Yoga for veterans offers meaningful holistic solutions to returning veterans and their families.
Studies and testimonials confirm that yoga and meditation are successful healing modalities for trauma. A growing body of research is showing that this is true for our veterans, proving to be one of the most effective ways to relieve post-combat trauma and bring new strength to people serving in the military.
Kody Waldstein, a young US Navy veteran, began practicing yoga as part of his training when he was competing on the Iowa State University Triathlon team. He says, “I understand the intense physical punishment one undergoes in the military. A good yoga class not only helps loosen and revitalize the body; it strengthens areas that conventional fitness neglects.” Waldstein says he personally knows SEALs and US Army Special Forces operators who practice yoga. “The mind is extremely powerful, and anyone who has attended a military special operations school knows that firsthand,” he says. “Your body can perform twenty times the work you think possible. Your mind is the only thing holding you back from achieving your full potential.”
His words may feel surprising since the traditionally macho “push-up population” of the military was not as open to integrative healing therapies–including yoga–as they are becoming today. Yet, a growing number of veterans, spanning from the Vietnam War to our most recent 12-year military participation in Iraq and Afghanistan, have found relief from the negative impacts of war through the practices of yoga and meditation. Seeing these results, the military is examining integrative and complementary recovery options, adding yoga to their restorative curriculums at Veterans Associations (VA) and other organizations that support transitioning veterans back to civilian life.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common challenges our veterans face after serving our country, affecting up to 20% of soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and 30% of Vietnam veterans. A quarter of a million veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD and many others suffer in silence. In 2012, the suicide rate among members of the US military grew by 15 percent, with a documented 22 veterans taking their lives every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs data.
Traumatic events that many of our service men and women witness in combat can trigger the sympathetic nervous system—the “fight or flight” response—long after the event itself, changing in brain chemistry. Common characterizations of PTSD, as identified in a study done at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, California in 2011, include emotional numbing or volatility, insomnia or nightmares, flashbacks, and purposeful avoidance of social interactions in an effort to avoid triggering a memory of the original trauma.
Brad Willis—now known as Bhava Ram—a former NBC News war correspondent whose wartime reporting included assignments during the Gulf War, healed himself from a broken back and stage four throat cancer by utilizing the sciences of Yoga and Ayurveda. Having experienced war firsthand, he attests, “While emotional and physical trauma, especially in war zones, can have a profoundly deleterious effect, we are not stuck. We have the capacity to take charge of our circumstances and chart our destiny. Yoga provides the tools for this shift.”
(Photo courtesy of Give Back Yoga Foundation)
Medicine to Meditation
Many veterans are tired of dealing with the side effects of taking the prescription drugs offered to alleviate their symptoms, while others simply don’t want to seek help from the VA. “For many veterans, it is shameful for them to admit there is a problem. There is a particular mindset to not show your weakness,” says Jennifer Glossinger, an Army Reserve Captain and yoga instructor herself.
The aforementioned study conducted at John F. Kennedy University offered weekly classes of Integrative Restoration (iRest) to military combat veterans for two months. iRest was developed by Richard Miller, PhD, after he was involved in a pilot study conducted at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in collaboration with the Department of Defense (2006) with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Successful results demonstrated that the meditative practice of Yoga Nidra helped decrease PTSD symptomatology. “I feel more accepting of situations in my life that I cannot control,” was feedback from one of the participants. The iRest program includes a number of Yoga Nidra protocols specifically designed for military personnel to heal from the variety of symptoms that arise from service. Yoga teachers trained in iRest now support active military, veterans, and their families in over 30 settings across the country.
The John F. Kennedy study revealed that the manifestations of PTSD are the trauma survivor’s unsuccessful attempts to use disordered subconscious energy to transition back to civilian life. What makes yoga different than conventional therapies, such as prescription drugs or talk therapy, is that yoga can teach the practitioner to harness that energy and proactively use the mind and body to heal and rebalance his or her own nervous system.
“Meditation helps them find what’s right with them. So many times in therapy, we only look at what’s wrong,” says Molly Birkholm, a senior iRest instructor who teaches at a VA in Miami, Florida. Vietnam veteran Tom Rusneck concurs , “I have been doing Yoga Nidra for three years and I have gotten to a point now that I don’t have to take any medication for my blood pressure. And I don’t take anything for sleeping, so it has made a big improvement.”
