Yoga with a pen - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Yoga with a pen


Certified Zentangle teacher, Mark Duran instructs the class to alternate drawing four lines down and four lines across to create a pattern called nekton.

By Yanitz Irizarry
Friday, September 16, 2016

 A piece of string flutters in the air and silently twists into a heap on the table.

A group of veterans watch it float and then using special Micron, fine tip pens, replicate the motion.

Immersed in a matrix of lines and shapes, a deep calm settles over the group. Each person draws three, oblong half-circles on a 3.5-inch paper square made from Italian cotton. They follow the instructor’s guide and connect sections of the lines, and the design, called, “Citrus,” resembled a wedge of lime. They rotate the tile of paper, and begin again, eventually connecting the patterns.

The artwork was at once the same and unique to each individual. When they are done, the result is Zentangle.

Zentangle is an easy-to-learn art form to create beautiful images while increasing focus, relaxation and a sense of well-being.

“It’s like yoga with a pen,” said Mark Duran, a veteran who used it to help himself heal, and now pays it forward by teaching others.

The Army Veteran teaches the class at DryHootch and the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

“No matter what problems Veterans have going on in their life at the moment, (Zentangle helps them) focus on the right now,” he said.

As a teacher, Duran uses the art of Zentangle as a form of therapy used to distract the mind from physical and mental ailments.

With a master’s in education and an eye for art, Army Veteran Duran used Zentangle to cope from injuries sustained in war.

“Ever since I got out of the Army, I was looking for something that gives me purpose in life,” said Duran. “This is one of the things that really boosted my self-worth, as far as paying it forward and finding a new purpose.”

Duran was seriously injured in Afghanistan during a road patrol 2005 when a terrorist drove a car bomb into his lead vehicle. The explosion left him with spinal injuries, personality changes, memory loss and headaches. He soon found himself struggling with everyday tasks he once took for granted.

“I know after I was injured I went through a transformation of being lighthearted to being serious all the time,” Duran said. “The headaches were the worst part; they still are. I have mobility and range of motion problems. Things like driving (are difficult); I can’t turn my head anymore.”

Dryhootch class

Mark Duran and Alice Steuck Konkel, teaches Veterans the healing arts of Zentangle at DryHootch.

He discovered Zentangle during an appointment 10 years later at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. He was in the middle of a biofeedback session, which uses sensors to monitor heartrate, breathing and muscle activity, when he saw Zentangle artwork hanging on the wall that was created by Julie Till, an occupational therapist.

“I thought it could be therapeutic,” said Till. “It had such a focusing effect. That’s what got me thinking it would be a great tool for our Veterans. I knew it had an appeal.”

Duran attended his first Zentangle class in the fall of 2015.

“It was very soothing. I could see the applications for whether it was pain, (post-traumatic stress) or physiological pain. I felt that immediately,” he said.

After one class, Duran was hooked.

“I still remember the first thing Mark said to me after his first class ended,” said Till. “With a big smile on his face, he asked me ‘How do I get certified?’”

The Army Veteran became a certified Zentangle instructor thanks to a scholarship provided by a donation made to the school. The certification is only taught a few times a year in Providence, Rhode Island, and costs $1,700. The Milwaukee VA’s Summit Credit Union donated an additional $400 for travel.

Duran graduated from the three-day class in June.

“It is important to us to contribute to the local community,” said Holly Esser, senior banker at the credit union. “We heard how successful and therapeutic the program is and we wanted to help support that.”

At DryHootch – a social gathering place for Veteran-to-Veteran peer mentors – Duran first assisted Alice Steuck Konkel, a retired VA art therapist and certified Zentangle teacher.

“I think for some people this is a step up from meditation, especially for people who are more visual,” said Stueck Konkel. “I think the whole part of Zentangle is like a mental massage.”

As a Zentangle teacher, Duran now helps Veterans with chronic pain in the physical therapy functional restoration program to use art as a form of healing. Functional restoration aims to improve lifestyle productivity by providing pain-coping skills.
“I feel really blessed and fortunate to be chosen to teach Zentangle,” said Duran. “The overall idea is to offer this to the Veteran population.”

The next Zentangle takes place at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center 1 to 2:30 p.m. Sept. 29 in room 70-D-11. To register, call Till at 414-384-2000, ext. 41197, by Sept 26.


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