Yoga helps veterans cope with scars of war

WEST BOYLSTON, Mass. —

Michael Dziokonski returned from the Vietnam War and quickly got involved in life. He went to graduate school at Boston College, became a social worker, got married, raised four children, got elected to the Clinton Board of Selectmen and over the past years, has watched three wars unfold on his television screen.

Dziokonski, who was a Navy corpsman assigned to a Marine Corps rifle company in Vietnam and a recipient of two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat “V,” considers himself a strong man, a self-described curmudgeon.

So when he found himself at the top of a mountain crying over a dead butterfly, he knew he needed help.

“That’s when I decided to turn myself in,” he said.

And he found relief and release in a yoga program designed specifically for war veterans called Yoga Warriors International.

Yoga Warriors International was developed by Lucy S. Cimini, the founding director of Central Mass Yoga and Wellness in West Boylston, designed to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Yoga does wonderful things for PTSD,” Dziokonski said. “It introduces other thoughts into the mind. It’s another way of thinking. Yoga introduced me to mindfulness. It stresses present-moment awareness. With PTSD, your emotions are ruled by what happened 20 or 30 years ago.”

Dziokonski originally took yoga to gain more flexibility. As he practiced yoga, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were unfolding a world away, but were hitting close to home for Dziokonski.

“I was bothered a great deal. The war was in our living room,” Dziokonski said, recalling the firefights that were being broadcast on the nightly news. He said he found himself tense, angry, and prone to overreaction.

For instance, Dziokonski said, he would be angry if his wife was 15 or 20 minutes late arriving home.

“If she was supposed to be home at 10, and she got home at 10:15 or 10:20, I was through the roof because of the emotions of combat. I could be talking with you and the next thing you know, you are shot in the head,” Dziokonski said. “I start to think about what could have happened, about what disaster could have occurred. A lot of that is because of what happened 30 years ago. But I have learned that there is nothing like taking a slow breath. It helps tremendously.”

Cimini developed the Yoga Warriors program in 2003. It grew out of her work with veterans who were attending her classes. In fact, Dziokonski had asked her to teach a class at the Worcester Veterans Center, which fellow veterans later decided to continue.

The program is designed to help alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. It focuses on these four principles: incorporating positive affirmations with specific postures, because thoughts influence health; breathing that focuses on calming and diaphragmatic breaths, with the understanding that the mind follows the breath; regarding yoga as a relaxing experience, not a competition; and creating a sense of safety.

Cimini travels the country training yoga instructors in Yoga Warriors International. In addition, she is the co-author of a study that will appear in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, “The Effects of Sensory Enhanced Hatha Yoga on Symptoms of Combat Stress in Deployed Military Personnel.” The study was done by Maj. Jon Greuel, an Air Force instructor pilot, in Kirkuk, Iraq, from November 2008 to November 2009 in collaboration with Cimini.

She is also working with Worcester State University to study the effect of the Yoga Warrior program on military students at the university.

Her program has received inquiries from as far away as Germany, Sweden and England.

Several yoga instructors are trained in the Yoga Warriors program. Zest Yoga and Fitness in Auburn is one of the local studios offering the Yoga Warriors class with a certified instructor.

Zest Yoga and Fitness in Auburn began offering a Yoga Warriors class in September, and is open to all veterans and active-duty military personnel.

“I’m a big supporter of the military,” said Wendy Haggerty, owner of Zest Yoga and Fitness. “They do a tremendous service for us and to allow me to have the life I have. I’ve been a yoga teacher for more than 10 years, and I have seen what it has done for me and for my students, and I know that (veterans) are a group that could benefit from this. At Zest, we are about making people’s lives better, and our military has made our lives better.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *