Yoga for Soldiers

My life here is a little bit out of the ordinary.  You got that, right?  Anyway, twice a week I teach yoga to small groups of (mostly) men from the defense forces who are here as peacekeepers.  Yep, yoga for soldiers.

Teaching the troops has been a really educational experience for me as a teacher.  After all, they are pretty much the polar opposite of my own body type: small, female, thin without much muscle.  And what's more, they are not exactly your average beginner Yoga students.  First of all, they have been training their bodies for years, so generally they are very physically aware.  And secondly, they follow instructions!  LOL.  By which I mean that they respond well to verbal cues about the body, which is a skill that it took me years to develop.

I feel that I'm pretty lucky: in addition to teaching the gents of the Oz and NZ army, my twice weekly group classes have also gone from being nearly all female to having an almost equal male to female ratio, mostly thanks to a bunch of keen helicopter pilots and body builders.

So, what are these guys looking for in a Yoga class?

In my experience, these men, who are relatively fit already, come to yoga because they are looking for flexibility and injury prevention.  The majority of my women students are after weight loss, muscle tone, strength and fitness - most of which these guys already have!  What these men suffer from are tight hamstrings, stiff shoulders and lower back issues, to name the most common.  Many of them have also been injured from intensive physical training, sports, or combat, so injury prevention and/or recovery is a big theme as well.

Most of them are runners and/or weight trainers, and some do short interval training.  So building lung capacity and breath awareness, increasing oxygen intake, and developing a longer physical routine can also be motivating factors for them.  As they progress through the practice, those that get into it will come to see yoga as a way of honing their strength in a more uniform way and developing balanced bodies with flexibility as well as muscle, as well as enhancing their focus and concentration during athletic activities.  For more ideas of what might motivate these athletic guys, have a look at this website, which is the site of a personal yoga trainer for elite athletes!  She provides a neat list of physical and mental benefits that athletic types can expect from yoga.

Teaching the Troops

I have found that my best approach is to focus first on the physical benefits and then to let the mental benefits slowly sneak up.  People who are generally very physically focused will probably be put off (at least at first) by a spiritual approach to yoga.  So I usually start a practice with breathing exercises instead of meditation, and finish with a guided mind-body-awareness practice instead of chanting.  We work on challenging the breath and building awareness of 3-part breathing, the role of the diaphragm and shoulders, and how to expand lung capacity.

Other things I have found in working with this demographic is that I have to hit the level of challenge just right.  On the one hand, they are much stronger and fitter than most beginning students.  So I will introduce strength poses fairly early on, such as Chaturanga Dandasana, Plank and its variations (one-armed, or plank with leg lifts or knee bends), Navasana and Bakasana, to keep them challenged.  Arm balances and standing balances are great because they require strength as well as balance and give that special sense of achievement or reward for your efforts - Bakasana is a good one because it doesn't require much flexibility in the hips, as many others do.  For standing balances I like Tree with arm variations like Eagle to challenge the shoulders, and also poses like Warrior III which require a lot of core strength and focus.  I have found that the guys are more than willing to try 'scary' things like Bakasana - and I have seen a few of them get it on the first or second go (and it took me only, oh, 4 years or so?!)!

On the other hand, my muscle-bound students need encouragement that yoga can be accessible for them despite their low flexibility.  So I generally don't try to push them with too many seated forward bends or postures that require flexible hamstrings or bendy backs, which can be really frustrating and discourage them because they won't see much progress even over a 6-week period, and may not stick with the practice.  Although I do insist on paschimottanasana and janu sirsasana, with the emphasis on lengthening the spine - knees bent if necessary - I also offer lying down hamstring stretches and hip openers so they can go deep into the hamstrings without compromising the lower back.

Because most of these guys have limited hip and shoulder flexibility, we work on those areas through the standing postures, with a heavy emphasis on alignment too.  Poses like extended angle pose, warrior I and II, lunges with both hands inside the forward foot, and the occasional supine pigeon are good hip-openers, and poses like utanasana, Prasarita Padotonasana and parsvottanasana can be done with hands clasped behind the back to open the shoulders.  For all forward bends I try to encourage them to keep their knees bent and emphasize lengthening the spine in order to protect the tight hamstrings and slowly open up the lower back. 

Being, if you will, a bunch of boys, these guys are prone to challenge each other and themselves, so I try to discourage their competitive edge by emphasising breath and drishti, and by reminding them over and over to respect their limits and not push too far.   I also find that warming up properly is extremely important to make sure that they are stretching with the minimum possible risk of injury, so we start the practice with lots of repetitions of sun salutations.

Mind Body Balance

Over time (sometimes not very much time!) the mental benefits of yoga will start to shine through.  These can include improved relaxation and sleep habits, heightened focus and concentration, better overall energy levels and mental alertness, and emotional stability are all in the list.  And yes, some of my longer-term muscle men now chant with gusto, hands in namaste and all.  :)

These mental benefits of yoga have led to it also being used to treat soldiers who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, something Svasti blogged about yesterday, and something I found a short article about on this blog as well.

Your turn!

All in all it's been a great teaching experience for me and I've learned so much and am still learning.  Now, it's your turn....   Fellow teachers, what have been some body types you have learned a lot from working with?  Fellow students, what have you learned from people with different body types from your own?