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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

Quieting the Mind: A veteran spreads the healing message of yoga

Oct 30, 2015 01:36PM ● By Kate Morgan

When C.J. Keller returned home in 2007 from deployment in Iraq, he couldn’t shake much of what he’d seen and experienced. The retired Marine Corps Captain was experiencing the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental health issue that affects, by some estimates, as many as 20 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

Keller struggled with anxiety, flashbacks and lack of sleep for years. He’d enlisted in the Marines out of a sense of duty to his country after 9/11.

“I knew what I was getting myself into, to a certain extent,” says Keller, 32. “I deployed to Ramadi for nine months and got exactly what I wanted. It was heavy combat. I got to see the best of what men and people can do for each other—that love and that bond and that camaraderie—and also the worst.”

Keller served as a member of convoy operations teams, clearing roads of improvised explosive devices and enemy insurgents. He was shot at, and saw other Marines get injured or killed. It was a traumatic experience that didn’t leave him once he retired from the Marines. While trying to readjust to civilian life, he began experiencing symptoms of PTSD and was unsure how to treat them.

“I got out in 2008 and was happy to be alive,” he says. “I wasn’t really interested in wearing a uniform anymore. I got a job in business and was just floating, dealing with these problems that I couldn’t even really identify. I’d go running, and that was alright, a pretty healthy coping strategy. But then I’d go to the gym and work out too hard, and go to the bar and drink too much.”

When that didn’t work, the Moorestown resident began taking anti-anxiety medication, but was still experiencing overwhelming stress in everyday situations. Then, he says, he found yoga.

“It was like magic,” Keller says. “All of a sudden I realized I’d been literally running away from the problem, or beating the hell out of it by benching and squatting until I couldn’t walk out of the gym. I took my first few yoga classes and knew right away it was something I needed to develop.”

Keller left his job in the business sector and went to an occupational therapy school, where he met another Marine Corps veteran who’d lost a leg and half of an arm in combat, and who had recently become a yoga instructor.

“I realized I could empower others to do the same thing,” he says.

By 2011, Keller was teaching regular free weekly yoga classes in his hometown of Baltimore, and as time went on, more and more veterans began attending. He also gave classes at the Baltimore Veterans Administration, and became an ambassador for the Veterans Yoga Project.

“We’re changing the perception of yoga as something that isn’t for tough guys,” he says. “We’re branding it with certain imagery and a certain style of tone, showing it as something that’s accessible to the military community. Yoga is not only something that can treat PTSD, but can round out a fitness practice.

“In some cases, that’s how I suck them in,” Keller laughs. “I tell them, ‘Hey, it’ll help you bench more.’ They come in and try it and I actually teach them how to breathe, calm their minds and relax their bodies.”

After his graduation from Towson University with a master’s degree in occupational therapy, Keller accepted a job in South Jersey and relocated to Moorestown. Local studios were quick to offer their support in his continuation of Yoga for Vets classes, and he presently teaches free weekly classes for active duty military, veterans and their families at Shine Power Yoga, in Maple Shade. He tailors the classes to veterans and is mindful that they may be suffering from some of the same PTSD symptoms he experienced. He passes on these techniques for teaching veterans at regular workshops for other instructors.

“These classes are not your typical yoga,” Keller says. “I know there’s a possibility that some of them might have some residual symptoms. I try to set up the room and hold the class in a way that promotes safety, predictability and control. I don’t move around a lot, I don’t do assists, I don’t use Sanskrit. Every class is different. If I’m teaching at a VA facility, it’s very strict. I set up the room in a structured way, so every veteran is facing the door, and can see anyone who walks in. I don’t leave the mat and I don’t play music. I want to minimize any potential triggers, so they can just focus on their body and breath, and the connection between them.”

The treatment of PTSD and its accompanying symptoms of anxiety and depression through yoga has become increasingly widespread. The Veterans Affairs Administration has embraced the practice as an alternative treatment. A recent study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found scientific support that a regular yoga practice serves to decrease stress and help sufferers move away from negative and traumatic thoughts. The study also gave scientific proof that yoga’s breathing techniques were an effective treatment for PTSD patients.  

The classes Keller teaches at Shine Power Yoga are donation-based. Proceeds benefit Active Heroes, an organization with a commitment to reduce the number of daily veteran suicides in the U.S. from 22 to zero.

“I’m positive that if I hadn’t found yoga, I’d either be dead or in a very bad situation,” Keller says. “I confidently tell people, both personally and in interviews, that yoga saved my life, literally and figuratively. It has that power. It’s not just breathing in different shapes; it’s learning to identify the thought and behavior patterns that are hurting you. It’s unlearning those maladaptive patterns and behaviors and relearning ones that are more appropriate to healing, happiness and balance.”

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