11/04/2013 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Suzanne Manafort: Bringing Mindful Yoga Therapy to Veterans

2013-11-03-SuzanneManafort.pngThis is an interview with Suzanne Manafort, who has been a student of Beryl Bender Birch for about 15 years and Patty Townsend for a decade. She has completed advanced certifications with both yoga masters and also studied in the Living Tantra and Sage Programs at the Himalayan Institute with Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. Currently, she is the director of Newington Yoga Center and also the founder of Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans.

Besides teaching yoga and teacher trainings at her yoga center, Suzanne has been teaching veterans with post-traumatic stress in a treatment facility for the past five years. She is co-author of Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans: An Embodyoga Practice Guide, and has two CDs, "Breathe In Breathe Out" and "Yoga Nidra."

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has the motivation changed you?

Being a student of Beryl Bender Birch teaches you to go out into the world and make some kind of difference. Jokingly, she says that she is "training spiritual revolutionaries," but it's really the truth! She leads by example. She has trained all of her students to step in where there is a need.

What keeps me motivated is the successful results that the yoga practices have with men and women with PTS. Watching their progress and witnessing people stepping back into their lives is a true gift.

Is there a stand-out moment with your work with veterans?

There are many! I had a man in one of my residential programs who I thought really didn't want to be there, and was very resistant to the practices. In this program when they graduate they receive a medal for their accomplishment. The day of this man's graduation he presented me with a medal for my service. I keep it on my desk and it reminds of how important this work is, and never to think I know what anyone else is thinking.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What are some of the assumptions you had about the population and how have those assumptions changed?

Nothing at all! I thought it would be nice to donate my time at the local VA. They asked me to teach a class in the residential PTSD program. I was surprised at how many women were suffering with PTS, and for quite some time. I very quickly learned that I needed to adapt the yoga practices to meet their needs, physically and mentally.

Mindful Yoga Therapy was born out of this treatment program. Feedback from the veterans in the program was one of the reasons it became apparent to me that the practices had to be adapted appropriately. The results have been amazing! I watch the men and women as they begin in my 12-week program look as if someone has dimmed their inner light. After a few weeks, their interests in the practices begin to increase and slowly it looks as if they brighten up. It truly is a visible change. So many men and women taking our program combined with psychotherapy are getting well and leading productive lives. It has been my honor to be a part of this!

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for the differences?

One of the things we stress in our Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT) programs is to create a safe space, so there is a whole list of things that go along with that, but here are two. Because so many women and men are suffering from PTS, the postures are very carefully chosen so that no one ever feels vulnerable. My language is different. I don't use Sanskrit in an MYT class.

What are the greatest challenges in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing them?

One of the greatest challenges is to get these programs into the places that they are needed. I've had to learn how to do professional presentations on the benefits of yoga and MYT.

What advice would you give anyone who is going to teach in this population?

Be your authentic self, create a safe space, and allow them to do only what they are comfortable with. Let them be in control of the pace that they progress at, while teaching them to find their inner space where there is peace.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "yoga service" in America in the next decade?

There are so many people doing such good work! In my narrow little window I would like to see a yoga therapeutic program in treatment centers for veterans everywhere. I believe that yoga is really helping to make a difference with PTS. I am seeing the results first hand.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My work as a board member with the Give Back Yoga Foundation has exposed me to so many people who are doing amazing work. I do completely believe what Beryl Bender Birch says: "We all have the ability to make a difference in the world."

My definition of yoga is more about the way I live my life now than what I do on my mat. I try to live my life as my practice.

What other organizations do you admire?

There are so many! I have been proud to work with Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness. They are a group of men and women dedicated to helping their brothers and sisters. And I'm also proud to hold a seat on the board of directors for the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Editor: Alice Trembour

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is committed to offering free yoga and meditation resources to veterans nationwide. Help us meet our goal of putting evidence-based Yoga For Veterans Toolkits in the hands of 10,000 returning soldiers this year by making a one-time or recurring donation in the amount of your choice.

Do you work for a VA hospital? E-mail Executive Director Rob Schware to learn how to obtain free or discounted copies of the multi-media Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering From Trauma toolkit for use by veterans. These empirically-tested materials have been distributed to more than 30 VA hospital facilities, various Soldier and Family Assistance Centers, and wellness programs for wounded warriors.