MADISON >> Alistair Sweeney feels in touch with his body, mind and soul as he plants his feet and lower body into the earth and reaches his head and upper body to the sky in his Warrior II yoga pose.
This pose, also known as Virabhadrasana II, is “full of opposing forces working on the body,” he says. It requires a lot of practice, “but when you forget about your legs hurting it is very powerful.”
Yoga has been life-changing for Sweeney. As a veteran of the Regular Force New Zealand Army, he is passionate about sharing the benefits of Vinyasa Yoga – especially to local military and service personnel – active and veterans.
“I think that just coming straight back into civilian life and trying to relax is actually a little bit difficult,” he says.
The 33-year-old now has a number of shoreline yoga classes through Fitness on the Water – Westbrook, Clinton’s Pradipika, and Madison Beach & Recreation Department.
Yet, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., Mondays and 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays, on the Madison Green, he is extending an open invitation to local veterans, fire, police and emergency personnel and their families to experience the benefits, free of charge.
Other attendees are encouraged to leave a donation. The classes will run through Aug. 31.
“I know from experience that a lot of the training that they go through has a toll on the bodies,” he says. He has firsthand experience.
Sweeney served in the New Zealand Army for 11 years as an infantry officer, focusing on training combat with heavy weapons and armored vehicles. During this time he had two, seventh month deployments to East Timor and two deployments, totaling 10 months, in Afghanistan.
His introduction to yoga was at a civilian gym in 2010, following his deployment to Afghanistan. After experiencing the benefits of it, he suggested the idea of integrating yoga into military training. The military was not interested at the time.
“I guess they were more focused on the physical training, focused towards the combat operations that we were doing,” he remembers.
He retired in 2012 as a captain and is currently living in Madison with his fiancée, Rachel McNerney.
After finishing his yoga training in January, he began looking into ways in which the practice could help retired and active military and service personal.
Researching a program entitled Yoga for Warriors, www.yogawarriors.com, he discovered that its benefit could really reach beyond the military.
“I think it can really be transferred into everyday life,” he says.
“I’ve done some private sessions with people and they say sometimes they have trouble sleeping because there’s so much on their mind and I can definitely relate to that. Where you’re always worried about something that’s going on, something that’s happening the next day or something that happened that day. And I found the resting techniques…actually for some people it’s the first time they find that they can actually have a little bit of sleep.”
Sweeney’s classes “focus on moving with breath in order to warm the body, calm the mind and assist students to discover their own ‘Inner Warrior.’”
He also notes that practicing with the correct form is essential to get the full benefit.
“I try and help people because a lot of it is about alignment,” he says. “It’s not trying to say to people, ‘You’re not doing it properly,’ it’s just saying, ‘if you correct your alignment you’re going to increase the benefits.’
“The benefits will multiply if you’ve got that alignment correct.”
Dana Brown, manager of Fitness on the Water in Westbrook, says he is building a following and some of the women who regularly practice with Sweeney have been joined by their husbands.
“He has a very gentle, mild mannered way about him,” says Brown.
“I was intrigued by his resume because of his military background,” she adds. She also says that she wants more men to come into the studio and adding a male yoga instructor seemed a likely addition to her staff.
“Having a male instructor, I think, takes out the intimidation factor for men,” she stresses. “It can be intimidating to go into a yoga class full of women who are good at it.”
Men, Sweeney says, “really like the chest and shoulder openers like double angel pose, Dwikonasana, as a lot of men are generally tight in this area from push-ups and bench press.”
In addition to being good for the body, Sweeney finds yoga just as beneficial for one’s mental well-being.
“Initially I just found it really good as a stretching class,” says Sweeney. “I was having some tight muscles and joints and I found that it really helped me loosen up.
“But just getting into it more and more I found the mental, spiritual part of it really helped a lot with some of the issues I was having readjusting back into civilian life, which is very different from doing long deployments, when you’re constantly on the move, constantly under stress.”
Sweeney is excited to share his new found joy.
“I think the principles around yoga help people to realize that they need to try and live in the moment, live for today,” says Sweeney.
“A lot of people are always thinking about what I am doing tomorrow. What have I done wrong today or what can I do better today, but they’re not so much thinking about this is what I’m doing right now and this is a great place to be.”
Alistair Sweeney, 475-655-5294; email@example.com. Fitness on the Water, 1921 Boston Post Road, Westbrook, 860-391-8735, www.fitnessonthewater.com/; Facebook Fitness on the Water – Westbrook; PradipikaYOGA, 36 Nod Road, Clinton, 860-669-9642; Facebook Pradipika Yoga & Pilates; Madison Beach & Recreation Department, 8 Campus Drive, Madison, 203- 245-5623; www.madisonct.org