(CNN) — It might surprise some, but at veterans’ centers around the country, life after active duty is leading warriors to their yoga mats.
It’s not a new trend. Nearly a decade ago, the Department of Defense began to investigate the positive effects of yoga on veterans. In 2006, the department funded research that ultimately led to a yoga-based program called iRest. It’s designed to help heal traumatic psychological wounds, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that affects more than 13 million Americans — not just veterans — that results from experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events ranging from combat to child abuse. The National Center for PTSD notes that experiences in combat can lead to PTSD.
Brian Anderson, a Green Beret and co-founder of the Veterans Alternative Center in Holiday, Florida, said, “Too often, PTSD, as it relates to vets, has a stigma of ‘broken’ or ‘violent.’ ”
For that reason, Anderson said, he’s careful not to label fellow veterans with PTSD. Instead, he focuses his support programs on addressing the compounded nature of their experience and the challenges they face during their transition back to civilian living.
“The positive aspect of yoga’s mind, body and spirit connection helps us keep a post-traumatic growth perspective as opposed to looking for something wrong or broken,” says Anderson, who includes yoga as part of his center’s programming. “It’s amazing to see the relief they get from an approach that reminds them that they are connected and whole.”
I was recently honored to teach a yoga session at the Veterans Alternative Center. Below, I’ve shared three primary elements of the yoga practice I taught, leveraging research-based techniques for abating stress symptoms in trauma survivors, including those suffering from PTSD. I also outlined ways anyone can use these strategies as part of a personal yoga practice to heal their own trauma and reconnect their mind, body and spirit on the mat.
Breathing to initiate the relaxation response
People who suffer from PTSD often experience difficulty modulating their “fight-or-flight” response. When in danger, it’s natural to feel anxious and trigger your sympathetic nervous system, raising your heart rate and blood pressure while increasing your respiration and stress hormone production. However, trauma survivors are often stuck chronically in this mode, or they switch into it at inappropriate times.
Thankfully, just a couple minutes of diaphragmatic breathing can actually reverse our fight-or-flight reaction and tap the opposite, calming parasympathetic nervous system. Doing so elicits our “relaxation response,” a term coined by Harvard Medical School Dr. Herbert Benson to describe lowered heart rate and blood pressure, stifled stress hormone production and slower, deeper respiration.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, hip-distance apart, 6 to 8 inches from your bottom. Put a folded blanket under your head and neck for comfort. Place your hands on your low ribs to feel the expansion of your ribcage out on your inhalations and contraction back and down on your exhalations. Emphasize your exhalations like long, drawn-out sighs of relief. Pause briefly after completely emptying your lungs. Try to establish a nostril breathing pattern as follows: five-count inhalation, seven-count exhalation and two-count pause. Repeat this pattern for 10 to 20 breaths.
Yoga postures to connect mind and body
A common symptom of PTSD is a sense of disconnection of the mind and body, as well as feeling disassociated from surroundings and the present moment. By practicing yoga postures with an emphasis on proprioception (limb position in space), experiencing and controlling physical sensations and connecting breath and movement, participants maintain attention within their bodies and remain present on their mats.
To establish a heightened connection of mind and body, you can practice basic yoga poses for as little as five minutes or poses linked to happiness. While practicing each posture, maintain an acute awareness of which muscles you need to activate for stabilizing and which muscles you must release for stretching. Connect your breathing with your movement, recognizing how inhalations and exhalations move your ribcage and affect each posture. Tune into every muscular sensation while trying to create a balance of control and ease.
Mindfulness for stress relief and mental clarity
Numerous studies have shown mindfulness meditation’s ability to decrease anxiety and depressive symptoms, but emerging research also points to its effectiveness in alleviating PTSD symptoms in combat veterans. Mindfulness meditation keeps the mind’s attention on a present-state experience, where the participant notices thoughts as they come up, but is able to return to the meditation focus. This approach fosters better emotional regulation and the ability to acknowledge thoughts and memories without having to react to them.
With veterans, I used an eight-minute, breathing-based mindfulness meditation that is a favorite of my professional athlete clients. As I concluded the meditation, I asked them to “check the contents of their minds” before opening their eyes, and, then, upon opening their eyes, report what they found. They all contently responded, “Nothing.” Perfect.
Meditation does not require yoga clothes or sitting on a mountaintop. Anyone can meditate in any clothes in almost any environment. Simply sit or lie down comfortably and focus your attention entirely on the sounds and sensations of your breathing without controlling it. Become an observer of your own breath. Allow yourself to be entirely captivated by your breathing, with no other thoughts in your mind. Follow the path of your breath while counting 20 breaths backward, from 20 to one. This easy exercise is an effective mindfulness meditation.
Breaking down barriers for mental health
The fact that veterans are embracing yoga and realizing its benefits speaks directly to the stigmas attached to both yoga and PTSD. Veterans practicing yoga illuminate the value of the practice for any person, from any walk of life, not just “new-age hippies.” It also demonstrates that suffering trauma that affects our mental health does not break us or make us any less human. Certainly, being a veteran with PTSD does not equate to being broken or violent.
These warriors fought to break down barriers to peace and freedom while deployed; now, at home, they are breaking down barriers to alternative mental health treatments. Hopefully, the work that the military is doing with integrating yoga and other alternative therapies will inspire the evolution of our entire health care system to more openly and effectively recognize and treat mental health issues from a holistic standpoint.