Not everyone is bar-hopping on Saturday nights in Towson. In the heart of the college bar scene, about 20 veterans file into Charm City Yoga for their free weekly yoga class.
Five weeks ago, Marine Corps Capt. C.J. Keller began offering free yoga for veterans, active military, first responders and their families.
“I can’t think of a better way to give back to the people who have sacrificed their minds, bodies and opportunities to serve our country,” said Keller, who has been doing yoga for a year and a half. He completed his 200-hour teacher training through Charm City Yoga last summer.
Keller, 29, has first-hand experience with combat stress, having spent eight months in Iraq as a platoon commander. When he returned home, he said there aren’t enough resources available to help soldiers readjust and cope with the trauma they experienced overseas.
“Many suffer from combat stress, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and even amputation,” Keller said. “There’s a place for yoga to help them heal.”
Class starts at 6:15 p.m. in a dimly lit studio, with students lying on their backs in corpse pose, or savasana. Keller softly tells them to relax, be present, honor themselves for coming to class, and finally, to "surrender" into themselves and their yoga practice, often a difficult task with combat veterans.
Keller then leads them through a short meditation, using the metaphor of wearing a flak jacket, a heavy bulletproof vest filled with thick plates. The jacket serves an important purpose during combat. It keeps them alive, but often, an invisible flak jacket stays on the soldier for years, weighing him down, keeping him protected and buried under guilt, fear, anger and sadness.
“It’s heavy, it’s sweaty, it stinks, it sucks, but it keeps you alive and protects you and helps you survive in the world,” Keller said. “So here, [in yoga class], to have them take it off, as a symbol–it’s such a release. You feel the openness. It’s about letting go.”
Keller is on the board of directors of Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness and said he went through Charm City Yoga’s Teacher Training Intensive last summer on a scholarship, in order to teach this class for veterans.
According to the non-profit’s website, the organization strives to help men and women who suffer from combat wounds and injuries, PTSD, and other combat related illnesses, chronic pain, obesity and addiction.
Charm City Yoga owners Kim Manfredi and Chris Blades donate the studio space and the scholarship for Keller’s training. Keller donates his time each week.
Keller said the biggest challenge is getting men, especially military men, into class. So far, his ratio is about half men and half women, which is unusual in western yoga studios that are typically dominated by women. According to Keller, he is relying on word of mouth, veterans networking groups, fliers and social media to get the word out and build the class.
The class is getting great response from students.
“One of the by-products of being a veteran who has served in combat zones is a constant need to keep moving,” said B.R. McDonald, a veteran who founded the Veteran Artist Program.
“Yoga forces you to slow down and find the connection between mind, body and spirit,” said Allison O’Brien, who attends the class regularly. Although she is a civilian, she works for the Department of Defense.
More and more organizations and people are using yoga to help veterans. According to Yoga Journal, studies are being done to show the calming effects of yoga on people suffering from PTSD. Studies also show soldiers get better sleep after weeks of practicing.
Class is scheduled every Saturday from 6:15 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. at Charm City Yoga in Towson. The class is open to members of all branches of the military.
“Yoga can change somebody’s life,” Keller said. “I hope to show them a possibility, or an option, of how to do that.”