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Exalted Warrior uses yoga to help veterans find their peace

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times  Nicholas Caris the Deputy Director of YogaForVets leads a class in a non-profit called Exalted Warrior that supports yoga classes for veterans who are active military, veterans in  hospital facilities, and veterans within communities around the country on Thursday, May 24, 2018.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Nicholas Caris the Deputy Director of YogaForVets leads a class in a non-profit called Exalted Warrior that supports yoga classes for veterans who are active military, veterans in hospital facilities, and veterans within communities around the country on Thursday, May 24, 2018.
Published May 27, 2018

TAMPA

t's Thursday morning at Bella Prana yoga studio and Nick Caris is starting up his class.

Seated upright on the floor are about 20 people. Caris preps them for the hour of poses and exercise with a focus on breathing. The sounds of inhaling and exhaling fill the room.

"In through the nose, out the nose," he said. "The most important thing you can do is breathe."

After about 10 minutes of breathing, it's time to move. But there's no striking Downward-Facing Dog or Bird of Paradise poses here, and that's on purpose.

Participants in this class are mostly veterans who may suffer from a range of maladies, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. They also have combat or service-related injuries.

It's one of several classes hosted by Exalted Warrior Foundation, a nonprofit organization that designs adaptive yoga classes specifically for wounded veterans.

Thursday's class was the first for U.S. Navy reservist Jeaniel Image.

Image, who lives in Tampa, said she struggles with managing stress. She took the adaptive class at the suggestion of her husband, expecting a pace intense enough to leave her drenched in sweat.

Instead, it was "restful and easy to follow," said Image. "This was like a breath of fresh air."

While yoga can't cure or quell all of their problems, it can equip them with the tools to restore the mind-body connection and increases their healing, said founder and Tampa native Annie Okerlin.

"We teach (yoga) as a form of self-regulation," she said. "This is a great way to manage pain."

Since 2006, Okerlin and her team of instructors have taught thousands of veterans across the country including at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

An instructor since 1999, Okerlin began working in 2006 with veterans after a former student — a Navy SEAL — suggested she teach a double amputee at Walter Reed who wanted to supplement his physical therapy with yoga.

A pitch to the hospital's commanding sergeant proved successful.

"He realized it made of lot of sense," she said.

Locally, she and Caris — a retired Marine — teach classes several times a month at Bella Prana and every Monday at the Michael Bilirakis DVA Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Center at Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital.

The latter class is designed specially to help veterans who suffer from traumatic brain and physical injuries. A few participants are confined to a motorized wheelchair.

According to the American Osteopathic Association, yoga can improve flexibility and respiration, energy and vitality, increase muscle strength and tone, and maintain a balanced metabolism.

But getting a group of retired soldiers to embrace it can be a bit tricky, Okerlin said.

"Some think it's hocus pocus and by the end of the class … they think they'll be running down the hallway," she said.

Establishing an understanding about yoga is important to do away with any misconceptions. For example, a veteran in a class at Haley questioned if meditation was the same as hypnosis.

They are not, Caris said.

"My job is not to tell you where to go," he tells the class. "My job is to help you find your guided path."

Caris' military background helps him relate to the skepticism and confusion some veterans may have about yoga.

After five years and three deployments — including a stint in Afghanistan — Caris moved to Tampa. Wrestling with the effects of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, he enrolled in Okerlin's yoga class.

Over time, consistent practice helped Caris "to be better in life and function."

"I started yoga because I tried everything else and nothing worked," he said. "It took away all my pain."

Working with wounded veterans requires employment of a special set of techniques. Instructors are cautioned to avoid over engagement and utilize a heavy focus on breathing.

Mindful breathing helps calm the sympathetic nervous system — which activates the body's "fight-or-flight" response — because their nervous system stays ready to protect itself, Okerlin said.

"Throughout the process, we remind them to go back to their breath," she said.

Two years ago Okerlin sold her yoga practice, Yogani, to focus more on Exalted Warrior and travel the country hosting classes.

Okerlin said a growing number of first responders, firefighters, and police officers show up to her classes thanks to many of them taking on public service jobs after retiring from the military.

"(They're) getting out and going straight into service for their community which is beautiful, but they need some skills," she said. "They're still protecting people."

Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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