Wounded warriors more willing to accept yoga

Those who practice yoga probably know that the "exalted warrior" is a pose that can help increase flexibility. It is also the name of a program created here in the Tampa Bay area to help wounded warriors in their emotional and physical recovery.

Yoga instructor Annie Okerlin created the program and the Exalted Warrior Foundation in 2006. One of her first students at her yoga studio in South Tampa was a rear admiral who met an amputee and his wife at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"He asked the couple, 'How can I support you?" said Okerlin. "The wife said, 'I just want to go back to yoga.' And the husband thought, 'Maybe yoga will be OK. I won't tell my friends about it, but maybe yoga will be another form of physical therapy and a way to settle back into my body comfortably the way that it is now.'"

Okerlin ended up flying to Walter Reed every few weeks for the next couple of years, developing the adaptive yoga program. She now teaches the classes at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital and in South Tampa.

"When I first started in 2006, I literally had to grab people in the halls and say, 'Come do this stretching class,'" Okerlin recalled. "We couldn't call it yoga in the beginning. Now, yoga is in PT, in military academies. West Point has the West Point Yoga Club. It's everywhere."

And the Exalted Warrior Foundation has trained instructors throughout the country.

"You don't have to have a certain percentage of a knee bend," said Okerlin. "They don't have to have all of their limbs, they don't even have to be able to speak. But what's beautiful is that we're breathing and regulating the nervous system through breath control."

Army veteran Jose Rivera of Puerto Rico took a recent class at Haley. It was part of a three-week pain management course.  He noticed a difference in his pain after less than an hour.

"Breathing gets the oxygen to your blood cells and to your whole body," said Rivera. "When I came in I was in back pain. I've got both of my sciatic nerves, both of my knees and both of my ankles. Now I feel more loose. I feel like I could dance."

"One of my goals as a teacher," continued Okerlin, "is offering the students a way to feel comfortable in their body and at ease in their minds again. Because so much of the stress and pain and discomfort that they're feeling can really be supported and ultimately managed by themselves."

LINK: Click here to learn more about the Exalted Warrior Foundation.