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Military Yoga Part 2: Yoga Programs Are a Match for Tough Workouts

After battling image issues and some resistance, yoga programs have emerged as useful therapeutic tools for military personnel. Not far behind, however, is yoga's growing appeal as a workout alternative for other fitness programs.

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After battling image issues and some resistance, yoga programs have emerged as useful therapeutic tools for military personnel. Not far behind, however, is yoga's growing appeal as a workout alternative for other fitness programs.

For facilities intent on advancing a yoga agenda, it all starts with the proper instructor, but it doesn't end there. Amid skepticism, fostering positive yoga acceptance requires patience, an eye toward proactive class scheduling and care when dealing with yoga's cultural image.

"I think one of the worst stereotypes that the yoga community has - and where yoga might do a disservice to [military] service members - is if yoga teachers and yoga instructors are coming in with an attitude of fixing or changing or telling people, 'This kind of athletic activity is better,'" says Sam Chase, a yoga instructor who works with members of the National Guard. "But when a yoga teacher comes into that kind of community and says, 'Look, I'm here to give you tools that can help you do what you love to do and help unwind the habits and the patterns, the tensions in your body that you just don't want to have,' … I think that's when yoga does its best work."

Annie Okerlin, owner of Yogani Studios in Tampa, Fla., and president of the Exalted Warrior Foundation, says that oftentimes it's a matter of really understanding an individual's workout goals and then revealing how yoga works well alongside those other disciplines.

"Everybody and their grandmother literally is doing CrossFit now, and I got a lot of boost in my business when P90X came out," she says. "They had that yoga class in there, and so people are getting the fact that you do the strength work, you do the sprint work, you do all that balance stuff, but you've got to stretch out."

Perhaps most important to understanding these issues is the careful implementation of yoga at a given facility.

"In a gym situation, an MWR-type of situation, mostly you're going to be dealing with fit people," says Robin Carnes, co-founder of Warriors at Ease, an organization that trains yoga teachers to work in military and veteran communities. "With physically fit people, the only thing you need to be concerned about is the cultural sensitivity of the teacher, otherwise, human bodies are human bodies."

Still, some care in program implementation is crucial.

"If possible, put the class in a space where other people are not watching," Carnes says. "That is largely because it is a new thing. People think, 'My friends are going to think I'm a wuss because I'm doing yoga, even though I'm really curious and want to do it.'"

Carnes also recommends offering a few different levels and types of yoga classes. For example, offer a class for beginners and possibly another class for people with special conditions and injuries to make them more comfortable in this new environment. Overall she recommends some privacy.

Another important key to success is allowing the class to pick up steam. "It might start off really slow, but don't cancel it after four weeks," Carnes says. "It takes longer than that."

Marketing is critical too, she says, and communicating class availability to as many people as possible at a given base or post will help grow interest in the class.

For Okerlin, class times are extremely important.

"If you've got a really strong class-say you've got a really big heavy-duty cardio class-prop a yoga class right after it, so that way people can really consider it chilling down after that class," she says.

In addition, note the facility's busiest times overall - when the workout areas are at their peak and when crowds tend to pile up around particular workout equipment. These are the times to truly reveal yoga's appeal - right up against the most intense workout periods.

Remarkably, Okerlin notes that over the years she's worked with the military, the number one selling point for yoga remains quite simple: "If I say to them, 'Do you sleep well?' They say 'no ma'am, I don't,' and they will come try a class if I say 'I promise you'll sleep better tonight.' "

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