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Veterans find peace with yoga in ‘Connected Warriors’

Boca Raton Some local veterans’ combat days are long gone, but they still have nightmares, edginess, short fuses and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Many seek help from support groups, psychologists and drugs. But some are finding that a different kind of therapy releases the tension: yoga.

Connected Warriors, a weekly class at studios in Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Wellington, is filled with veterans and their families who seek to manage their stress through yoga poses. They learn how to breathe, meditate, stretch and balance with people who understand their battlefield encounters.

“I am learning to stop being on the defensive,” said Maria Mariska Allsopp, of Dania Beach, who retired after 25 years as a sergeant major in the Army. “I am making my own kind of peace.”

Allsopp, 58, was the fifth woman to go through Army airborne training, the first woman jumpmaster and the first female first-sergeant of an Army rigging company. She said she relished her trailblazer status but started having bad dreams soon after she retired and was diagnosed…

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with post-traumatic stress disorder. Memories of sexual harassment also plague her.

“In this class, I am getting something I have been missing: Trust from men,” Allsopp said.

The class has been so successful that yoga teacher Judy Weaver, of Lighthouse Point, has been training instructors to teach at studios across the state and hopes to start programs across the country. Weaver is a founder of Connected Warriors, a nonprofit organization that encourages yoga for veterans.

Weaver became sensitive to veterans’ issues after teaching yoga to Beau MacVane, an Army Ranger from Boca Raton who served five tours in the Middle East but died in 2009 of Lou Gehrig’s disease at 33. She saw how the breathing and meditation techniques she taught him remained useful even as his condition deteriorated.

“They give instant relief to the body,” Weaver said. “Whatever limitations you have, you can still get the benefits.”

Researchers are confirming that yoga’s exercises and relaxation effects help veterans’ physical problems, moods and energy levels. Several studies are exploring how yoga complements psychiatric therapy.

Preliminary results of a Defense Department study show that veterans with PTSD had fewer symptoms after 10 weeks of yoga classes twice a week and 15 minutes of practice each day at home.

This is not news to Ralph Iovino, 61, who thinks yoga has helped him heal from war trauma experienced in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. He often relives his time as a rescuer on a helicopter crew.

“I would go down on the cable and get people back up,” remembered Iovino, who lives west of Boynton Beach. “If I froze or panicked, people died.”

Iovino still has shrapnel in his back, forehead and knee, and came back to the United States angry and sick from heart disease. He discovered yoga five years ago and said it has helped him slow down so he thinks before he speaks.

He said his high-blood pressure has disappeared and he is undergoing training to become a certified yoga teacher.

Bob Conway, of Delray Beach, also thinks yoga and meditation techniques have helped him calm his nerves and learn to trust. He turned to drugs and alcohol when he returned from Vietnam in 1970.

He said he always keeps his back to walls since he served in the Marine Corps as a sniper and tunnelman. But in yoga class, he is willing to get into poses facing the wall, knowing his fellow vets are nearby and supportive.

When he began learning breathing techniques with fellow veterans, “I thought, boy, is this dorky, just goofy,” said Conway, 60.

Now, “I look forward to yoga more than golf on Sundays, and golf is my religion,” he said.

lsolomon@tribune.com or 561-243-6536

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