Twenty veterans and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” filled American Legion Post 34 in Cave Creek, Ariz.
“Two minutes! Buckle up baby, put on your seat belts,” post member Scott French bellowed to the barefoot men and women standing on yoga mats.
This is not your ordinary yoga class. “It’s for old, gray-haired guys, covered in tattoos, riding Harleys that never would be caught dead doing yoga,” explains French, a 90% disabled veteran who served in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division during the 1980s.
Instead of downward dog pose, there is a peeing dog move.
In fact, there are no poses. No mentions of butterflies, pigeon pose or savasana. Instead there are moves and techniques like touchdown, screaming eagle and diamond cutter. Like yoga, they are designed to move the body and relax the mind. Unlike yoga, songs from Metallica, ZZ Top, Van Halen and others funnel more energy into the packed hall.
This is DDPY, a program developed by former professional wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. It’s a high-energy routine with clapping, smiling and plenty of sweating, says French, a former martial arts instructor.
“My disability is challenging,” he says, noting doctors had recommended spinal fusion surgery and knee replacement. “I found myself in a state of depression with a busted back. I was also going to VA for four hours a week for counseling and rehab.”
DDPY fixed French’s body and mind, then inspired him to help his fellow veterans the same way. About four years ago he started teaching and leading four weekly classes for veterans at Post 34. Some are stand-up classes, others are chair yoga.
“It’s a modern yoga system,” French said. “Many veterans have used this program to rebuild themselves, or as we like to say, resurrect themselves. I went on to lose about 40 pounds, and rebuild my core to support my lumbar so I avoided the spinal surgery.”
Participants also realize it’s not just their bodies that improve.
“The mental aspect is one of the most powerful aspects of DDPY,” he says. “Exercise is a very strong tool to use against depression and anxiety. There is a mind and body connection. DDPY helps you with anxiety and depression. By the end of the work, you have been able to de-stress and ease depression.”
When French learned about The American Legion’s Be the One initiative, he saw an opportunity to combine classes in early March with raising awareness about mental health.
That ties in with Warrior’s Purpose, a subset of DDPY. “Be the One and Warrior’s Purpose have the same mission: to help reduce veteran suicide and rip the stigma off mental health talking about mental health,” French explained. “It’s important to talk about mental health, especially during these times.”
French saw an opportunity to introduce Be the One at his post during a week’s worth of yoga classes. Participants were greeted with a special Be the One table with information and an introduction to the initiative at the start of each session.
During a brief water break during one class, French called out to Connie McGuffin, “You’re kicking ass!” Wearing an “Unstoppable” T-shirt and a wide smile, she retorted, “no, you’re kicking ass!”
Fact is, they are all.
McGuffin became interested in yoga thanks to her husband, Robert Stewart, who is a Sons of The American Legion and Riders member at Post 36 in Tucson. When he started yoga four years ago, he weighed over 400 pounds, battled depression, feasted on fast food, and used alcohol and drugs.
“I just wanted to be a better individual so I started the program,” says Stewart, who has lost 162 pounds, begun a healthy diet and embraced sobriety. “I gained respect for myself and an understanding of the body. The program helped me develop discipline and get into a good mental space.”
Now, Stewart wants to give back and start a similar program at his post. He is inspired by his grandfather, former Air Force pilot James Singelton, who signed the paperwork for Stewart to join the SAL two days before he passed away.
“I want to serve to honor him for his service that gave me the right to be here and for us to live in freedom,” he said. “He was a great man.”
To be able to teach DDPY, Stewart needs to gain his certification, which he is pursuing now. “It helps me structure myself, create discipline and give me a goal. No matter what chaos happens during the day, I know that I have that goal and I know that I am headed to where I want to be. All I want to do is to inspire people so they can feel what I feel. And I feel amazing.”
Admitting she was skeptical of yoga, McGuffin is now a believer. “I thought it was wimpy. I was a kick boxer growing up. I was very rough on my body. I rode horses and dirt bikes, and crashes and getting thrown is part of that.”
As she aged, those injuries and life stresses caused pain, spiked depression and led her to try pills to get relief. “Anything to ease the pain and get some rest.”
Two of her sons dealt with their own issues related to drugs, including prison time, which exacerbated her stress. Then she met Stewart, a motorcycle rider, heavy metal fan and DDPY participant. So McGuffin gave this brand of yoga a try.
“My love of Robert sparked my love for yoga,” she said. “We do still suffer from depression. With yoga, you can mentally detox and cleanse your mind. I can get up now and move. That rust shakes off and you feel so good about yourself again.
“This is not your momma’s yoga. It’s intense, it kicks your butt and it feels good.”
Rob Ramsey, a 100% disabled veteran, is another walking example of the power of DDPY.
After his service, the Army veteran was involved in an accident in August 2001 that left one foot immobile, forced him to retire from his civilian job and sank him into depression.
“I was on a very high dose of fentanyl. I was a functioning junkie for 17 years,” he recalled. “They told me I should retire. And I retreated to my couch where I was a prisoner in my own home. I used a walker or a cane to get around.”
Three years ago he got himself off the opioids and then started the yoga program. “I just recently started to get movement in that foot again,” he says. “I like to ride bicycles a lot. But riding a bike did not help the foot. In fact, DDPY got me back to riding a bike.”
He started out slowly, first with chair yoga before progressing to performing the moves while standing. “Any soldier who is worth his salt would rather be on his feet than on that couch. It got me back up on my feet. And I was able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. It changed my entire life.”
To learn more about the program and its discounted rate for veterans, visit the DDPY website.