Warriors at peace | TheUnion.com

Warriors at peace

Photo for The Union by Cory Fisher
Photo for The Union by Cory Fisher |

For years, Doug MacDuff dreaded nighttime. Despite his attempts to relax, once the sun went down, he found himself constantly on alert, adrenalin pumping, eyes searching the darkness. Although MacDuff lives in a peaceful neighborhood in Nevada City, it didn’t matter. As a veteran of the First Gulf and Iraq wars, his body continued to tell him that nighttime meant he should be up, ready for action.

“I felt as though I should be out watching the perimeter,” he said. “Nighttime was when we generally did our missions.”

But things began to change last summer when a friend, Vietnam veteran Frank Maricich, finally convinced him to try a Penn Valley class called “Yoga for Veterans.”

He’s been going ever since.

“It changed my life,” said MacDuff. “With yoga, you get an emotional and mental balance that is unparalleled. When I first got home from Iraq, I tried anti-depressants. I don’t do those anymore — yoga is the reason why.”

Thanks to Akhila Murphy, owner of the Dragonfly Yoga Studio in Penn Valley, Nevada County vets are participating in a free weekly class specifically geared to veterans. Looking for ways to be of service in her life, Murphy trained extensively through Yoga Warriors International and the Veterans Yoga Project to offer yoga classes to those coping with trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Classes are modified, said Murphy, to accommodate students who have been in stressful situations. Examples include avoiding loud noises, allowing students to choose their location within the room and not touching a student unexpectedly during a pose adjustment.

“My class is a comfort zone — I’m seeing amazing support and camaraderie among students,” said Murphy. “People with PTSD are often removed from the sensations in the body — some are stuck in a state of hyper arousal. Yoga makes them breathe, relax and come back into the body. Their minds are really busy — the meditation practice in particular quiets the mind and brings about greater clarity and focus.”

Gary Brown couldn’t agree more.

As executive director of Welcome Home Vets in Grass Valley, Brown initially went to Murphy’s class “just to check it out” as a possible referral for local vets.

“Now I do it for me,” said Brown, a Vietnam veteran himself. “What I’m seeing is that many of the guys are calmer, more centered, less anxious and better able to focus — all thanks to yoga. It’s remarkable to see these changes in older veterans after so many years.”

The biggest challenge is getting veterans to try yoga for the first time, said Brown, as a common symptom of PTSD is avoiding new experiences.

“They’ll usually go if a buddy talks them into it,” he said. “That’s the best advertising.”

That’s how Frank Maricich, a Vietnam veteran, ended up in Murphy’s class.

“One buddy down at the VFW told me to come to a yoga class, so I did it as a favor,” he said. “I’ve been going about seven months now, and I know I’ve gotten better. I can go to sleep better at night — my mind isn’t racing, and yoga has helped me with my road rage. We call Akhila our little drill sergeant.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are experiencing some type of PTSD and as many as 10 percent from the Gulf War and 30 percent from Vietnam.

Preliminary results from a study funded by the U.S. Defense Department have found that veterans diagnosed with PTSD had symptoms that improved after just 10 weeks of yoga classes.

“I really want to encourage my military brothers and sisters to come out and give yoga a try,” said MacDuff. “If they need a buddy, just look for me. I’m the one with the tattoo sleeves.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at cfisher@theunion.com or call her at 530-477-4203.

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