SCHWEINFURT, Germany -- Ambient music, fragrant candles and deep breathing exercises may not be hallmarks of standard Army PT, but the Soldiers of 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, Warrior Transition Battalion-Europe know their Wednesday morning yoga class at the Kessler fitness center is anything but pure relaxation.
"We were looking for something that would provide a full-body workout, but without the speed," said Staff Sgt. Stephen Gagne, part of the cadre for USAG Schweinfurt's WTU and the originator of the idea for the weekly class. "This was something new; it's low-impact but high-benefit."
Erika Liem Palidar, a certified Hatha and Vinyasa yoga instructor, volunteers her time to lead the class every Wednesday at 6:45 a.m. She customizes her teaching to meet some of the WTU Soldiers' specific physical needs, modifying each yoga pose or utilizing props such as straps or foam blocks to accommodate back injuries, muscle damage or missing limbs.
"I try to get every person in the class to participate every step of the way," said Palidar, who also teaches yoga at Kessler fitness center on Tuesday mornings and at Schweinfurt Elementary School as a stress-reliever for teachers. She counts many Soldiers among attendees to the Tuesday class, and while she admits many of the males needed coaxing from their wives to set foot in the yoga studio at first, they quickly became keen converts to the class, and now attend every week.
Her hour-long classes for the WTU engage core muscle groups and build upper body and leg strength through a series of sustained poses. While not the most strenuous variety of yoga she teaches, Palidar's exercises produce no shortage of sweat, and the groans echoing through the room during the final seconds of her commands to hold plank positions and abdominal flexes prove that the muscle workout yoga demands can often surpass traditional calisthenics.
Though the center of each class is strenuous, Palidar bookends the workout with mind-soothing relaxation. To begin, the Soldiers breathe rhythmically with their legs crossed and their eyes closed. To wind down, Palidar instructs the Soldiers to lie down and cover their eyes with a towel, then progressively release tension from their whole body-moving from their toes to their head-over several minutes.
This combination of invigorating exercise and calming meditation can be particularly beneficial, especially to Soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder or mild traumatic brain injury.
The trend is beginning to catch on. Despite initial skepticism by prospective students, yoga classes are becoming staples of training and treatment at Fort Bragg, Fort Jackson, Fort Meade and other U.S. Army posts.
The discipline and peace that yoga offers can help treat PTSD both as a cure and preventative measure. According to Lisa Mascall, a physical therapist working with the WTU in Schweinfurt, yoga helps Soldiers reduce tension and learn to manage stress. This flexibility can help avoid the shock that often leads to PTSD.
"It adds the 'mind' aspect to overall fitness and well-being," said Mascall. She added that once per week, some members of the unit, and other Soldiers, attend a meditation group at the health clinic, intended to reduce pain and improve sleep without the use of medication.
The commander of Schweinfurt's WTU, Capt. Anthony Benedosso, credits Staff Sgt. Gagne for organizing the weekly class. "This is a testament to the innovativeness of our cadre," Benedosso said. "With WTU Soldiers, there are no cookie-cutter answers." The unit command and physical therapist staff enthusiastically approved the idea for yoga training, said Benedosso.
Spinning, CrossFit and adaptive sports are among the other activities in the unit's weekly training regimen. The goal of the wide spectrum of exercises is to benefit the Soldiers' fitness and recovery without aggravating their injuries. Reducing the tension of training and the burden of recovery is built in to the WTU cadre's mindset, according to Sgt. 1st Class Isom, the platoon sergeant.
"There is no stress put on our Soldiers to move past comfort," added Isom. But the eager newfound disciples of yoga in the Warrior Transition Unit seem perfectly willing to independently move themselves past comfort and back again each Wednesday as they try to attain the harmony of mind and body so crucial to recovery.