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by Master Sgt. Cohen A. Young, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
– BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — “Namaste everyone; the first thing I want you to do is relax and concentrate on your breathing” are among the first words you may hear when participating in an everyday yoga class held in a spacious classroom, glamourous physical fitness club or in the privacy of one’s own living room. But to hear those words among co-workers in the small confines of a hospital waiting area in Afghanistan where an office chair may inhibit you from fully extending yourself in the Warrior Two pose, after having spent three hours in an operating room, then it might mean that much more to you.
Senior Airman Kandie Ibarra, from the the 81st Medical Group at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, is serving her first deployment as a lab technician. Assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Medical Support Squadron, Ibarra created an escape from the busy and sometimes stressful world of the Craig Joint Theater Hospital here.
The hospital has basic services such as dental, out-patient care, flight medicine and optometry, in addition to a very busy trauma section which involves many of the sections within the hospital. Many of these doctors, nurses and lab technicians can be tasked with preserving a life at any given time.
How each of them deals with it varies–some may pray, some may block it out entirely and move on to the next surgery or daily checkup–but for Ibarra and her co-workers, yoga offers that quiet escape to a calm and relaxed environment.
“Yoga provides me a quiet place to go and get away from the stresses of the day,” said Ibarra, a resident of Blackfoot, Idaho. “As a lab technician, our section responds to traumas several times a week and we see the results of the war first hand. Everyone handles stress differently. What we do can affect people differently.”
Ibarra, along with four other lab techs and an officer-in-charge, make up the blood bank team for the hospital. They run Operation Enduring Freedom’s busiest blood bank. In July, they matched 488 blood components for 59 wounded ISAF personnel, ran 21,000 tests in support of nine Forward Operating Bases, and teamed with the Blood Support Detachment and Outpatient Clinic to deliver 77 pints of blood for a transfusion for two wounded personnel within two hours.
Ibarra has been practicing yoga for six years, but upon arriving at Bagram, she realized there weren’t any yoga classes. It would have been easy to practice on her own, but she wanted to share her quiet getaway with others.
She wasn’t certified, so she did some research to see how she could go about sharing yoga, which led her to “Yoga for Vets” and “Mindful Yoga Therapy,” two organizations whose founders were previously in the military and initially started leading yoga classes as uncertified instructors as well.
The two organizations were thrilled of Ibarra’s interest in starting up a yoga class and were eager to help, she said. They donated 22 mats and a few books to get her started. With their help, she was able to share the quiet space yoga has provided her.
“I’ve always wanted to get certified, but coming here I noticed there wasn’t a lot of space for me to practice yoga like I would at the gym or at home,” said Ibarra. “I wanted to create a space that I could do it and kind of share it with other people here.”
Since Ibarra worked in the hospital and many of her co-workers wanted to experience this quiet getaway time as well, she searched for a place where this could happen. Flight medicine had some space and she was able to acquire the space two nights a week as long as she moved all furniture back in place upon completion of the class.
“I’ve attended the class every night since Senior Airman Ibarra has started it,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Amanda Eagan, an operating room nurse deployed from Joint Base San Antonio, Texas and native of Brooksville, Florida. “It’s a blessing to have this quiet time to get into yourself and to close your eyes and to feel stress free because that is what’s important here. You need that time to decompress.”
Although the space is confined, having the class in the hospital is a benefit for staff members who participate because when there is an emergency call, personnel can respond in seconds.
During trauma calls, doctors and nurses aren’t the only responders, but representatives from anesthesiology, pharmacy, radiology and the lab must respond as well. Ibarra, as a lab tech, is needed if the patient has lost a lot of blood or requires surgery.
It can be an uneasy feeling when that call comes through the hospital because no one knows at first if it’s a life and death situation.
“When I hear a trauma call, I grab our emergency release blood, plasma and our I-stats for on the spot chemistry results,” said Ibarra. “Once in the trauma bay, the blood tubes must be labeled with patient’s information and we have to make sure everything is labeled correctly. Once the patient arrives, things slow down a bit because we, as lab technicians, are waiting for the blood to be drawn and that’s when I begin to think about the patient. Will they fully recover from their injuries, and how did they end up here?”
After a mass casualty or any type of trauma call, staff members want that quiet time to unwind and switch to a more relaxed mode or perspective, and the yoga class has done that for a few service members.
“Yoga literally gives me a chance to relax all those muscles and that tension that is within you and you just breathe it away,” added Eagan. “Ibarra just walks you through the poses, she walks you through everything and it allows you to just melt everything away.”
The class typically starts in the dimly lit waiting area of flight medicine, where the chairs are stacked and lined along any available wall. Soft instrumental music plays while Ibarra speaks softly to her brothers and sisters-in-arms as they briefly try to put the stresses of the day behind them. They relax their minds by closing their eyes and practice controlled breathing exercises while seated on their mat with their hands and arms folded in a prayer pose. From here, the class moves into several positions and stretches designed to free the body and spirit.
Namaste, which literally means “I bow to you” according to Yogajournal.com is said at the beginning and the end of a class. It can be viewed as a symbol of gratitude and respect between the teacher and his or her students.
Eagan believes yoga fits within the Air Force Comprehensive Airman Fitness framework of physical, spiritual, mental and social fitness.
“Yoga is not only about learning how to decompress and release that stress, it’s also very physical, and it’s very emotional,” said Eagan.
The CJTH staff isn’t just Airmen, there are a few U.S. Army medical staff members as well, and some of them have also found the class beneficial.
“It’s been a great way to release stress and get your body to loosen up a little bit,” said U.S. Army Spc. Briana Smith, a native of Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania, and a lab tech assigned to the 379th Blood Support Detachment out of Edgemont, Pennsylvania.
Ibarra has shared her yoga experience or quiet escape through 17 classes so far and sometimes is still nervous at the start, but as she continues, it gets easier because she’s among friends.
“I feel like I’m sharing it with a friend as you would do anything that you believe in,” said Ibarra. “If you learn a new routine or workout technique, of course you’re going to do it together, so in a way I’m just sharing and making it available with friends.”
“Lay back and close your eyes with your palms opened toward the ceiling, continue your deep controlled breaths, concentrate on being relaxed and calm,” are the soft-spoken words from Ibarra at the end of her class. “See you next time, Namaste.”