Yoga reconnects veterans with their inner warriors

FlyDog Yoga studio, co-owned by Brad Whiteman, will start offering Warrior for Life classes next month. The classes are tailored to the needs of veterans, active-duty military personnel and first-responders. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen FlyDog Yoga studio, co-owned by Brad Whiteman, will start offering Warrior for Life classes next month. The classes are tailored to the needs of veterans, active-duty military personnel and first-responders. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

When veterans and first responders look for therapy and support to get them through their day-to-day lives, yoga is not typically the first thing that comes to mind. But a recovery program at FlyDog Yoga is shifting that perspective.

Brad and Eliza Whiteman founded FlyDog Yoga in 2014, focusing on vinyasa power yoga as Eliza is a formerly trained Baptiste teacher. After serving 10 years of active duty in the U.S. Army as a special forces officer, Brad noticed that he had developed a short temper and his body was acting much older than it should; stresses that he attributes to his time in the military. He began regularly practicing yoga, and quickly noticed a dramatic improvement in his body, mind and spirit. He knew healing through yoga would be invaluable to other veterans working through their own transitions into civilian life. In 2016, the yogi duo offered complimentary Warrior for Life classes to former and current military personnel. Starting next month, FlyDog Yoga will offer veteran and current military-only and first responder-only classes to help put people on a better path to recovery.

The reality for many veterans includes post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries, regular visits to Veterans Affairs and a loss of brotherhood and sisterhood. The FlyDog program focuses on integrating veterans back into society while highlighting physical, mental and emotional health.

The goal of the class is to “loosen up the body and bring a new awareness of body and breath,” according to the class description. Vinyasa power yoga is a more taxing, strength-building type of practice that promotes introspective healing, and the classes are geared toward trauma-sensitive techniques, including not walking behind the students or using touch adjustments, to make students feel more comfortable.

Before finding yoga, Brad Whiteman says veterans often try other therapies or use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate after returning to civilian life. He says many of his students come to that first yoga class only because they feel like they’ve run out of options.

“When I first started, the idea of closing my eyes and meditating…I wasn’t ready
to spend that much time alone with my thoughts,”
says Rob Plagmann, a former United States Marine Corps officer and FlyDog Yoga student.

Shane Dennis is also a FlyDog student and veteran, who was in the same special forces unit as Whiteman. He found yoga as a way to beat the depression he felt after leaving the tight-knit Army community.

“That physical and mental challenge is what’s going to inspire and motivate and ignite them onto a new, better path,” Whiteman says. “You’re coming in here, you’re taking care of yourself, you’re taking steps to take care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and now it’s our responsibility to reach out and strongly encourage those that aren’t taking those same steps for themselves.”

Plagmann began his yoga recovery as one of Eliza Whiteman’s students and continued to attend her classes since she was the one he trusted most with his story.

“I’ll never forget that first class,” Plagmann says. “I had a couple of moments of just absolute stillness in my mind, and I made a choice to believe that was possible on a much larger scale.”

His experience with FlyDog inspired him to make other changes, such as becoming a volunteer yoga instructor for veterans in northern Virginia. Before finding his solace and strength in a yoga studio, Plagmann was an active-duty Marine who struggled with addiction, and he says he was on the brink of suicide. He tells his students to contact him any time of day because he knows exactly what runs through their minds.

“I know how scary it is to be okay with the idea that you’re going to take your own life,” Plagmann says. “A lot of these veterans haven’t taken the opportunity to trust anybody, and I’m going to put myself in that position of trust and in a position of leadership, even if it’s just as a yoga instructor.”

The Whitemans hope FlyDog Yoga’s Warrior for Life program continues to grow, because they know the benefits of establishing diverse, supportive networks for the veteran, current military and first-responder community. “With yoga in particular, sometimes you only get one chance with people,” Whiteman says.

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