Breathing new life into wounded soldiers

At the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007, a therapist asked yoga teacher Annie Okerlin to visit a soldier who had lost both his legs above the knee when a mine exploded under his Humvee in Iraq. He -- Okerlin never knew the soldier's name -- had celebrated his 25th birthday in the hospital, and hadn't gone to physical therapy for three weeks.

When Okerlin went into the room, the man was hunched in a wheelchair with "I Love My Soldier" quilts that had been made by church groups, while his mother sat beside him, sharing the chair. Okerlin asked the soldier why he didn't want to go to therapy. His confessed that his legs twitched.

"It freaks me out. Everybody's going to look at me and see my leg bouncing," he told her.

Okerlin suggested they try some breathing (the soldier's mom told her she had done yoga in the 1970s), and Okerlin then taught the man a breathing technique in which one thinks of tracing an inhalation up the spine and an exhalation down the front of the body. They did the breathing pattern together 10 times.

"His demeanor changed. His belly let go," she said. "We did five minutes of breath work, and he fell asleep. It was beautiful."

The next day at the airport, Okerlin received an email from the soldier's therapist: "I don't know what you did. ... Guess who came down to physical therapy today?"

In 2008, Okerlin started the Exalted Warrior Foundation -- an organization designed to help wounded soldiers (as well as their families and therapists) use yoga techniques, poses and principles to aid their rehabilitation. Classes are now taught at facilities such as the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Fla., the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., and Walter Reed in Washington, D.C.

Okerlin, 39, tested the program after working with Tom Steffens, a retired Navy SEAL and admiral who took up yoga to help rehab his own injuries, as well as to enhance his workout regimen after "30 years of abusing my body."

"He's a big, huge dude trying to do yoga, and he was amazed how it changed him," Okerlin said.

At the time, Steffens was working with amputees at Walter Reed and thought Okerlin's style and programs would be a perfect fit for injured soldiers.

"To do this effectively, you have to have a wonderful sense of humanity and compassion, and Annie is just a fabulous yoga teacher; she's an equally fabulous person," Steffens said. "Her sensitivity to every individual is just remarkable. You see that in every class she teaches." Sometimes, she even gets hospital visitors interested in yoga.

In 2010, Okerlin was sitting in the lobby of Walter Reed when she told the man sitting across from her what she did. "Oh, I should try this," the man said. "It'll help me get in and out of the car." Okerlin, believing the man was a member of the National Guard visiting the hospital, replied, "Yeah, everybody has trouble with getting in and out of the car." A patient who was also sitting with them responded, "You don't have any idea who that is, do you?" It was NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr.

When Okerlin started working with soldiers, their families and the staff at Walter Reed, she was primarily struck by one thing: human character -- the way people were always polite and respectful, and how even wounded soldiers would ask her if she needed anything while she was visiting.

"Just the grace of everybody I ran into made me question myself," she said. "If I were in the same situation, would I be this graceful? I don't know. I really don't know."

Occasionally, she sees resistance from patients, which typically comes in a conversation like this:

Soldier: "Ma'am, I appreciate you trying, but it's not going to work for me."

Okerlin: "Do you sleep well?"

Soldier: "Ma'am, none of us sleep well."

She then takes the opportunity to talk about breathing and relaxation, about the mind-body connection and about the physical benefits that come from strengthening and stretching the body.

"The guys we've worked with are so open because their whole lives have been changed in an instant because of their injuries," Okerlin said. "Sometimes, it totally freaks them out because they've never been that relaxed." She said snipers may be the best at adjusting, because so much of their work is about staying focused and relaxed at the same time.

In March 2008, Joel Tavera of Tampa lost his right leg, his eyes and a third of his skull and he was burned on over 70 percent of his body when a missile hit his SUV in Iraq (three died in that attack, and Tavera and one other survived). After more than a year in the hospital -- and while still in an electric wheelchair -- Tavera started yoga sessions with Okerlin. "Most guys think it's very prissy and stuff -- like, 'Man, this is totally not for me,' " said Tavera, now 24. "After Sessions 2 and 3, I was hooked."

Tavera said it was after those first couple of classes that he made the connection: Every time he did yoga, he slept really well that night.

Tavera, who finished the 5K Gasparilla Distance Classic and now gets on the floor to do all the yoga poses, calls Okerlin "my yummy yoga hippie."

Okerlin went to Walter Reed a few months after she first worked with the unnamed man with the twitching legs. She went into the physical therapy room and noticed him looking over at her.

He told her, "You're my angel, aren't you? I don't remember what you look like, but I remember your voice. You helped me fall asleep. Every night when I get anxious, I hear your voice reminding me to follow my breath and trace my spine with my breath. So I can fall asleep."