There are 5.2 million Americans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of those, 2 million are vets. As if PTSD weren’t bad enough, those who live with it are very commonly facing chronic pain, health issues and substance abuse.
Yoga for PTSD is becoming more widespread as research indicates the many benefits, when under the guidance of a qualified yoga therapist or instructor trained to work with vets.
Dr. Dan Libby is a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher who travels around the country to enlighten yoga teachers about the special needs of vets, and how to best use yoga for PTSD in the classroom.
“Trauma and stress are rampant,” says Libby who runs the Veterans Yoga Project. In a report he co-authored, he adds that yoga has been shown to treat a constellation of symptoms at the same time, including chronic pain, PTSD, depression, anxiety and stress.
For those who have not been victimized by battle, sexual or physical abuse or other triggers of PTSD, it can be hard to understand the sensitivities of these people, and provide them with a comfortable setting for yoga, and a program that will help minimize their emotional battle scars.
Libby explains that there are three characteristics that help pave the way for a positive outcome for vets via yoga. Predictability. Control and Safety. Libby says the absence of these three factors causes havoc on the nervous systems of those with PTSD.
“Their whole lives are marked by these lacks of PC and S. These are prerequisites for recovery.”
Libby, and others trained to provide yoga therapy to vets, understand the triggers that can affect those with PTSD. Yoga can help people get out of the sympathetic zone (fight or flight), and shift the balance so the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in.
“If I’m in a war zone, I want to be hyper-aroused to meet the demands of my current situation. In yoga, it’s about getting people in the optimal arousal zone so they can engage in leadership and service. If you are inside your window of tolerance, instead of smashing someone’s windshield, maybe you’ll just take a breath or say ‘how can I help’?”
“Life is not safe. Life is the way it is,” says Libby, who is rewarded by seeing transformation in his clients.
Pamela G. Pence has been a yoga therapist at the VA Long Beach Healthcare System since 2011. Throughout her tenure, she has observed veterans’ continual search to find peace in their bodies, minds, and hearts. Among the yoga therapy elements she prefers for vets are breath work, guided imagery and yoga nidra.
Pence says, “In my experience, most veterans come to class because either (a) their doctor recommended it to them for stress reduction or for chronic pain or (b) they self refer because they are at a point where they will try anything that might help them. Most come in skeptical about whether yoga can help them.”
Thanks to programs such as Veterans Yoga Project or Warriors at Ease, the outcome of a consistent therapeutic yoga practice for vets or active military scores high marks.
Pence’s students endorse yoga for PTSD. “The yoga classes have lowered my back pain, my stress level, and are helping with my PTSD,” says one, and “The techniques have helped me daily to improve those interrupted sleeping episodes,” comments another.
Pence and Libby are two International Association of Yoga Therapists’ (IAYT) members I chatted with at SYTAR, IAYT’s annual symposium.
Brooke West gave a passionate talk at SYTAR about how yoga was instrumental in her personal life, and those she coaches.
She doesn’t focus on vets, but her yoga therapy mission is similar to that of Libby and Pence. West is an Ananda yoga therapist, educator, activist and peer advocate for mental/physical/health issues.
Mental health issues are close to Brooke’s heart. Her sister D’Arcy (who suffered from untreatable bipolar disorder) died of heroin overdose in 1999. Not long afterwards, at the age of 27, West ended up in bed for several months, as a result of her own bipolar disorder depression. Bikram Yoga came to town and got her out of bed and onto the mat. She experienced, firsthand, how yoga can regulate emotional wellbeing and became intent on learning more.
In 2011, she attended her first SYTAR symposium, to learn about yoga therapy and mental health. There, she discovered that no research existed on bipolar disorder and yoga therapy.
“My life’s purpose became clear at that moment. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness, but yoga can be a lifelong practice. Yoga helped stabilize my moods. I’m walking testimony that this works,” says West. “It gave me everything I didn’t have.”
Yoga gave West the clarity and focus and calm to get out of bed, and into the San Luis Obispo Adult Treatment Court Collaborative (ATCC), a federally-funded program designed by SAMHSA, the nation’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Agency. Working as a yoga therapist at ATCC, with parolees in an innovative, collaborative mental health court and drug court, she recognized that pioneering such a project was a difficult, but gratifying effort.
She designed a 13-week pilot program combining yoga nidra, restorative yoga, breathwork, meditation, affirmations, postures and Ayurveda. She was diligent in recording her clients improvements by surveying her clients before, during and after the program. The project met all therapeutic objectives, including reducing anxiety, anger and depression, increasing medication compliance and improving overall well-being.
Brooke is constantly advocating for yoga therapy. “Research is needed. Effective programs need to be supported. Yoga is becoming a respected and recognized therapy, but it takes tireless and cheerful effort from those who have experienced the healing power of yoga.”
Brooke is developing online therapeutic programming for survivors and caregivers, and would like to collaborate on researching the benefits of Yoga on bipolar disorder, trauma, psychosis prevention and early intervention.
“There is so much opportunity in the field of yoga therapy,” she says. “Anxiety and depression are epidemic. One only has to want to serve.”