LIVERMORE -- Pleasanton resident Andy Williams put his body through the wringer during his 12-year Army career, including a stint in Iraq in the first Gulf War.
In 1993, he was hit by a drunken driver, causing injuries to his neck and back. However, he continued jumping out of planes as a paratrooper and Airborne Division sergeant. The work took its toll.
"I'm constantly in pain," Williams said. "Everyday activities are very difficult for me, but I get through it."
Seeking relief for her husband's injuries, Andy's wife, Denise, discovered WarriorsOne Yoga, a new yoga class exclusively for veterans and their spouses at Las Positas College. The three-month class began Feb. 21 and is held every Thursday in the college's Athletic Center. Offered through the schools' Community Education program, it's free for veterans enrolled at Las Positas, the $10 charge reimbursed by the Veterans First program. Nonstudent veterans and their spouses can sign up for $30.
After just two sessions, Williams said he's already benefiting from the stretching exercises. Also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Williams says the relaxation he gets in the yoga room is a welcome relief from his symptoms.
"I don't like large groups. I don't like loud noises," he said. "So being in there with the calming music -- it just seems peaceful."
Taking Williams and a handful of veterans through the breathing exercises and poses is instructor Suzanna Spring, who teaches yin and restorative yoga as well as meditation. In some ways, Spring said, yoga has been a "relearning process" for the veterans, as each one comes in with some form of PTSD or injury related to military service.
"It's a motivated group," Spring said. "They're used to working hard. If anything I have to tell them to not work so hard."
Spring, who has also taught yoga at the VA's Palo Alto Health Care System facility in Livermore, said she's seen the practice improve veterans' eating habits, stress levels and physical healing.
Chris Rivera, a 22-year-old Army veteran from Pleasanton, served in Iraq in 2009. A music major at Las Positas, he joined the class to help with his knee problems and to build strength.
"The stretching helps a lot." Rivera said. "The relaxation at the end is the biggest perk. I can come in feeling all stressed out and then at the end I'm practically asleep."
Rivera's wife, Danielle, a former Army medic diagnosed with PTSD, studies nursing at Las Positas. She said in addition to the poses relieving pain from lingering hip injuries, she's seen a change in how she deals with anxiety.
"This class makes you aware of how tense your body is," she said. "It helps me so if I start to tense up, I'll notice it right away, and I'll do some breathing techniques or try to relax myself."
According to instructor Spring, many VA facilities are starting to incorporate yoga, along with traditional therapies for dealing with pain and stress.
Tracy resident Janell Correll, who spent 20 years in the Army and was a flight engineer in Iraq, has post-traumatic stress from combat and a back injury caused by overuse. She's combining yoga with regular strength training to stay calm and in shape.
"I think any exercise is probably the best stress relief you can have," she said. "They tend to try to throw drugs at everything, and I think that just exacerbates problems."
Brand-new to the practice, Army veteran Williams acknowledged that yoga isn't the typical "macho" activity he's used to engaging in, but he's quickly becoming a believer.
"You see a bunch of girls in there and you think, 'This is crazy,'" Williams said. "But it's not crazy. It's like, 'Why didn't I do this before?'"
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
The WarriorsOne yoga class for veterans and their spouses, taught by Suzanna Spring, is held Thursdays from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. in room PE 213 of Las Positas College's Athletics Building. The cost is $30 for veterans, or $10 for veterans enrolled at Las Positas. For student-veterans, the Veterans First program will reimburse the charge. Students need only bring a yoga mat. To sign up, call Frances DeNisco at LPC Community Education at 925-424-1467, stop by Building 1315 at Las Positas, or go to www.laspositascollege.edu/communityed/index.php.