There’s a new group of yogis and they’re already veterans. Actually, they’re quite literally veterans, of the armed forces. Members of the military, both veterans and active duty men and women, are embracing yoga and meditation as a way to cope with physical wounds and the wounds that maybe aren’t so easy to see. To them, yoga has become an important method of healing, and a supplemental (or an alternative) form of therapy, offering relief beyond prescription medications that can be helpful but, too often, come with too many unwanted side effects of their own.
A recent piece in the Washington Post focuses on the growing number of active and inactive members of the military who have not only started practicing yoga to help cope with conditions such as PTSD, but have also taken the next step: teaching it to their fellow veterans.
Army Lt. Col. John Thurman lost 26 co-workers and sustained lung injuries from inhaling smoke during the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon. Beyond the physical injuries, Thurman found he was suffering from PTSD and was unable to sleep months after the attack, despite taking prescription meds. Yoga “made all the difference in the world in my ability to deal with the stress and my injury from that day,” says Thurman. And now he’s all in, having quit his job at the Pentagon to become a yoga teacher full time.
Jess Pierno worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense where she taught a weekly yoga and meditation class before she opened up Yoga Heights in DC, not far from her former job. This past weekend, the studio hosted a special training in Mindful Yoga Therapy, a program founded by Suzanne Manafort which is now being used in 49 Veterans Affairs offices.
“The yoga instructors who complete this training will be better equipped to teach students who have experienced trauma, by knowing how to mindfully adapt a typical yoga class setting and sequence to be more welcoming, comfortable and beneficial,” said Pierno.
Yoga for Vets is another similar program offering training for yoga teachers and free classes for veterans and people who have experienced trauma.
The amount of veterans confronted with PTSD is staggering, but alternative therapies like yoga and meditation are showing some promise:
Of the 2.3 million American veterans who returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 20 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which often includes anxiety, depression, and hypervigilance, which means they feel always on guard.
Experts say that treatment for PTSD with painkillers, antidepressants and psychotherapy often have mixed results. The Veterans Health Administration has launched four pilot programs — including one in Richmond — offering yoga, acupuncture, Qigong, guided imagery and equine therapies, part of an effort to reduce the dependence of tens of thousands on opiate painkillers.
A recent study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that yoga helps to intercept negative thoughts, decrease stress and offer benefits for PTSD patients, which provided important first-of-its-kind scientific support for yoga as an alt-therapy.
Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, concluded:
The beneficial effects are due to the increased ability to focus on breathing that, firstly, focuses a person on a present moment and breaks rumination on negative traumatic thoughts, and secondly, increases ability of ‘intraception’ – observing and understanding internal states and the ability to control them, or understanding them as temporal and passing.
There are always more studies needed when it comes to science, but we bet if you asked Thurman or Pierno or any of the veterans benefitting from the special yoga programs, they’d probably tell you there’s already enough proof that yoga and meditation are invaluable tools to have in your life’s toolbox.