HEAL Bflo co-founders Cheryl Erbacher and Jocelyn Kowalczyk have seen the powerful connections yoga can forge as they've organized a series of community wellness events during the last four years.
Two visits by Dan Nevins stand out. Nevins lost both his legs to an improvised explosive device nearly 14 years ago in Iraq. He reluctantly tried Baptiste yoga four years ago, discovered its calming strength, and has since taught yoga classes across the country, mostly recently in March at the HEAL Bflo V yoga festival.
The appearances made such an impact that four yoga studios have agreed to build upon that foundation. They will offer free yoga classes from Monday through Memorial Day to any veteran or active duty service member, with ID, who shows up for a scheduled class.
"It's thanking them for their service, first and foremost," Kowalczyk said, "but it's also a way for them to find a healthy outlet."
Carrie Jacobson, co-owner of East Meets West Yoga, is among those glad to offer the free classes.
"We work regularly with HEAL Bflo and enjoy working with them," Jacobson said. "There's also so much value in the practice of yoga for people who have experienced post-traumatic stress. The intention of the practice is to help get you out of the everyday worries in your head and to connect you more deeply to what is happening in the body, connect you more deeply with the breath. Yoga in general is very grounding."
Veterans will be able to take as many classes as they like, and try different styles of yoga.
"Sometimes people have a perspective about what yoga is, what it's supposed to look like," Jacobson said, "and it's important to us that people get a sense of the wide variety of practices that are out there. If you think all yoga practices are standing on your head or doing deep back bends that are intimidating, it doesn't have to be that way."
Several veterans over the years have taken classes at East Meets West, including Brian Castner, a Buffalo resident who wrote a book, "The Long Walk," about his work on a bomb diffusion team in Iraq, Jacobson said.
"In this book, he talks about how yoga helped him in the transition back to civilian life," she said. "One of the values of yoga is that it helps people to access the parasympathetic response, which down regulates. The attention to breathing helps slow down the heart rate and slow down the activity of the mind. In yoga, we intentionally try to activate the parasympathetic response."
Yoga can help anyone, Jacobson said, although "there are also people for whom yoga is particularly important because of whatever life experiences they have. More and more people talk about having experienced post-traumatic stress or other forms of trauma. We're living in a world now where it comes up more regularly. It's not unsimilar to the early days of the Cold War. There's just a lot of fear. Yoga can help us get through that."
It also fosters a greater good, Kowalczyk said.
"Yoga helps you become part of a community. Being with people that also struggle, that also are human, you tend to feel like you're a part of something."
Studios involved in Free Yoga for Vets are:
East Meets West Yoga: Buffalo Foundry, 1738 Elmwood Ave.; Village Glen, 152 Mill St., Williamsville (eastmeetswestyoga.com; 885-9100)
Power Yoga Buffalo: 758 Elmwood Ave.; 4575 Main St., Snyder; 659 Oakwood Ave., East Aurora. (poweryogabuffalo.com; 218-9642)
Soma Cura Wellness Center: 2154 Grand Island Blvd., Grand Island (somacura.com; 773-1369)
Yoga Parkside: 2 Wallace Ave. (yogaparkside; 772-8092)
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