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From Chaos to Calm: How a Meditation and Golf Program is Helping Veterans

Veterans are lead through a series of exercises at a mindfulness workshop held at the Heroes Golf Course.
Veterans are lead through a series of exercises at a mindfulness workshop held at the Heroes Golf Course.

At the lush Heroes Golf Course at the West LA VA, Veterans take in the fresh air and the serenity. Instead of the usual "fore," they softly chant "om" with their eyes closed as they engage in a lesson on meditation.

These Veterans are regular attendees of Mindfulness in the Japanese Garden, a free event regularly hosted every other Sunday on the north campus by Vets Whole in One, a nonprofit organization located in Los Angeles. (The class is currently taking place at the golf course instead of the Japanese Garden because of nearby construction creating new permanent supportive housing for Veterans.) For the latest schedule please visit Vets Whole in One Events webpage

“The mindfulness program at the VA is therapeutic and has helped me meet other Veterans with the same interests. I also love getting the golf pointers,” Army Veteran Sinclair Delroy said.

This unique program combines the healing power of mindfulness meditation with the physical health benefits provided by the sport of golf. At the start of the event, guests are kindly welcomed and have the opportunity to connect with like-minded peers and create positive experiences together in a supportive environment. Many Veterans have found friendship and camaraderie through the program, all while healing parts of themselves.

Stephen Islas and Jim Dennerline of Vets Whole In One have created an inclusive environment where whether you are a first-time golfer or seasoned participant you'll feel right at home.

Islas, a Navy Vietnam Veteran, is an expert meditation instructor with over 40 years of experience, having studied with spiritual masters in India and San Francisco. He has conducted more than 150 communication and relationship workshops and has lead men's groups since 1984.

Dennerline is a professional golfer and founder of Vets Whole In One. He has been teaching golf professionally for over 40 years.

Typically, Islas leads groups of 20 to 30 Veterans in 15-minute meditation sessions. Participants are free to sit or stand throughout the sessions and the entire experience is curated so Veterans feel comfortable. Dennerline then gets into the golf portion of the session, starting off with a series of stretching exercises using golf clubs.

Meditation is a key component to golf “because many Veterans have a difficult time focusing on the ball due to what they have experienced in combat,” said Dennerline. “Before beginning any golf swings, it’s important to be loose and limber in order to create a great swing.”

The Center of Mindfulness at the Greater Los Angeles VA states that when we train ourselves to bring our attention to the present moment from a place of kindness and curiosity, we decrease negativity and improve our ability to cope better with challenges in life. Located in the Integrative Health and Healing Center (Building 220 at West LA VA), the Center for Mindfulness offers a wide variety of courses to Veterans to promote wholeness, enhance well-being and alleviate suffering. The center is also home to VA CALM, the national mindfulness facilitators training program for VA clinicians.

“The benefits of mindfulness include mood improvement, stress reduction, and pain management,” said J. Greg Serpa, a clinical psychologist, research scientist and a national mindfulness consultant at West LA VA.

“Veterans love it and are hungry for it,” Serpa added. “They find meditation personally transformative. Our goal is giving Veterans what they want when it is such a great component to their care.”

Dennerline has worked with Veterans from various health backgrounds, including those with amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe health complications. He has a true passion for giving back and is dedicated to helping Veterans heal and live happier lives.

“The program has helped me with my diabetes and keeps me busy,” said Navy Veteran Jimmie Thompson.

Islas recalls one Veteran who didn’t feel comfortable closing his eyes around people because of the PTSD he suffered. Using skills he learned during the mindfulness sessions this Veteran is now able to let his guard down, close his eyes, and even hugs Islas when he sees him.

Participation is easy for Veterans, and registering on the Vets Whole in One website is encouraged so organizers know how much food to order for hosted lunches. However, all Veterans need to do is show up.

Meditation therapy has received recognition from the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) and the PGA HOPE program. The HOPE program introduces the game of golf to Veterans and is taught by PGA professionals trained in adaptive golf and military cultural competency.

 A study from the Clinical Psychology Review, conducted in 2017, found that mindful meditation has been proven to calm the mind from traumatic episodes and reduces the necessity of taking medication to manage PTSD. The research shows that mindfulness provides sustainable, positive change.

Not only does this program aims to implement a comprehensive workout, which helps improve cardiovascular health, balance, muscular strength, cognition, and psycho-social well-being, but it empowers Veterans who are working through isolation, depression, and trauma so that they don't feel so alone through their healing journey.

For more information about mindfulness classes, please visit VA’s Center of Mindfulness website.

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