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AJ-Maste Yoga: Tips for a Healthy Deployment

Image of Military personnel doing a yoga pose. Army Sgt. 1st Class Wendy Lopez with Task Force Spartan and the 36th Infantry Division performs the Bikram Yoga, Triangle Pose or Trikonasana, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait in March 2021 (Photo by: Army Staff Sgt. Daisy Broker)

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Yoga comes in many forms and fashions. From Ashtanga to Yin, there is a practice that fits almost everyone. Regular yoga practice has been proven by multiple sources to improve strength, balance, flexibility, and back pain. Regular yoga practice can lessen pain from arthritis, may reduce levels of stress and inflammation, and can even help a person get better sleep.

Army Maj. Toni Savely, secretary of general staff, Task Force Spartan, 36th Infantry Division has been practicing yoga for approximately 10 years, and needed a solution to continue her yoga journey during a deployment to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Savely decided that if Camp Arifjan did not offer classes, she would start a class of her own to maintain her practice and benefit others.

"I knew that I needed to continue my practice in order to maintain and improve all the benefits that yoga has consistently provided me," said Savely.

The stresses of a deployment can be taxing to the body and mind, whether turning wrenches in a combat zone maintenance shop or sitting at a desk eight to sixteen hours a day as a division staff member.

"I believe most people underestimate the importance of yoga and how it can reduce risks for injury, along with many other benefits, said Savely. "A strong core allows the body to function better. So many people sit at a desk or ride in a car for long periods. Doing this can result in weakened muscles that are prone to pain and injury.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Wendy Lopez, non-commissioned officer in charge of cyber electromagnetic activities, Task Force Spartan, 36th Infantry Division highly recommends yoga to everyone, even people who have not tried it before as a way to reduce stress.

"I highly recommend that everyone give yoga a try, especially here in this kind of environment," said Lopez. "Kuwait is a different kind of stress. Not as stressful as a combat zone but stressful nonetheless."

Savely's class has quickly become the highlight of many, including mine. The popularity of her class continues to grow, and after class, service members who observed the class approach those of us attending to ask how they can also join the class.

"I have been surprised by all the participants," said Savely. "There are Soldiers from many different units that attend the classes. There is no advertising for the classes - it is all by word of mouth. Some of the students attend once a week, while others attend three classes per week. There is even some fun competition among the students. For example, Lt. Col. Wilcox and Sgt. 1st Class Wendy Lopez always strive to be the best Yogi in attendance and practice."

For the students that regularly attend, Savely renames a pose in their honor. Army Lt. Col. William Wilcox, knowledge management officer, Task Force Spartan, 36th Infantry Division is a regular yogi touting a pose Savely named "Wild Bill". Only the most devoted Yogis receive this kind of coveted distinction, which adds an additional element of fun to each class.

"After attending Maj. Savely's class, I am a believer that yoga is important regardless of the environment," said Wilcox. "As a more experienced officer trying to lead by example, yoga is essential when maintaining physical fitness. Yoga builds flexibility and resilience," said Wilcox

"The older you get, the less flexible you become, making you more prone to injury. Yoga is uncomfortable for me, but I always feel better afterward. I am also quite certain that yoga has more than helped me avoid injury," said Wilcox.

As teachers know, it is an honor to make a difference for students and see them learn and grow. The yoga that Savely teaches consists of the same movements for each class. The repetition helps the students learn and gain flexibility through the repetition.

Some participants are still of course more flexible than others. Army Sgt. 1st Class Wendy Lopez, also known as "Wacky Wendy," named for being able to bend and contort into positions that most students find difficult.

Then there is Wilcox, he says, "In an attempt to grab the ankle of one leg while balancing the other, I would bounce around flail, gyrate, and fail. Although I am not the best at it now, I am not the worst and can often stay in the pose for the entire time and improve week by week."

Wilcox reflected on a favorite moment from his class where Army Brig. Gen. Win Burkett, deputy commanding general for Task Force Spartan attended. "He was surprised that I had only started yoga during the deployment, and commented that it looked like I had been doing yoga for years," said Wilcox.

Savely strives to make everyone feel comfortable at her classes. She talks the class through each pose and shares useful tips to help each Yogi achieve their pose.

"Maj. Savely made our yoga sessions unique," said Lopez. "I appreciate her coaching us through our moves and not making the first timers to yoga feel out of place. We could not have had a better instructor, an instructor who is willing to wake up so early during the week and spend an hour or more of her time on her only day off each week."

Yoga can be intimidating for many, and others find it through research or by necessity. I personally found it while rehabilitating from a car accident and hip flexor tear more than seven years ago.

"It is never too early or late in life to begin yoga. Savely says, "I know that the AJ-maste class has positively changed people's lives, including mine, and has helped me stay happy, healthy and stress-free during my nine-month deployment in Kuwait."

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