In 2009, Lt. Jen Vaughn was at war — with herself. Or so it seemed to the then-32-year-old naval officer.
“I was going through some pretty tough stuff — a divorce and a series of deaths in the family, including a suicide,” says Vaughn, who lives in Laurel. “The state of the world, and all that was going on, made things worse. I didn’t deal with the stress well; I needed an escape.”
She tried yoga. During her first class, she burst out crying. The sailor who had patrolled the Mediterranean during the Kosovo campaign, and chased pirates off the African coast, lay on her mat, bawling. In a good way.
“Yoga calmed my mind and showed that it’s okay to take 10 minutes to connect to my breath,” Vaughn says. “It saved my life.”
Vaughn is among a number of warriors to embrace yoga as a therapeutic tool to treat pain and stress. Moreover, Uncle Sam has their backs. A 2017 study by the Rand Corp. reported that four out of five military health-care facilities in the United States offer nonconventional on-site treatments, including yoga.
At Fort Meade, the central Maryland U.S. Army base home to 14,500 military personnel, “yoga is very well-respected and often advocated,” says Col. Beverly Maliner, chief of preventive medicine services. “It’s pretty well-documented that meditation helps people with pain of any kind, including PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and yoga fits into that rubric very well.”
Navy veteran Jen Vaughn of Laurel says she was “going through some pretty tough stuff” when she turned to yoga. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD affects between 10 percent and 20 percent of veterans deployed in recent wars.
Yoga also benefits noncombatants who live in a hurry-up world, said Maliner, who ascribes to the practice herself.
“Military life is a busy, high-intensity environment where the focus is always external,” she says. “Yoga gives us tools to learn how to breathe and to go internal, so we can better cope with our daily demands — and recover.”
Each Thursday, Lucy Lomax arrives at Fort Meade where, for 90 minutes, the Elkridge resident teaches yoga to a cadre of servicemen and women. Standing and lying on mats, they stretch and bend in ways that would make Gumby cringe, morphing into rhythmic postures called the baby cobra, the puppy and the gate. One pose recalls Michael Phelps, poised for takeoff; another evokes sprinter Usain Bolt, crouched at the starting blocks.
All the while, Lomax coaxes her charges in a soothing, hypnotic voice.
Certified Warriors At Ease teacher Lucy Lomax, left, leads a class at the Yoga Center of Columbia. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
“Let go of the outside world,” she says. “Bring your awareness to yourself, how it feels to be in your body and to connect to the earth.”
Lomax began teaching the class in 2015 and has taught about 400 people to date, including some from Howard County, home to nearly one-quarter of Fort Meade’s employees. Lomax, 69, executes all of the poses herself on a 4-foot-10 frame that should melt alongside a strapping Marine. Not so. On the mat, she’s a poster child for a Twister game.
“I’m short and squatty, which is good for yoga,” Lomax says.
A retired financial policy analyst with the federal government, she is a certified instructor for Warriors At Ease, a nonprofit that educates those who want to teach yoga to the military. In November, she trained 60 members of the 55th Signal Company, a combat camera unit, before their deployment.
“Two of the guys came in, thinking they were the bee’s knees. One was doing a head stand, to show off, when I arrived,” says Lomax. She ignored them and, for an hour, challenged the group “to get their energy out.”
Afterward, the soldiers conceded the session was tough.
The job is a passion for Lomax, who works for free.
“These men and women work so hard, under such pressure, and they never speak of anything but work,” she says. “They go overseas to Afghanistan and come back but never talk about that fight-or-flight mode; they’re not in a good place. Anyone being deployed has a risk of being exploded; it’s horrible stress.”
Her goal: Get each warrior to take a deep breath.
There are dangers in learning yoga, Maliner says, most involving careless instructors.
“I took a class, off base, where we were asked to do a lotus pose (sitting cross-legged). It’s a risky position and I dislocated my knee,” she says. “Yoga is not a magic bullet; it takes discipline and daily practice under the tutelage of teachers like Lucy, who minimizes the risks.”
For two years, Air Force Staff Sgt. Joe Jamison has trained with Lomax. A cyberwarfare planner at Fort Meade, he sought a remedy for the ills of sitting at a desk for hours on end in a hush-hush, high-stress job.
“I quickly learned the problems I had with my body’s alignment, balance and posture — and it echoed out to other parts of my general well-being,” said Jamison, 26. “Yoga helps me to focus in a more targeted way and to tackle my daily challenges better. You feel different when you’re able to sit and breathe properly.”
Now retired after 22 years in the Navy, Vaughn attends Lomax’s class while earning her Warriors At Ease teaching certificate.
“Yoga has been a joy for me, and I want to give back,” she says. Recovering from back surgery in October for a service-related injury, Vaughn spurns narcotics for the pain.
“Yoga has taught me you can breathe through anything,” she says.
Vaughn wants to pass on that prescription.
“It’s important to take care of the entire war-fighting machine, which is what every soldier and sailor is. You’ve got to take care of the whole package,” she says. “I mean, you can’t just put gasoline in a car; there are other things you need to do to maintain its overall performance. Like changing the oil. And kicking the tires every once in a while.”