Yoga for Vets

Yoga helps veterans adjust to civilian life and helps heal PTSD, depression and other ailments.

Yoga has established a sure foot in the military. Today, VA hospitals across the country provide classes, and a growing body of research attests to yoga’s ability to facilitate recovery from the physical and emotional effects of trauma. Some soldiers returning from war report profound healing mentally, physically and socially, including army veteran Lee Rodrigues.

When Rodrigues returned from Bosnia in 1999, he did not find yoga in the veteran’s hospital in Marin County, California, or several other places he lived. But he came across a class at his gym and embarked on a journey that led him to classes with other veterans, and later to the program Warriors at Ease. Strongly effected by his burgeoning yoga practice, he became a teacher and board member in the organization.

Rodrigues says he had back, sleep and mood problems including depression, and he sought help from the VA. Doctors prescribed some 10 to 15 pills, he said, but taking them led to a bleeding ulcer and other side effects. “The side effects were becoming much worse than just being depressed,” he found. When a friend suggested yoga, he tried it.

The asana practice felt good, he says, and it complemented his established meditation practice. Rodrigues found that a central and unexpected benefit of his yoga practice was that it taught him to take care of himself. When he encountered yoga nidra, a mindfulness practice, he experienced healing on an even deeper level. “I’m not going to say it was mind-blowing because it was more than that . . . this experience was mind-body-spirit blowing.”

Yoga relaxed him and helped him sleep better. He particularly responded to the fact that that “it's just right here, right now, let’s give an hour to ourselves and disengage whatever the mind is thinking.” 

“We’re understanding more these days what trauma is and how it gets stored in the body,” says Karen Soltes, director of Clinical Services and Supervision and a yoga teacher with Warriors at Ease. “It’s adaptive in the midst of a crisis to be able to split off emotion so that you can respond in a way that helps keep you alive, or the people around you alive, or meet whatever the emergency in front of you is, but oftentimes those emotions get pushed to the side in a way that they never get processed, sometimes for decades.” 

She notes that many body-oriented therapies are effective in addressing trauma because they help to process those emotions and reactions. “Oftentimes,” says Soltes, “it’s coming back to that felt sense of experience in the body and being able to meet that whole realm of reaction and emotion in a way that couldn’t be met in the event because it was too overwhelming.”

Rodrigues has found the focus on the body invaluable. Experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says his sympathetic nervous system is on guard all day scanning for threats. And yet practicing yoga nidra, he says, has helped him learn to engage the parasympathetic system, the resting-relaxing-calming part of the body, thereby alleviating the symptoms of PTSD.

“[Veterans] have survival skills nobody else has,” he notes. “It's just not positive if they run your life.”


Yoga’s Role in Helping Veterans Adjust to Civilian Life


Wrapped up in this experience of PTSD, says Rodrigues, is anger and frustration many vets experience upon returning to civilian life. An active-duty chaplain once told him he had won the second war, he says. “The second war is the war you fight when you get out,” he says. “Most people are not ready for that war. They are not ready for the fact that there is a massive stigma against veterans.

“People are afraid you're going to go crazy and shoot them,” adds Rodrigues. “No one will tell you that, but you can see the judgment in people's eyes. You know that when they find out you were in the military they think you're a little crazy. You won't get jobs because people are intimidated by you because you've seen people die, therefore one day you may go crazy and stab people or something.” 

Adding to the stress of returning vets, he adds, is the fact that all the skills they learned in the military don't translate to college credit or job skills. “All that work you did and you still can't find a damn job.”

In his case, most of his friends had finished college during the time he served in the military. When he returned, they had jobs, were making money, and he was starting from scratch. “I felt like I had a total disadvantage. And it was difficult . . . You have a little trouble being Mr. Happy Positive with everybody. It takes a while to figure that part out.”

Yet yoga nidra and finding patience helps, he says. “And the only way you really do it is gratitude,” he adds, the gratitude of surviving and the desire to contribute.


Helping Yoga Teachers Work Effectively with Vets


In Warriors at Ease trainings, faculty educate yoga teachers on potential triggers for people in the military and ways to create what they call a “safe container” for their students. For example, Soltes says, if someone has been exposed to IEDs [improvised explosive devices], they want to examine the room when they enter. They may not like dim lighting.

