People who are in the armed services are often exposed to traumatic situations during their military service, and all too often, the result is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. As a veteran myself (I was deployed to Afghanistan while in the Marine Corps), I know that when you leave your civilian life to become a soldier, you almost never return to the same place you left.
Veteran's Day is this Friday, and in fact, November is Veteran's Month. This week the Veterans Yoga Project is holding yoga events around the country to help raise awareness about veterans and the issues they face, including PTSD. Started in 2014, with 14 classes, the project grew to 400 classes in 39 states in 2015, and this year, they hope to have classes in all 50 states. (Check out these interactive maps to find a yoga class near you. You can participate, donate to the project, or teach your own donation-based class.)
“These events allow civilians and veterans and yoga communities everywhere to dedicate one practice to tangibly express gratitude to the men and women and families who serve and protect in the Armed Forces," says Dan Libby, PhD, of Alameda, California, founder of the Veterans Yoga Project.
The Project aims to "make yoga available as an important complementary part of trauma treatment,” explains Libby, a licensed clinical psychologist and yoga teacher who specializes in integrating complementary and alternative approaches with evidence-based psychotherapy.
PTSD can be a serious problem for vets, who have trouble turning off their fight or flight response, and constantly remain on guard and in a state of alertness. This hypervigilance can be accompanied by flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and mental anguish. In the worst-case scenario, PTSD can lead to suicide, and it's estimated that veterans have a risk of suicide 50% higher than similar people who have not served.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11 to 12% of veterans who served in Iraq (Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom) and the Gulf War (Desert Storm) had PTSD, as did 15% of people who served in Vietnam, according to a 1980s survey. (However, as many as 30% of Vietnam Vets are estimated to have had PTSD at some point in their lifetime.)
Fortunately, PTSD can be treated with therapy and Libby focuses on teaching “self-regulation skills,” that can help too. The Project focuses on teaching veterans to use five tools to control symptoms and relieve stress, including breathing, meditation, mindful movement, guided rest, and gratitude.
Breathing teaches “simple techniques that enhance the relaxation response," meditation involves “awareness exercises that enhance focus and concentration," mindful movement makes a deliberate effort to “bring the body through its natural range of motion to enhance strength and flexibility,” guided rest focuses on the “deep and profound relaxation and rest in the mind and body,” and gratitude provides “simple exercises in being thankful for what is right," according to the Veterans Yoga Project, which was started in 2010.
"We only in the past year have begun efforts to measure the effectiveness of these classes," says Libby. One facility—the Northport VA in Long Island, New York—offered six weekly classes in 2015, serving 58 veterans. About "76% of the time it resulted in a decrease in pain scores, and 79% of the time it resulted in a decrease in stress scores," says Libby.
There are currently 67 ongoing free yoga programs for veterans being taught by Project-trained instructors around the country; most of these are at VA medical facilities and Vet Centers.
"You can help!" says Libby. Visit the website "to volunteer or make a donation," he says.