By Dr. Sumer Aeed
We do not often imagine military and yoga in the same life space, as generally, these two cultures have more differences than similarities. Most would consider the two diametric opposites, yet over the past decade, they are finding their way together with yoga offering a multitude of resources to the needs of military communities and their families. These are people who commonly face traumas, chronically difficult life conditions, and a frequency of stressors that the average citizen does not experience. Enter the benefits of yoga and breathwork that have the capacity to prevent, reduce, and heal the impact of these stressors.
There are military personnel, both retired and active, who live with chronic mental and physical health conditions that often do not respond fully or at all to Western medicine. Yoga offers a number of options to help the central nervous system to reset and provide relief physically and psychologically with its variety of mind-body interventions. The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs (serving 8 million veterans a year) both agree that it is critical to include integrative medicine and complementary health approaches in their client resources.
Another factor to consider is that there are different sorts of veterans to consider when addressing yoga and each may benefit in unique ways from yoga exposure. There are three primary populations of military personnel and each has different needs and challenges: (a) active military who are still working in the military and who may return to combat; (b) veterans who are actively working in the community; and (c) veterans who are mostly supported by disability payments or are retired. Each faces unique challenges and each would likely access yoga resources in separate settings.
There are definite overlaps between the military and yoga as many veterans and yogis have discovered. The whole system of yoga that addresses being comfortable with being uncomfortable can be a strong common ground. There is a growing body of research supporting the ways that yoga can serve military personnel both preventatively and in tertiary treatment needs. Everything from the ability to better control breath can help both on battlefields to keep minds and bodies calm to the practice of Yoga Nidra to aid in sleep for those with PTSD, yoga provides a plethora of support across the needs of military personnel.
In military hospitals and mental health groups that help veterans, yoga practices are often used to address the psychological and physical concerns of veterans. For example, some military Intensive Outpatient Programs for mental health use Yoga and breathwork teachings to support PTSD, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety concerns. Medically yoga can be an adjunct for pain management as well as reducing inflammation and helping with physical therapy concerns. The main purpose of these tools is to assist veterans to manage emotional disregulation and be able to better manage physical and psychological struggles. It is clear that more practice and research would be helpful in better understanding the best match of particular yoga practices to specific mental and physical health concerns of veterans.
Some of the more practical benefits of yoga in the military have been researched and identified in very rational areas such as increasing mental toughness, overall health benefits and flexibility, reducing injuries, managing stress, and increasing physical performance. These are some of the same areas that athletes, another group rapidly embracing yoga, have found to be of benefit.
In 2020 a large research investigation of yoga training platoons of over 1,800 soldiers was carried out with over 20 platoons participating, 10 as the test group and 10 as a control group. It was unique in that it included mindfulness as a measure. They focused on basic yoga positions daily and 2 hours a week of mindfulness and breath training and practiced meditation 6 days a week for 15 minutes for the program. Results showed significant benefits of increased ability physically on marches, reduced pain during injury periods, less stress overall, and lower amounts of homesickness.
An interesting area to consider when combining two such disparate things as yoga and the military is to address and consider the barriers and challenges in bringing them together. Much as when combining yoga and professional athletes or business professionals, one of the barriers to yoga entering the military world is the perceived belief that yoga is for sissies, or yoga is a spiritual practice, or that yoga requires mats and special clothing or music to be practiced. Some of the challenges are logistical such as transportation and cost, while others are more philosophical such as dealing with the contrast between traditional yoga culture and traditional military culture. Many successful adaptations have involved finding the middle ground in each practice and adapting to the more rational left-brain ways of teaching the skills of yoga such as breathing techniques and stretching and the science of nervous system attunement while setting aside some of the more spiritual or esoteric areas of yoga.
Yoga is an example of an integrative approach that may be ideally suited for co-occurring conditions including chronic pain and mental health symptoms. Yoga is a powerful fit for many veteran populations and their diagnoses since it provides a multidimensional and combines physical, mental, and, often, spiritual aspects of treatment. Multidimensional, mind-body practices that have been practiced for centuries—including yoga, meditation, and other somatic practices are considered an area called Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM’s). Due to the challenges many veterans face of physical, emotional, and social challenges having access to CAMs allows for addressing areas that traditional medicine alone cannot impact. With concerns such as C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress) and chronic pain or multiple diagnoses, CAMs have been shown to be particularly beneficial.
There is an ongoing unique need for better support for the concerns of veterans that go unaddressed or under-addressed. As medical research continues to explore the effectiveness of various CAMs as an adjunct treatment to evidence-based care, people—including service members and veterans—may be able to add these tools to their arsenal of resources to cope with the stress of everyday life. An area of need is to begin to better blend the use of CAMs such as yoga to be part of a seamless offering of support available at all Veterans’ service organizations and to work on making services such as yoga practice more readily available to all veterans. Some of the larger groups already doing this well are listed below.
Veteran Yoga Resources
Veterans Yoga Project
The Veterans Yoga Project (VYP) is a 501(c)3 created to support recovery and resilience among veterans, military families, and military communities. They were founded in 2011 and offer free yoga classes, free yoga training to veterans through their yoga school, ongoing Yoga Professionals CEUS and teach over 100 free yoga classes of all sorts every week. VYP’s mission is to build a future where all people affected by trauma have access to a full range of mind-body practices and programs. One way they do this is by creating SPaCEs, Safer, Predictable, and Controlled environments.
The Veterans Administration’s early yoga research resulted in the founding of Warriors at Ease. This group focuses on training yoga teachers to support veterans and their families, as well as offering yoga classes on military bases and community settings as well as yoga retreats.
In-person classes and a virtual library of classes provide trauma-sensitive yoga opportunities, evidence-based, and informed by military culture.
Exalted Warriors offers in-person and online yoga classes similar to the previous organizations. These classes are also adapted for disabled veterans to allow them access and support for any physical and emotional recovery challenges.
The Veterans Yoga Project, Warriors at Ease, and Exalted Warrior Foundation also allprovide great search systems to assist in matching yoga resources to veterans and their families.
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