Veterans find solace in yoga

Dec 17, 2014

Yoga mats await veterans at the Hamilton County Courthouse.
Credit Jennifer Wright / provided

Combat veterans face a host of challenges when they return to civilian life. Some of them end up in trouble.  But there is an effort across the country to keep them out of jail and back on the straight and narrow.  In Hamilton County, there’s a unique twist to help vets manage their lives: yoga. 

Veterans’ Courts have sprung up across the country as a way to reduce recidivism.  They work like drug or mental health courts.  Veterans charged with misdemeanors or low level felonies are directed out of the regular docket and into the special programs to meet their particular needs.

Hamilton County Veterans Treatment Court Program Coordinator Kieran Hurley says, “Many of the veterans we work with have PTSD, traumatic brain injury, from combat or from otherwise.  They also tend to have issues with substance use and mental health symptomology.”

Hurley says the veterans' court is designed to address those issues and keep veterans from repeating the behavior, like drug or alcohol abuse, which got them into trouble in the first place.  “We have a number of people with DUIs, thefts.  We may see somebody with disorderly conduct that arises out of interpersonal problems happening at home.”

Each case is reviewed by the prosecutor's office before acceptance.  The program is voluntary.  Hurley says it's attractive to veterans who may be missing the structure and camaraderie they had in military life.

“What we found is that many veterans are in that point in their life where they’re facing the criminal justice system, looking for assistance, and looking to reach out, maybe for the first time, where they haven’t been connected to the VA (Veteran’s Administration) or other treatment services.  They’re now open to that,” Hurley says.

But even with a host of people sensitive to the issues veterans face, going to court is still stressful.   That's where Jennifer Wright comes in.  She leads a yoga class before court begins. 

“We’re working to introduce self-awareness to cultivate awareness in the veteran.  Practices to reduce their anxiety, reduce depression, enable them to sleep better.  And ultimately, some of these practices help to reduce the cravings for alcohol and drug use,” Wright says.

Instead of being in a studio, classes are in the courtroom, before each docket.  While it may look like any other yoga lesson, Wright says this program is specifically tailored for people who've gone through trauma.

“In a typical yoga class, you might have the teacher walking around the room.  And with working with post-traumatic stress, that’s something that… I don’t walk around the room.  I stay centered at the front, so the veterans know that I have the door.”

Wright says there is skepticism among some veterans when they're first offered the class.  They're used to more physical, macho exercise.  But she says those who have done it, encourage the others.

“I may not necessarily call it mindful yoga therapy, the first time that I talk with them about it.  But I do say we do breathe techniques… to reduce stress, help to sleep better, and usually that is enough to intrigue someone.  And then once they attend the first class they realize that what we are doing is… more about relaxation.”

Yoga was introduced in March, but Kieran Hurley says the results are already apparent.  He says it's something that could be useful in other specialized court dockets.

“We need truth and we need understanding in our courtroom, and we try to build that.  The yoga therapy that happens before really sets the tone for that.  It changes this into a safe space, where something other than the determination of my guilt is happening.”

Hamilton County’s veterans' court is the first in the country to include yoga classes in the program.  Representatives from Detroit’s veterans' court system recently inquired about starting their own. 

Veterans' court runs weekly.  There are anywhere from 25 to 30 vets in the municipal program each week, and 20 to 25 facing felony charges.