Not only are testimonials from trauma-surviving veterans providing evidence that this practice is working, there are a growing number of scientific studies investigating the effects of meditation on the central nervous system. For example, the recording of brain activity through the use of Electroencephalography (EEG), demonstrates that meditation shifts brain wave activity by encouraging the increase of lower frequency alpha and theta brain waves. These are the brain waves associated with the body’s relaxation response. Similar findings from other EEG studies also suggest that meditation can create deep relaxation while simultaneously allowing people to maintain a sharp awareness.
Continuing scientific research supports these results and has determined that we can sculpt our own brains. Positive emotional states can be trained–like learning to play an instrument–with consistent practice.
Push-ups to Poses
Along with research on yoga’s mental benefits, physical benefits of practice are breaking through the common misconception that yoga is reserved for women or is not as challenging as a testosterone-based gym workout. “I think the real physical fitness buffs in the military know that yoga is no joke,” says Glossinger. She primarily instructs active duty military, having taught yoga regularly to soldiers in Iraq as well as at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.
Shawn O’Reilly, a former Leading Chief Petty Officer/Independent Duty Corpsman for the US Navy on the USS Rushmore, led Marine Corpsmen through a yoga practice on the deck of the ship several times a week. “Many of them could do a hundred push-ups, sit-ups till the sun goes down, put an eighty-pound pack on their back and run five miles, but have them do a half-hour of yoga and they are a sweaty mess and ready to quit. I would remind them, ‘use your mind, not your body. The body will do the pose and hold the position, but you have to allow it to happen.’ ”
Chatter to Chanting
In addition to the power of asana, chanting Sanskrit mantras also has a positive effect on the nervous system. “Mantras are refined sound bites which are designed to create positive and beneficial responses in our bodies and brains,” says Miten. He and his partner Deva Premal are among many artists sharing music with veterans as a healing technique. “The suggestion is to approach mantra practice in a scientific way,” he continues. Their CD, Mantras for Precarious Times, breaks down a mantra practice into a 21-day experience, making it easy to follow for anyone new to this type of meditation. “This is our way of sharing the healing power of these amazing sound formulas.”
In 2013, for the first time in its five-year history, Bhakti Fest, the largest gathering of yoga teachers and kirtan artists in the Western world, offered free entry to both veterans and active military. O’Reilly jumped on the opportunity. “Kirtan is just fun. The music, the vibration, being able to detach my brain from what is going on around me in the everyday world by chanting mantras…it slows down the mind chatter.”
Yoga Giving Back
The yoga community has committed to making these practices more readily available to veterans through a variety of venues, by both training teachers to work with these specific groups as well as increasing access to yoga.
As the benefits of yoga and meditation reach a larger audience in veteran communities, the demand for yoga teachers to be trained in this kind of yoga therapy is increasing. Programs including YogaFit for Warriors, Yoga Warriors International, Veterans Yoga Project, Warriors at Ease, and iRest are specifically geared toward healing the wounds of our veterans and offer programs for yoga instructors to teach trauma-sensitive classes. Trainees are educated about PTSD and how to lead mindfulness meditation for trauma therapy. They also learn to be attentive to poses and language which could possibly trigger a practitioner’s painful memory.
“These are not regular yoga classes. Teachers need to be prepared before teaching people with combat stress or PTSD,” says Lucy Cimini, President of Yoga Warriors International.
Give Back Yoga Foundation offers free yoga and mindfulness resources to veterans. They give support and funding to certified yoga teachers in all traditions to offer the teachings of yoga to underserved segments of the community, including veterans.
“Our veterans have given much, far too many are poorly treated, and when their service comes to an end they face PTSD-related challenges. I have a heartfelt desire to be of help,” says Bhava Ram. Although the largest demographic experiencing post-traumatic stress is veterans, the healing tools of yoga and meditation are beneficial to all.
As Miten puts it, “When I look around, I see almost everyone I know under some kind of stress due to the speed, noise, and intensity of modern life.” Yoga has become not only an option in relieving this stress and trauma in the nervous system, it’s a proven tool that is healing many and making a significant difference for the heroes of our country.
Teacher Training Programs
Yoga Resources for Veterans
Yoga for Vets (Find free yoga classes for veterans throughout the country.)
Olivia Kvitne is a Los Angeles yoga instructor specializing in yoga therapy for veterans struggling with PTSD. One of the influences in her life was her grandfather, a WWII vet, and later a psychiatrist who embraced using the mind to heal the body: TheYogaAbbey.com @OliviaKvitne