When Looking for Ways to Support Our Veterans, the Yoga Mat Might Just Be the Place to Start:
Veterans Day in November, is the anniversary of the end of World War I. It is a holiday scheduled to honor all veterans of the United States Armed Forces for their patriotism and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good of our country. Yet all too often, this service comes with a cost of unseen wounding. This is why a number of organizations around the country, as well as the military itself, is looking at the benefits of yoga for veterans.
The current statistics are staggering: There are a reported 22 veteran suicides each day, 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and 30% of Vietnam veterans are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
PTSD can be Influenced by Yoga
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition of persistent mental and emotional anxiety typically occurring after an acute trauma, but can also occur after long-term, chronic stress. Symptoms can include reliving events through flashbacks and nightmares, chronic hype-vigilance, depression, isolation, aggression, and severe generalized anxiety. With PTSD, a person’s nervous system is reacting to the trauma of past memories rather than responding to present moment circumstances.
Often, veterans may express reluctance to admit that they are experiencing the symptoms of PTSD in fear it might reflect on their ability to handle the pressures of the military. This stigma was specifically addressed during a CNN’s Town Hall in September, 2016, when former President Obama said, “You’ve got to get help. There’s nothing weak about that. It’s strong.”
Research on Yoga for Veterans
Recently, more research studies are finding that yoga techniques, when delivered in a trauma-sensitive manner specific to the needs of the veteran population, are having a positive effect on PTSD symptoms.
A study funded by the U.S. Defense Department and led by Sat Bir S. Khalsa, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, found that a consistent yoga practice over t10 weeks showed improvement in PTSD symptoms via a clinician-administered PTSD scale. Yoga techniques in this protocol included postures, breathing techniques, and meditation with an emphasis on grounding awareness in the present moment. Several other studies have shown similar positive results.
More of the medical settings that serving veterans have been making yoga classes available. Currently, classes are being held at three sites of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Los Angeles with yoga therapist Jeanne Ortiz. “We are experiencing wonderful results with these programs such as reduction in use of pharmaceutical medicines, better range of mobility, and decreased depression and decreased symptoms of PTSD,” says Ortiz. In addition, a number of organizations have been developing programs to educate teachers on safe and effective yoga practices for veterans. Even so, many veterans are unaware of yoga as a resource for support or how they can find a class or a teacher sensitive to their needs.
On Veterans Day, members of the yoga community have come together to create several initiatives to increase accessibility and awareness of yoga for veterans. These are also opportunities for civilians to show support for veterans as well as the organizations involved in these efforts.
Veterans Yoga Project
For example, Veterans Yoga Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Daniel Libby, offers trainings for yoga teachers to teach skills of self-regulation through yoga and also provides healing retreats for veterans. “I didn’t serve in the military. I believe if you didn’t serve, then it is your responsibility to serve those who have” says Libby. Veterans Yoga Project has created Veterans Gratitude Week from November 4-13 where hundreds of yoga classes around the world will be offered by donation as a way of introducing yoga to veterans and support the work of Veterans Yoga Project.
Los Angeles-based yoga photographer Robert Sturman has also created a call to action surrounding Veterans Day by asking several yoga studios to offer unlimited free yoga for veterans during the month of November. Sturman is known for his exquisite photographs of military personnel and veterans practicing yoga postures. “As an artist who is aware of the veteran suicide statistics, and as a human being who has become friends with many vets, I feel it is my responsibility to bring awareness to not only the crisis, but to the possibility of healing,” offers Sturman.
This Veterans Day, observe the holiday by introducing yoga to a veteran in your life or attending an event to support the efforts of teachers and organizations who are bringing healing to veterans through yoga.
Veterans Gratitude Week
Veterans Yoga Project annual fundraiser to support recovery and resilience among veterans, families and communities. Teach or attend a donation-based class.
Olivia Kvitne is founder and director of Yoga For First Responders. She teaches yoga at the Des Moines Veterans Association and is the 2016 recipient of the Warrior Award and Community Choice Award from Yoga Alliance. YogaForFirstResponders.org