The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 22 American vets commit suicide every day. The need for effective Post Traumatic Stress treatment is obvious. Interestingly, yoga is proving to be an effective option, and the growing prevalence of VA centers seeking instructors shows that the military acknowledges the results. Unfortunately, an all-too-familiar sentiment can derail the benefits.
“If you’re in the Marine Corps or the Army, you’re trained to be tough. So to admit that you need help, it's not easy, there’s a lot of stigma," Beryl Bender Birch C-IAYT, E-RYT500, told HealthCentral.com by phone from her office in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Co-founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, she trains teachers to provide yoga instruction to veterans, and understands that instructors will likely find that the damage — physical, emotional, psychological — of combat isn’t easily left behind.
As a result, veterans can have impaired ability to oscillate between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In other words, they have greater difficulty regulating between states of calm and stress, which hinders social interaction.
In the worst cases, flight or flight mode is activated when the memory of a traumatic event triggers a flashback.
However, yoga can disarm the situation by keeping vets on point. “Yoga is really about learning to bring your awareness to the present moment, which can help you learn to let go of the memory," said Beryl, whose book, Yoga for Warriors, is free to all veterans.
Going back to basics
The main precept is breathing. Veterans learn to track their breath through the body, and staying attuned means they aren’t thinking of past trauma. This demonstrates that they can control their own mind.
The addition of movement to the regimen facilitates the meditative mindset. But vets are mistaken if they think the standard yoga gyrations make them "dainty."
“A strong yoga practice has a lot of strength work,” Beryl said. "Plus you are working to build the inner fire, and once that gets going, you're going to be dripping, soaking wet.”
Of course, no matter the intensity of the workout, in the real world something as seemingly innocuous as a morning cup of coffee might trigger a flashback. The tools then can be put to the test. Beryl described the approach: I can feel the ground underneath me. I can feel that cup of coffee in my hand. I can take another breath. I can consciously down regulate, because I can bring myself back to this moment.
There’s more to it than practice makes perfect, too. Neurological pathways can be established and replace traumatic memories. She likens the process to a fallen tree that impedes a trail. “The hikers go around it, and pretty soon, they make a new trail,” Beryl said.
The insomnia, anger and avoidance doesn’t disappear overnight, though. “It’s like training for a marathon,” Beryl asserted.
Nonetheless, class must be specific to military populations. For instance, vets shouldn't have their backs to the door. Otherwise, they may fear that someone could sneak up from behind.
Additionally, language should not be reminiscent of the world of taking orders. “If you are comfortable doing so, you can lie down and close your eyes,” Beryl explained.
Touch also requires cognizance — especially in relation to sexual trauma. “You wouldn’t just go up behind someone with post traumatic stress,” Beryl said, and "hands on" instruction means mindful touching, she added.
What lies beneath the surface
For Vietnam vets, dealing with nightmares, pain and anger for 40 years means resistance has long eroded. "They are willing to try anything,” said Daniel Libby, PhD RYT, by phone from his office in Oakland, California.
Executive director of the Veterans Yoga Project, he reports that unless younger vets are enduring insomnia or pain, there is greater avoidance. “If I don’t get hold of my anger, I’m going to hurt the people that I love,” said Libby, a clinical psychologist, describing the thought process.
On the other hand, not all the past is negative, and a class of vets provides a welcome reminder of their service: the social support, structure and closeness. “Vets find community again," Libby said.
Unfortunately, stigma still rules, as the grim statistics around veterans and suicide illustrate.
That’s exactly why Vietnam vet Rick Rowan, RYT-200, got involved. Veterans Yoga Project Director of Regions for the U.S., and the Carolinas Regional Director, he hopes vets might consider that their pain doesn’t imply weakness.
“Post Traumatic Stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” Rick said by phone from Charlotte, North Carolina.
Enduring severe distress is the only thing that isn't "normal" — and it's worth reminding vets that an answer is right before them.