“We try to create a way for people to move more gently into these practices so they’re also not overwhelmed by their effect if it does come up. We help people create a sense of an inner resource, so we bring up memories of times when they felt safe, or comfortable, or at ease, and then there’s this anchor point that they can go back to if they need to.”

Warriors at Ease trainings stress introducing breathing practices and forward bends as a way to begin to settle the nervous system. They teach veterans practices they can easily do on their own.

Trainers also try to debunk some of the preconceived notions of what yoga is, says Soltes. She asks new students to tell her their associations with yoga. “Some people say it’s gay, some say it’s sissy. I say ‘put it all out on the table. There’s not much you’re going to say to me that’s going to hurt my feelings or I haven’t heard before.’

“I tell them it’s not about putting your leg behind your head, and it’s not about standing on your head, it’s really about helping people to be more flexible human beings,” says Soltes. She seeks to present yoga in way that makes it relevant to vets’ lives, and she shares research that may be important to them.

For many people with PTSD, says Soltes, sleep is a major difficulty, often because of anxiety and hyper-vigilance. “If people think that I can help them sleep better, they’re willing to try it and that’s one of the places we feel the most impact with what we’re doing.” Often they do begin to sleep better when practicing yoga, she says, which leads to greater dedication to practice. Irritability and anxiety decrease and they become better able to process strong emotion.  


Results of Yoga Practice


Yoga can play a vital role in restoring an ability to connect socially and re-enter civilian life, say both Soltes and Rodrigues. One of the effects of PTSD is that people feel disconnected from the world around them, and attending a class with others begins to restore a sense of safety with other people and consequently within themselves. Group yoga practice, Soltes says, connects them back to that part of themselves that is whole, complete, untouched by trauma.

In addition, says Soltes, yoga and yoga nidra help veterans reengage in daily life and work. PTSD affects the ability to function effectively in the world, she notes, and it impacts veterans economically as well as socially. “It’s no secret that the veteran population is way over-represented in the homeless population as well as in the prison population.” Addressing the PTSD can assist in the ability to function and to make one’s way in the world.

Both Soltes and Rodrigues underscore the fact that iRest yoga nidra can be a very powerful practice for people. People develop the ability to fully meet and actually feel into emotions they were pushing away, she says. They learn about the nature of their anger, allow it to be there, and develop the ability to respond differently even as they experience such strong emotion.

One Vietnam vet who had been through some extreme combat told Soltes he was driving home from the VA and was cut off by an 18-wheeler.  He said, “I can feel my anger igniting, and I know what I want to do to this guy.”

Says Soltes, “I call it the zero-to-60 response.” He thinks he is going to have it out with that guy, but realizes that never goes anywhere good, she says. And instead he just drove home. He realized in the moment that he had a choice.

“There’s some neurological/physiological/cognitive shift that happens, notes Soltes, “and people start responding in different ways. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision, but their whole body starts to settle down, and they're not in fight/flight reaction mode. The frontal cortex of the brain comes back online, and they're making better judgments and better decisions.”

Rodrigues concurs. “I learned this technique in Zen meditation but yoga nidra brought it to a whole new level, and I call it the mental reset. When I recognize my mind is just kind of getting ahead of itself, it’s jumping around and getting very excited, then I can take a few deep breaths and go into the body and clear the mind, and I use this probably five times a day, every day.

“I believe that iRest is a proactive way to address the issues everybody has,” he continues. “I think we all have some traumas, and I think iRest provides a vehicle to invite those traumas in for tea. Let’s have a little chat.” 


Tips from a vet for veterans or other people with PTSD beginning yoga:


1. Approach it with an open mind.

2. Even though your tendency may be to choose an aggressive workout instead of a gentle yoga practice, “give yourself a break and let yourself relax” (Lee Rodrigues).

3.  Realize you are learning a new skill, one that involves taking care of oneself and learning to respond instead of react.


Tips for yoga teachers:


1.   Make sure the room and environment feel as safe as possible (not too many cabinets, lights not too low, etc.).

2. Avoid hands on adjustments unless someone is really at risk of hurting him- or herself.

3. Don’t use Sanskrit or jargon that’s not relevant. Use secular terms so the practice doesn’t compete with students’ religious beliefs.

 Have experience with yoga for vets? Leave your comments below.


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