Liba Spyros, Founder Transform Power Yoga

We celebrate July 4 as the day we declared our independence and Memorial Day as the day for remembering the brave men and women who have given their lives to preserve and protect our freedom. Remembrance and gratitude to the brave men and women defending our freedom are vital emotions to express, but many Americans want to do more. A large number of service members come home from their tours of duty and need more than our thanks. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), physical injury, and relational issues are just a few challenges facing the men and women who defend our freedom. Thankfully there are advances being made in the understanding of trauma and the brain, advances in physical therapy, and professionals increasing outreach and support for our returning military. Awareness of how many returning veterans are dealing with suicidal thoughts has galvanized from inside the military, the veteran communities, and externally, bringing about a wide range of programs both traditional and alternative in nature.

Fortunately there is a rise in trainings for alternate forms of therapy. We are learning more about the vagus nerve and how to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring calm to the mind. One area that has had a large rise in awareness is the positive affect of meditation and yoga with our active military and returning soldiers. Yoga and meditation are being taught at the Pentagon as a way to deal with stress and trauma. These classes are not just becoming commonplace but in some rehabilitation programs, it is mandatory. Many veterans are impressed enough with the results they are gaining through yoga that they are becoming yoga instructors. Programs are burgeoning across the country filled with former military choosing yoga as a way to serve their fellow service men and women. Yoga as a treatment for PTSD is now a common addition to trainings and treatment methods.

When leading a class for veterans, or active military suffering from trauma, it is important to have training for the unique sensitivities of the situation. In my trauma training, I learned that you should never touch a client suffering with PTSD. It is common in yoga classes for the instructor to assistant a client in their yoga posture, but placing hands on a trauma victim can cause traumatic flash backs. If you use music in class, make sure you never choose music from the countries of the specific war where the soldiers fought. Choose your words carefully making sure your verbal cues are not too esoteric. Take out the Sanskrit terminology and keep your words western and grounded. Word choices should be sensitive in case there are sufferers of sexual trauma in the class. Teaching trauma sufferers to learn to trust their own bodies again is the first goal. “It’s really about learning about your body and your experience; learning to breathe,” states Dan Libby, a co-founder of the Veterans Yoga Project (a 12-week program for treating veterans with PTSD). The value of relaxation techniques can’t be under estimated. Breathing exercises allow victims to self soothe by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system into action. A dedicated meditation practice changes brain chemistry to increase calm and reduce stress. And the physicality of a regular yoga practice fosters a way of letting go of trauma by releasing held memories and injuries. We store issues in our tissues. Opening our hips, a warehouse for stored emotions, releases those traumatic experiences. Opening our chest in postures like fish or backbends, expands areas that we contract during extremely negative emotions. First, there is an element of awareness around physical tightness. That awareness leads to an intention of expansion, and then finally the release of trauma. Then healing truly begins. It is important to have an instructor prepared for the emotional moments for these service men and women. The environment should feel safe and then trust can be felt.

A survivor of the Pentagon attack on 9-11, has turned his personal journey with PTSD and yoga into a new profession. John Thurman, thought he was safe with a desk job at the Pentagon. He was stationed in Germany during the Cold War and then Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War. At 9:37 am on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the west side of the Pentagon. This happened to be the same place where Thurman worked. Twenty-six of the 125 people killed in the Pentagon that day, were Thurman’s co-workers. A few weeks after the attack, he started noticing signs of survival guilt and PTSD. The 6 months that followed the attack brought physical healing to Thurman, who suffered severe smoke inhalation from kerosene, but mentally he was not healing. A friend suggested yoga. Although skeptical, he tried it. The biggest result for Thurman was the reduction in “mind chatter” that he experienced with PTSD. He started to notice that he was more relaxed and that he could sleep without nightmares. Yoga is scientifically proven to help lower stress levels. The practice worked so well for him that he pursued a teacher-training course to broaden his understanding of the practice. In 2013, he left the army to pursue teaching yoga full time. “For me, as a teacher, what is it that you want to do with your yoga? For me it was twofold: one was to bring yoga to men,” Thurman said. “It’s a good workout. You get your cardiovascular on, you’re building strength, but you’re building flexibility and length in your muscles. The other (reason) was to specifically bring it to service members and veterans.” So the Pentagon, the very place where he started his yogic journey, hired Thurman to lead a weekly class. He instructs and leads a room packed with 40-50 students. The class is a mix of active duty military and civilians, as well as retired military. “I think you know, one of the things out of 9/11, is the fact that I have been able to become resilient and recover, and live my life. I have a responsibility to do that. For the people who lost their lives on that day, you have a responsibility to live and be well,” said Thurman.

Healing our veterans is a critical component of gratitude, but we must focus on active military too. Men’s Health magazine reported why special operations officers are practicing yoga. The article shed light on the strong physicality of the practice and the magnitude of its healing properties. Nine special force operatives were north of Bagdad in Iraq and eight of the gentlemen started practicing yoga in their off hours. The last sergeant was uninterested in any workout that seemed too “sissy” to him. He was deadlifting 515 pounds, squatting 405, and benched 315. After much teasing by his fellow operatives, he finally tried a yoga practice. It left in shambles. They did their yoga session in a cinder block building in the desert with no AC. Matching breath to the movements was a new challenge, and he felt that he was using a new group of muscles. Upon returning to the US, he incorporated yoga into his regular workout routine. A side benefit to the addition of yoga was a 30-pound weight loss without any diminished results with his weight lifting. “Leveraging the breathing techniques I learn on the yoga mat allows me to access untapped strength and mobility—I don’t need to redline to improve,” said this special operations soldier. Our military are no strangers to high-stress situations. A mind that can act instead of react can be lifesaving. Yoga teaches techniques to find calm in the middle of chaos. As more and more fellow soldiers are finding their way into yoga classes, constructing a mind-body connection, experienced yoga soldiers are recognizing a greater level of trust developing between members of their regiment when entering dangerous situations. Home lives and relational issues are healing because returning soldiers have skills to cope with familial life. It is hard to be experiencing PTSD and not have it affect personal relationships. The importance of giving our military personal techniques to employ balance, peace, and a level of normalcy in their lives is critical and a basic need to navigate life back home.

Serve Our Willing Warriors at The Bull Run Warrior Retreat is a local center for military returning to civilian life. It is a local center for our soldiers and their families to come and enjoy restoration, family time and some rehabilitation. I have had the extreme honor of going to the retreat center for teaching yoga to soldiers and their families. Other instructors from our studio have had this similar pleasure. I have never done anything with my training that has touched me more as an American. Yoga is a healing art, a technique for navigating life’s many challenges, and a significant benefit for our active and retired military. A necessary gift to remember, renew and restore our most precious Americans.