Zen warrior: finding resiliency through yoga

  • Published
  • By SSgt Mary A. Andom
  • 446th Airlift Wing

Master Sgt. Kathleen Myhre eases out of her office chair and kneels on the blue-speckled office carpet. With her feet shoulder-width apart, she drops her head backwards and leans back effortlessly. Her limber arms stretch to grab the rubber soles of her combat boot. She contorts her body into a physical letter “D.” Not an easy feat in the stiff material of a military uniform.

“This is camel pose,” she said. “It is one of my favorites, especially for office workers like myself. We tend to sit all day, hunch over a computer and hold that tension in our shoulders. This stretch really opens up your lungs and chest, so you can breathe.”

The camel pose, also known as ustrasana, is said to improve spinal flexibility, improve posture and increase breathing capacity.

“But if you can’t get on the floor, you can always do a modified version in your chair. Just arch your back and reach for your ABU pockets,” Myhre added.

From improved mental concentration to lowered stress and anxiety levels, the ancient Hindu spiritual practice of yoga is breathing new life into fitness programs across military branches.

The petite brunette with wispy bangs and a kind smile embraces this healthy lifestyle. Green smoothies in the morning. Yoga during lunch. Long aromatherapy detox baths at night.

“Self-care is more than lounging on the couch watching Netflix,” Myhre said. “It is about prioritizing your health and well-being to include the emotional and physical. It’s about what you eat, what you drink, and lessening the amount of pressure and stress you put on yourself.”

In her office at the 446th Airlift Wing Airman and Family Readiness Center, the noncommissioned officer in charge, has a shelf dedicated to her yoga gear. Brightly-hued mats ready to be unrolled for anyone who needs it.

When a Reserve Citizen Airman limped into her office with a sore hip she introduced him to banarasana, or lunge pose, to stretch his hip flexors and eventually to help ease the pain. He made regular trips to her office for lunchtime yoga sessions.

In between sips of warm lemon water, Myhre shared how yoga has transformed her life.

Her quest to become a yoga instructor wasn’t straight out of a scene from the movie “Eat, Love, Pray.” Instead, it was a gradual process of reassessing her life.

The former juvenile rehabilitation counselor worked for Washington State’s Department of Children, Youth and Families managing a caseload of the state’s highest-risk youth. Her job was to help young people turn their lives around.

“It was a really stressful job---at times fun,” Myhre said. “But also emotionally taxing. I didn’t feel as healthy.”

In 2016, she resigned from her position to pursue her passion in health and wellness.

She booked a 30-day trip to India, so she could become a certified yoga instructor. It would be her first solo trip out of the country. Seventeen hours later, she landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. An hour later, when her driver was nowhere to be found she began to panic.

It was her first lesson in yoga: how to be calm and accept change.

“I was afraid to leave the airport,” Myhre said. “After a couple of phone calls another driver arrived and he took me on a tour of the countryside. It ended up being an amazing experience.”

An eight-hour drive later, she arrived in Rishikesh the “yoga capital of the world.” Nestled in the Himalayan foothills overlooking the Ganges river, her ashram, or yoga center, offered a peaceful retreat to explore inner peace and happiness.

There were no distractions---no cell phones, no television and no internet.

Every morning, in a hall perfumed with incense, Myhre meditated for an hour with 25 other hopeful yoga instructors from Brazil, Australia and Spain.

“Before we meditated we were not allowed to consume any stimulants like tea or coffee,” she said. “It was so calming and peaceful, very low stress.”

They consumed a clean, unprocessed, and mainly vegan diet of vegetables, daal (spiced lentils) and chapati (unleavened flatbread).

During the day, they practiced mindfulness, studied philosophy and completed two 90-minute yoga sessions. Two-hundred hours later, Myhre was an internationally-certified yoga instructor.

She returned to America feeling renewed and refreshed.

Tapping into her creative side, Myhre began to paint. Her acrylic paintings, of an abstract rainbow-colored elephant and weeping Buddha, are on display outside her office in the hallway of the A&FRC.

Myhre longed to share with others in the military the mental, physical and spiritual benefits of yoga.

“We are under so much demand,” she said. “We have the pressure to perform and that can take a toll on our bodies- both mentally and physically.”

Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 446th have already reaped the benefits from her holistic training. From aerial port specialists loading equipment, to security force members who carry cumbersome gear, yoga is helping Airmen stretch their muscles and calm their minds.

When Col. Raymundo Luevanos, 446th Mission Support Group commander, attended Myhre’s yoga class months ago, he thought it would be great physical exercise to stretch his muscles, but he discovered mental resiliency.

“Master Sgt. Myhre gave us great insight into how pushing your body is directly related to your mental concentration,” Luevanos said. “Being mindful of your thoughts and breathing during difficult poses, can carry over into making your everyday life less stressful. It provides a sense of purpose and calmness, which can be a great long-term benefit.”

Whether it’s performing a physical fitness test or prepping for a last-minute deployment, in moments of stress we tend to involuntarily hold our breath.

These physiological changes, coupled with an increased heart rate and higher levels of adrenaline, can kick in the flight or fight mode.

“Looking for a great anxiety reducer,” Myhre said. “Breathe in deeply for four seconds, hold, then release with a six-second exhale.”

Studies have shown yoga techniques, such as breathing meditation, to have a positive impact on conditions of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], anxiety, depression and addiction.

In a 2018 Military Medicine study, it was concluded trauma-sensitive yoga intervention may be an effective treatment for veterans with PTSD symptoms, whether as stand-alone or adjunctive therapy.

Myhre, who has a Master’s degree in forensic psychology, decided to pursue her doctorate in general psychology to research theories of suicide behavior. She also completed a compassionate bereavement yoga course for those suffering from the loss of a loved one.

Yoga continues to be a lifelong endeavor for Myhre.

On days when Myhre feels the demands and stressors of life pulling her in many directions. She reminds herself of the peace she experienced in India. She closes her eyes, takes a moment to pause and simply breathes.