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Yoga helping U.S. war wounded from Iraq, Afghanistan

Yoga instructor Sunny Keays works with Army 1st Sgt. Chris Montera, left, and Marine Pfc. Isaac Blunt at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

The practice is ancient, the wounds are modern.

Yoga is now being practiced at Naval Medical Center San Diego and other military and VA hospitals to help Marines, soldiers, sailors and others wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The goal is to strengthen muscles and bolster confidence.

“Let your body give notice: You’re going to ask it to be active again,” said yoga instructor Barbara Lyon at the end of a session.

Studies say it’s working.

Preliminary military studies have found that the calming effect of yoga can assist PTSD patients in dealing with the hypervigilance, flashbacks, depression and anxiety common to the condition. For veterans with traumatic amputations, yoga can help strengthen muscles and increase flexibility, the studies suggest.

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Army 1st Sgt. Chris Montera, who lost both legs above the knee and suffered third-degree burns over 60% of his body in a mortar attack in Afghanistan, was doing a headstand, guided by yoga instructor Sunny Keays.

“It takes a lot of pressure off my back and spine,” said Montera, 33, who was on his fourth combat tour when he was hurt. “It helps with the pain.”

Marine Sgt. James Bernard, 25, who returned from combat in Helmand province in Afghanistan with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, was going through a series of stretching, relaxing and breathing exercises nearby, under the gentle guidance of Lyon.

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Bernard’s wife, Keely, 25, said yoga is helping her husband regain the composure and self-confidence that he had before he went to war. She accompanies him to yoga classes at Naval Medical Center San Diego.

“He seems more aware now of who he is,” she said.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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