Inspiring Hope Through Garden Yoga
When the pandemic hit, Veterans at the Fargo VA—like many Veterans across the country—could no longer meet in person at VA for weekly yoga classes. For those who participated in yoga together several days a week, it was difficult not knowing when they would see each other again.
Nancy Ruud, MS, RN, Whole Health Coach and yoga instructor at the Fargo VA, understands the power of these connections and the health effects from yoga. After sharing online yoga resources during the first few months of quarantine, she felt the need to find a way to bring Veterans together safely to enhance their well-being.
That’s when she thought of the Healing Garden on the front lawn of the Fargo VA. While often used for its walking paths, Ruud saw the garden in a different light: a perfect outdoor yoga space. After creating parameters for weather considerations, coordinating with the other yoga instructors, setting up health screenings and placing mats six feet apart, Ruud was able to host their first class in person since the start of the pandemic, with the help of her Whole Health teammates.
The joy of seeing fellow classmates after long absences due to self-quarantine brought several Veterans to tears.
“It was a beautiful thing to witness,” said Danielle Olauson, Whole Health Coordinator at the Fargo VA. “They were so excited to see each other and were hopeful to have some normality coming back to their life.”
“One Veteran mentioned that they wanted to come not even knowing who’d they’d get to see—not just their instructor, or who could make it that day, but did they lose any of their comrades to COVID-19?” said Ruud.
Knowing Veterans may not have been active during quarantine, Ruud started with a gentle yoga class to help those starting over to regain their mobility. And with many Veteran participants in the high-risk age range, Ruud and the Whole Health team were careful about safety.
“One Veteran mentioned to me that they felt very safe, and thought it was perfect that we have this space and could actually accomplish two goals—both safety and being together in a group,” Ruud said. “Many Veterans hadn’t even seen their doctors yet and were very grateful to be active again and come back to the VA.”
That deep connection with others in a class is just one of the many benefits of yoga.
“As a Whole Health Coach, so many Veterans bring up yoga when they’re thinking about self-care,” Ruud said. “It’s very surprising how many Veterans will say, ‘well, the only other thing I’ve been thinking about is… maybe I should be learning yoga,’” she said.
When Veterans practice yoga, the physical postures and meditative breathing help to unite the mind and body, engaging the nervous system and creating that deep connection that allows for healing and relaxation.
“In yoga, we use our breath to help move our bodies,” said Ruud.
When the mind and body are better connected, it becomes easier to manage other areas of Veteran’s lives and helps to boost compassion, gratitude, and "Chi" states—all of which contribute to greater happiness.
“Yoga, in some form, is helpful to everyone. As a nurse, I teach Veterans how this connects to their sleep, how they eat, how they mentally and physically feel and ultimately, how they move through other aspects of their lives,” said Ruud. “Yoga allows them to develop skills and a sense of accomplishment or empowerment that they’re learning something they can come back to, deepening their practice with each class.”
Yoga is a great way for Veterans to start their Whole Health journey. The sunshine, fresh air, and vibrant surroundings make the Healing Garden at the Fargo VA the perfect place for Veterans to escape mentally and physically, while also engaging their bodies in ways that will increase their stamina, strength, flexibility, and balance.
“Instructors consider the health challenges and personal goals of each Veteran and tailor classes to meet their needs,” said Ruud. “Being able to move their bodies in this way improves their confidence to do more of the things they want and improves their sense of well-being. Not to mention, yoga is a great way for Veterans to connect and bond with one another, combatting social isolation.”
When making calls to Veterans to let them know they were restarting classes, Ruud remembered one Veteran who had mentioned they were interested in trying yoga but had yet to attend a class. He decided to come to their first Garden Yoga session.
“He came up to me after class and said, ‘I really don’t know why I didn’t try this sooner. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed it, I feel so calm,’” she said. “He’s come to every class since the first one.”
A few weeks after the success of the first class, classes were expanded to incorporate their contract yoga instructors which expanded the offerings to three classes per week.
“2020 has been an unprecedented year, one we’ll never forget,” she said. “I am grateful to be helping during the pandemic to bring Veterans back to feel that sense of normalcy again.”
For those looking to practice yoga virtually, below are some helpful resources to get started:
- Veterans Yoga Project: A collection of mind-body practices to help you develop practices related to breath, meditation, mindful movement, guided rest, and gratitude.
- Breathing, Stretching, Relaxation: A 10-minute exercise using simple physical postures and breathing exercises to connect your body and mind.
- Kula for Karma: Yoga for Veterans: This six-part guided yoga and meditation series consists of 30-minute videos that take you through asana, adaptive yoga, restorative practice, easy flow, power yoga, and meditation.
- Comeback Yoga: Free yoga classes to help military personnel, their families and supporters develop resiliency in response to their experience.
For more information on the benefits of yoga and other self-care resources, visit https://www.va.gov/wholehealth/.