This past spring break, four student veterans were able to discovered the restorative powers of yoga and meditation on Paradise Island in The Bahamas.
Dr. Michele Saracino, Chair of the Religious Studies Department, was in charge of the trip this semester, as the trip was a part of her course, The Nature and Experience of Religion: Veterans’ Stress Reduction Program.
“The trip was amazing. Transformative. I accompanied four of my students who are veterans down to the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas, as part of the Veterans at Ease Program developed by Dr. Stephen Kaplan a few years back,” said Saracino.
Veterans At Ease is a charity committed to helping veterans deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other stress-related issues with the healing powers of yoga and meditation. PTSD affects about one in five veterans, and since traditional treatments are not always effective, these practices, as well as studying the science of stress reduction, are favorable alternatives.
“Students go through a rigorous and uplifting five day retreat program, which includes yoga, meditation, and participation in ashram activities. Our group was guided by an expert in yoga instruction, Robin Carnes, who has worked for over a decade with active and returning service members,” said Saracino.
Yoga and meditation are proven to have significant healing benefits for both the mind and body, as they enable people to find a safe, quiet space within themselves. Ashram activities are derived from Indian culture and also promote mental and physical healing as well.
Dr. Stephen Kaplan, professor of the Religious Studies Department, has served as a panelist and coordinator at Sivananda Ashram for several years and began this special section of Religious Studies that accommodates veterans.
After spearheading the program and teaching the course in the Bahamas, Kaplan is going back this time as an invited guest of the Ashram and has organized a symposium on neuroscience and spirituality. He is passionate about these practices, especially because they are valuable for everyone.
“We don’t ever ask whether anyone has PTSD or not. The assumption going into this is that all individuals, veterans or not, deal with stress in their lives. So this program, founded by Warriors at Ease, while it was created with veterans in mind, is really a stress reduction program. They work with people who have lost children, and they actually have just started working on helping women who have been sex slaves. They work with anyone who has faced trauma in their life,” Kaplan said.
Warriors at Ease is another organization that brings the healing power of yoga and meditation to military communities around the world by training and deploying certified professionals to settings where they can enhance the health and well-being of service members, veterans, families, and healthcare staff.
Rafael Gonzalez, a freshman finance and economics major, served in the United States Army and was stationed in Fort Drum, New York.
“When the Bahamas trip was mentioned to me the first thing I thought was, ‘wow Bahamas!’ Regardless, I assumed a religious trip would be filled with enforced religious practices and a continuous persuasion into a different culture. I happily admit my assumption was very wrong, while there we would meet up at eight am and conduct yoga and meditation practices. These practices were something really unique which made each of us think not only about the way we think but also the way we control our bodies,” said Gonzalez.
“My favorite part was realizing how inflexible I am and how much more there is to breathing and the thought process. I am challenging myself to be able to complete each yoga pose, to a better perfection than what I was currently able to give. Amazingly, being at this retreat gave me a disconnection from technology, which I never imagined would be so effective; take away all technology and human interaction becomes very strong and fundamental.
The people on the island were also very warm and left lasting impressions on him.
“Each individual person you meet had a smile and a good morning to give you, followed by an amazing story as to what brings them there. The current meditation made me realize how much my thoughts had to do with my actions and with judgment. Understanding how the way I breathe either tenses or relaxes the body,” Gonzalez said.
In retrospect, Gonzales believes that he left the Bahamas as a better, more conscious person than when he arrived.
“Once we left the Island, I realized how much I had actually learned not only about myself but also about society. After everything I felt amazing, stress free and in way more control of myself; it has been a couple of days since I returned and sun salutations have become a part of my daily workout,” he said.
Gonzales also appreciates that he was able to not only learn more about himself, but that he was able to connect with other veterans as well.
“I recommend this to anyone else interested in understanding your own body, mind and how the external environment influences us every day. In four days I got to know three veterans from college on such a personal level, I can now call them friends. It’s incredible to think if that trip never happened all I would know about each of these individuals is their names, maybe not even that. One week goes away so fast, its extraordinary how in such time I got to know so much about me and a group of other people,” he said.
Michael Pryor was one of these other student veterans on the trip, and he reflects on it with appreciation as well.
“The Ashram trip was amazing. We did yoga in the morning and then learned stress-relieving activities and meditated in the afternoon. All of the food was vegan, which at first I was unsure about, but every meal was delicious. The Ashram had three temples for meditation, chanting, and lectures, and then three platforms for yoga,” said Pryor.
Paradise Island is an especially remote area of the Bahamas, and this separation from the outside world was a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of New York, but the perfect setting for the veterans to meditate, and everyone on the island was welcoming to them.
“There are no roads that lead to the ashram. One side is the beach and the other side is the bay, which has a ferry to the mainland. Everyone was very friendly. The hardest part of my day there was trying to understand how not to judge my judgments. The trip was not focused on Hinduism but more on stress relief,” he said. “The scenery was beautiful, the people were beautiful, and the lessons were beautiful. I would definitely encourage someone else to attend the retreat.”
The other veterans were not available for comments, but Dr. Saracino also reflected on the trip similarly to how Pryor and Gonzalez did: “I learned so much from the program, and from being part of the Manhattan College Program there. The students were engaged, excited, and I feel truly grateful to have had the chance to accompany them in their journey. As chair of the religion department, it is my hope that we can continue to offer innovative and exciting opportunities to our students for their spiritual and personal growth.”