wars to show up, but he's sure this would do them good.
Weaver describes the class as an opportunity to "lower your hyper-vigilance and your reaction to noise and stress." In war, soldiers are programmed to react forcefully to stimuli; yoga teaches them to accept whatever happens and focus on what's going on inside their own bodies. "This may be enough information for you," said Weaver whenever she led the troops into a particularly painful stretch.
Randy Hamlin did two tours with the Marine Corps in 1966-70, and received a gunshot wound that still hinders his movement. But he went on to become a Reiki master and teacher, and is now a yoga devotee. "It's about pulling you out of your issues, the day to day bullshit, and refocusing on whatever you're doing," he says.
After a series of increasingly demanding contortions, Weaver had everyone lie on their backs, relaxing every muscle. An assistant grabbed your correspondent's feet out of the air and set them down at the end of the mat, then gave instructions to "soften the jaw" (how often do you not know you're clenching?) and disappeared into the haze of music and incense. At least one recumbent body began to snore, and Weaver read a dedication to her lost Army-Ranger student.
The class schedule is available online
. David Frankel, a Broward County prosecutor turned yoga instructor who frequents the sessions at Yoga South, is planning to teach classes in Broward as well.
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