By Sgt. Michael SmithApril 26, 2017
The Army has many ways to ensure Soldiers are physically and mentally prepared to perform their duties on a deployment.
Soldiers often take it upon themselves to go above and beyond the programs the Army has in place, whether it is extra time in the gym, additional online training or outside research on the missions they will undertake.
Soldiers deployed to Bagram Airfield (BAF), Afghanistan, have found positive results maintaining their physical and mental readiness, by doing Yoga, an ancient form of exercise that most people would not associate with military training.
"I think yoga is great for stress relief because you're getting that physical workout, but you're also getting that spiritual or emotional workout because it's just you connecting with yourself and feeling how your body functions," said Capt. Mandy Iverson, liaison officer, 1st Cavalry Division Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade (1CD RSSB). "It helps you find that balance and resiliency."
Yoga, which is first seen in historical documents more than 5,000 years old, has been defined as a philosophy, a discipline and even a religion, but it can most basically be described as a series of exercises that focuses on stretching, breathing and concentration to improve mental and physical well-being.
Heather Switzer, an intelligence analyst for the multinational defense company, BAE Systems Inc., works with the 1CD RSSB intelligence office at BAF and volunteers as a yoga instructor.
"It's my gift back to the troops since I can't be a troop," said the Air Force veteran. "I like spending time with the soldiers, doing yoga with them, and I think they need more yoga."
Switzer, who spent a month in Nepal studying yoga before coming to BAF, said most soldiers focus their fitness plans around weightlifting, and while lifting weights has its benefits, there are other aspects of fitness that should not be ignored.
"They need more breathing. They're always in the gym getting their gains," said Switzer. "They need to take a breath and stretch out, and maybe it will also give them some inspiration for the day."
Staff Sgt. Samantha Rockwood, intelligence noncommissioned officer in charge, 1CD RSSB, works out daily, but never tried yoga until she started working with Switzer on the current deployment.
"It's a calming type of workout, so it's a nice change from my usual high-intensity workouts," said Rockwood, a Boston native. "Yoga is making me more flexible, and it helps me do things I wasn't able to do before."
Switzer said that there may be a stigma attached to yoga where it is perceived as not being physically challenging, and that might be why you don't see many soldiers participating in yoga classes. She said people would be surprised how strenuous supporting your own body weight in certain positions for an extended period can be.
"You get into poses that are sometimes quite difficult, so you are forced to calm your mind and focus on your breathing," said Rockwood. "You test and improve yourself by staying in position longer and getting deeper into it."
Command Sgt. Maj. Jill L. Crosby, command sergeant major, 1CD RSSB, said if you push yourself to the limit in a yoga class, it can be as physically challenging as any Army physical training session.
"I started doing yoga as a form of rehabilitation after I had knee surgery, but I was leaving class physically exhausted," said Crosby. "Once I realized what a great workout it was and how great it made me feel, I was addicted."
"There are a lot of muscles engaged, and there is a lot of focus involved, and it all has to be implemented at once," said Switzer.
Crosby, Iverson, Rockwood and Switzer all agree that the mental benefits of yoga, especially for a soldier in a deployed environment, are just as important as the physical benefits.
"It really does help you focus on yourself," said Rockwood. "You really have to slow your thoughts down, focus on breathing and keeping that balance, and it really helps you relieve stress."
Switzer, a native of Los Lunas, NM, said there are no restrictions on who can benefit from doing yoga, and just like the military, those who practice yoga come in all shapes and sizes and from a variety of backgrounds.
Iverson, a National Guard Soldier from Grand Forks, ND, whose unit is home stationed in Bismarck, ND, said, "Since I have been at Bagram doing yoga, I have seen old, young, different genders and different body types."
Crosby, who grew up in Palm Beach County, FL, said she loves how mentally refreshed she feels after a class, but adding that feeling to the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction you get from a complete workout is what makes yoga unique.
Iverson added, "You can take the positive accolades of lifting weights and running long distances, and add that to the benefits yoga gives you as far as flexibility and different muscle groups to get that well-rounded, resilient soldier".