PENSACOLA, Fla. – When Marine Lt. Alan Zarracina finally did the splits after months of struggling with the difficult pose in yoga class, the limber women around him applauded.
Each class ends with a chant for peace. Then, instructor Nancy La Nasa hands students incense sticks as a gift for their 90 minutes of back bends, shoulder stands and other challenging positions.
Zarracina has tried to drag some of his military friends to class, but they make fun of him. "It's not necessarily considered masculine," he said.
Still, the popular classes, based on ancient Hindu practices of meditation through controlled breathing, balancing and stretching, are catching on in military circles as a way to improve flexibility, balance and concentration. A former Navy SEAL told Zarracina about the class.
The August edition of Fit Yoga, the nation's second-largest yoga magazine with a circulation of 100,000, features a photo of two Naval aviators doing yoga poses in full combat gear aboard an aircraft carrier.
"At first it seemed a little shocking — soldiers practicing such a peaceful art," writes editor Rita Trieger.
Upon closer inspection, she said, she noticed "a sense of inner calm" on the aviators' faces.
"War is hell, and if yoga can help them find a little solace, that's good," said Trieger, a longtime New York yoga instructor.
Retired Adm. Tom Steffens, who spent 34 years as a Navy SEAL and served as the director of the elite corps' training, regularly practices yoga at his home in Norfolk, Va.
"Once in a while I'll sit in class, and everyone is a 20-something young lady with a 10-inch waist and here I am this old guy," he joked.
Steffens, who said the stretching helped him eliminate the stiffness of a biceps injury after surgery, said the benefits of regular practice can be enormous.
"The yoga cured all kinds of back pains," he said. "Being a SEAL, you beat up your body."
Yoga breathing exercises can help SEALs with their diving, and learning to control the body by remaining in unusual positions can help members stay in confined spaces for long periods, he said.
"The ability to stay focused on something, whether on breathing or on the yoga practice, and not be drawn off course, that has a lot of connection to the military," he said. "In our SEAL basic training, there are many things that are yoga-like in nature."
Zarracina, the Marine, said yoga has helped him improve his posture and become more comfortable while flying.
"Sitting in an airplane for two hours with a harness pulling on you, you will feel a hot spot around your back," he said.
But he said mastering difficult stretches like the splits wasn't easy despite being in top physical condition.
"For the first two weeks, I didn't like (yoga) because it was painful," he said. At Marine training in Quantico, Va., "we did hikes and field training. Yoga taps into those core muscles that people don't really use."
At the Army's Camp Rudder on Eglin Air Force Base outside Pensacola, Army Ranger candidates go through their final and most difficult stage in their grueling training regimen. Capt. Jeremiah Cordovano, a Rudder instructor, said that yoga isn't a part of Ranger training but that some use it to build flexibility.
"It's still something that is sort of catching on, but a lot of guys have done it," he said. "I have done it quite a few times. A friend introduced me to it and I was surprised. At first I was just smiling, but after five or 10 minutes you really start to work out your muscles and stuff."
But the peaceful meditation techniques and chanting taught in yoga classes don't necessarily transfer to the combat zone, Cordovano said.
"I spent 14 months in Iraq, and I didn't see anybody doing yoga while I was over there," he said.