While serving in the U.S. Air Force, Will Lewis suffered an injury to his back that required four spinal surgeries. Over the years, Lewis , 37, now an HCC student, has done all kinds of physical therapy to rehabilitate his back.
But he had never considered yoga, until he signed up for a free weekly class at HCC specifically for veterans and their families.
"I've noticed more flexibility," he said.
The idea of offering a yoga class for veterans fits in with a new emphasis in the military that incorporates mind-body work into treatment for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress.
"We're finding it extremely effective dealing with combat-related issues," says yoga instructor Cathy Foley, a licensed therapist from the Vet Center in Springfield who specializes in PTSD and combat-related stress and family readjustment issues.
Foley has been teaching yoga to active servicemen since 2004. She started Yoga for Vets at HCC at the request of Mary J. O'Connor, a counselor in the HCC Counseling Center and an HCC yoga instructor.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to provide these services to student veterans," says O'Connor. "These are young men and women who have served their country and come to school on the GI bill who may be having trouble in school because of stress-related experiences. This helps them stay in school."
O'Connor attended training program at the Kripalu Center in Lenox called "Warriors at Ease," in which yoga instructors were introduced to working with military veterans. "Research shows it's really helpful in reducing stress and there is growing interest in the Dept. of Defense," she said.
At the Vet Center, Foley says, yoga seems to be as effective with older vets as young ones. "It seems to be helpful even with Vietnam vets after 40 years," she says. "It's wonderful."
Beyond the direct physical benefits, Foley says that yoga helps practitioners develop skills to calm their minds when they get angry or tense from old stressors. "You're awareness heightens and you can bring yourself back to the present: I'm getting angry. This person is in my face. I need to leave. As the skill grows, your awareness of your body grows and you become much more aware of your mind. It helps you in school. It helps with your family."
"It becomes a skill you can bring off the mat," says O'Connor.
O'Connor says the class is also a nice bridge for HCC student vets who might not be aware of the services offered by the Vet Center.
Yoga for Vets meets Friday mornings at 8 a.m. on the second floor of the Bartley Center.
Photos: Yoga instructor Cathy Foley works with U.S. Air Force veteran and HCC student Will Lewis.