June 24, 2013

Suzanne Manafort: Saving Our Veterans Through Mindful Yoga Therapy.

“When angels visit us, we do not hear the rustle of wings, nor feel the feathery touch of the breast of a dove; but we know their presence by the love they create in our hearts.”

~ Mary Baker Eddy

Every once in a while, we are blessed to meet someone whose spirit is so filled with joy that it leaves our hearts in awe of this short glimpse into the limitless capacity of compassion’s reach. These are the individuals who give selflessly of their own hearts—and simply in the name of loving-kindness.

These are the angels who walk amongst us—and those who often slip quietly past, largely unnoticed.

I had the great honor of interviewing one such angel, someone who is dedicating a good portion of her life, talent and love to help alleviate the ‘silent suffering’ of our Nation’s soldiers and veterans.

Suzanne Manafort serves as a board member for the Give Back Yoga Foundation, an organization which utilizes yoga as a tool for transforming human consciousness.

But most noteworthy, and that which has moved my heart most directly, are her efforts helping veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psycho-emotional stress.

As the founder and Director of the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans program in Newington, Connecticut— Suzanne has made it her personal mission to help our veterans find the calm within their inner storm. In this way, they are able to reawaken to life, and embrace peace once again.

Not many understand the horrors of PTSD—it is the tragedy of a ‘war’ that continues when all of the bullets are gone.

As a veteran, I can provide you my own personal experiences watching my Army friends whither under the weight of an opponent greater than any enemy our Nation has ever known.

As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I can tell you of the many nights my own father struggled with a demon he could not see, and one that visited itself upon our household so many times in the darkest hours of the earliest mornings.

As a writer, I can provide you the statistics of this most horrible reality—that our veterans are suffering terribly, and without much means of support.

And, as a human, I could look directly into your eyes and plead with you—begging your help, as I explained that these young souls are slipping away at a rate of once every 36 hours.

But, nothing can tell the story of a veteran suffering more so than looking into the dark emptiness of their very own eyes.

Sadly, for some soldiers—they never really make it ‘home.’

That’s what makes Suzanne such an incredible human being—because, she is giving back in a way that is so desperately needed. Through her 12-week Post-Traumatic Stress Residential Rehabilitation Program (PPRP) soldiers are learning the mechanisms to cope with the aftermath of combat. 

Her Mindful Yoga Therapy is an empirically informed, clinically tested program comprised of five practices: Pranayama (breathing), Asana (postures connected with breath), Yoga Nidra, Meditation, and Gratitude. Each practice offering a tool to Veterans can use to cope with Post Traumatic Stress, and together, they form a comprehensive system–a toolbox–that will carry Veterans into a life of strength and resilience. And with each soldier, the program is ‘tailored’ to their individual needs.

But, this work is not without its fair share of challenge.

For some, there is a stigma attached to this topic of mental health and spiritual wellness. Some are fearful that they may be viewed as ‘weak’ or ‘unable to satisfactory perform in the line of duty.’ For some, particularly those with security clearances, this diagnosis can be career altering.

And some, are simply just skeptical of mindfulness over medication.

“Some of the men and women that I work with are Vietnam Veterans so they’ve been at home suffering for 40 years,” said Manafort. “And when they come into this treatment program and they’re told they have to do yoga, ‘they’re like are you kidding me?’”

Their hesitation, is not without cause. It was only just a few years ago that the terms ‘yoga’ and ‘soldier’ found their way into the very same sentence, and specifically, with regards to a soldier’s care and well being. But now, through the dedication of individuals like Suzanne who understand the utility of yoga as a tool for management of PTSD  – yoga has become a new standard of care for our veterans.

And in an unprecedented move, the Veterans Association agrees.

Now, not only is this type of program acknowledged as an alternative treatment, but in some cases it has become a mandatory and vital component of a veteran’s rehabilitation.

And why wouldn’t they? As clinical research clearly demonstrates the improvements in a soldiers overall well being. Preliminary results from a joint U.S. Defense Department and Harvard Medical School study, have shown consistent improvements in PTSD symptoms following this type of therapy.

Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, offering the following explanation:

“What we believe is happening, is that through the control of attention on a target — the breath, the postures, the body — that kind of awareness generates changes in the brain, in the limbic system, and these changes in thinking focus more in the moment, less in the past, and it quiets down the anxiety-provoking chatter going on in the head. People become less reactive and the hormone-related stress cycle starts to calm down.”

What started simply as a single class offered only once weekly, has since transformed into a nationwide training program for yoga teachers.

As well, the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans program has become the ‘model’ for yoga programs offered at VA hospitals throughout the world.

Through this intensive rehabilitation training, Suzanne is helping to reintroduce our soldiers to their new surroundings, while working closely with them to help navigate their way through. And, in doing so, she is offering our veterans a much needed choice in their treatment option.

And that, is what our veterans so desperately need.

Video: The Mindful Warriors.

Suzanne Manafort is the Director and Founder of Newington Yoga Center in Newington Ct. and of Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans. She has studied extensively with Beryl Bender Birch’s in the Hard and Soft Yoga Institute and also with Patty Townsend’s in the Embodyoga® Teacher Training programs.  She is now on faculty in both schools, teaches in both teacher training programs and is the Director of the Newington Yoga Center teacher trainings. At the Himalayan Institute, Suzanne completed the yearlong Living Tantra program and the Sage Program taught by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. She has worked with Veterans who suffer with PTS for several years. This work led her to study and learn the practical aspects of what benefits Veterans in a yoga program receive. Her experiences along the way have taught her that teachers require additional training tailored to the specific needs of Veterans. Suzanne co-authored a book called Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering from Trauma. She also produced two CDs—Yoga Nidra by Suzanne Manafort and “Breathe In Breathe Out”, a group of short breathing practices designed for Veterans with PTS. Suzanne is on the Board of Directors of the Give Back Yoga Foundation. In 2009, she was designated a Wells Fargo Second Half Champion for her work with Veterans.

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