I sat on my mat, looking at the blank faces of pain, of instability, of anxiety, of fear. The intimidation I felt sitting as a civilian instructor, attempting to relate and calm the physically and mentally broken veterans and soldiers of the Army, was immeasurable.
How could I relate?
I introduced myself, instructed them into Child’s Pose, and the class began. As I guided the class, I watched one man, then two, sit down in exhaustion and frustration. I felt an overwhelming sense of failure. But- I continued instructing. The men and women alternated taking breaks, wiping tears, and rocking back and forth.
I cut the practice short, closed my eyes, and began guiding the soldiers into meditation. Just minutes in, I was interrupted - snoring. I was in disbelief. One of the men suffering an ongoing struggle with insomnia had fallen asleep. I guided this man into a deep sleep, each class, for the next year.
I moved to Vicenza, Italy in 2013 to reunite with my husband who was stationed at Caserma Ederle Army base. I had no previous experience working with the military upon arrival. Soon after working at the Army Wellness Center, I was selected to take over the Medical Yoga and Meditation program. The participants included soldiers and civilians referred by Behavioral Health and the Medical Command in hopes of gaining mental and physical strength and relief. Prior to teaching, I was informed by Behavioral Health the class would be difficult to instruct. My participants suffered from PTSD, insomnia, anxiety disorders, and physical injuries. Many had very limited movement, some extremely unsociable.
According to the National Center for PTSD, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault” (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016). Symptoms may include: flashbacks; avoiding reminders of events; trouble sleeping; anxiety; feelings of hopelessness, shame or despair; depression; drinking or drug problems; etc.
PTSD affects 2.2% of the population and 20% of veterans. At least 22 American Veterans take their lives every day (PTSD Foundation of America).
Although there are multiple recommended medications and means of treating PTSD- the root of the problem is a loss of mindfulness; a loss of the ability to self-regulate and control the mind- a specific struggle the practice of yoga is meant to teach.
Yoga is an ancient meditation and religious practice dating back to the third century BCE. In Western society today, yoga has adapted into a popular practice for health enthusiasts and has become one of the top ten complimentary alternative medicine programs in the United States (The Trauma Center, 2007). Each yoga practice is based on the philosophy that mind, body, and spirit are each connected.
I witnessed, first-hand, the power yoga has on the traumatically affected military men and women. Yoga and meditation allowed them a private, safe, space to practice regulating their breath; slowing their thoughts down. Meditation allowed them to block out distractions, flashbacks, and focus on finding calmness. These men and women developed a space on their mat in which they focused on finding their inner peace; their true self.
Of the 20% of veterans suffering from PTSD- less than 40% reach seek help (PTSD Foundation of America).
If you know of anyone, specifically veterans and/or soldiers, suffering from PTSD- reach out and inform. Self-regulation is an ongoing practice and devotion- help those who served us.