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5 Ways Yoga Helps Veterans With PTSD

By Jennifer D'Angelo Friedman

Yoga is known to help relieve stress and calm the body and mind, but it can be especially beneficial for veterans suffering from PTSD.

Yoga is known to help relieve stress and tension and calm the body and mind, but it can be especially beneficial for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Annie Okerlin, founder of Yogani Studios in Tampa and the Exalted Warrior Foundation, which facilitates an adaptive yoga instruction program for wounded warriors in military and veterans hospital facilities nationwide.  Okerlin, who spoke about the power of yoga to heal PTSD as part of Yoga Journal LIVE!'s Life in Balance series, says more veterans have PTSD than you would think, even if they didn't get to the front line.

"They left their families, supported the mission, worked on airplanes bringing bodies home, pushed paperwork about the dead bodies,” explains Okerlin, who teaches two classes a week at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla., and also leads classes for veterans at Yogani Studios. For these wounded warriors, even simple breathing exercises can be life-changing. "Yoga helps so much," she says.

Here, Okerlin shares 5 ways that yoga helps veterans with PTSD begin the healing process, from calming the nervous system to revealing the body’s habits.  

1. It calms the nervous system.  Breathing is a regulatory tool. If you have PTSD, your ability to regulate the central nervous system is off. The hypervigilance of PTSD means you’re always on alert. Your sympathetic nervous system, or “fight-or-flight” response, is completely jacked up constantly. The body is so overloaded with stress hormones that all it can do is keep itself in this heightened state. Breathing is a natural tool to self-regulate and calm down without medication. It brings the parasympathetic nervous system back in line ahead of the sympathetic system, regulating the central nervous system.

2. It helps therapists begin treatment.  The patients in the acute PTSD clinic at the VA hospital, who are veterans on active duty, are struggling really badly -- they may be suicidal, or in a really high level of pain. The therapists will use the yoga class as a way to watch the way their patient handles stress. Even the stress of balancing can show a lot. We are all going to wiggle in Tree Pose, but getting furious at yourself because of the wiggles shows that there may be a deeper challenge in self-regulation that needs to be addressed. If a patient is highly reactive, we can then teach ways to manage in a more responsive or more gentle way.

3. It helps with social re-integration.  A few years ago, I finally got the VA to let me bring patients down to my studio. This helps them with social re-integration. There’s a comfort in knowing that we are going to do yoga and that they have to be ready to get in a van at a certain time. I also teach a Community Adapted Yoga Class for Veterans at my studio twice a month, where we talk and have coffee after class. It’s a community: Once veterans are out of the safety of the military, some struggle with what feels like a loss of community.

4. It reveals the body’s habits.  There may be habit patterns in the body for holding stress and pain. Yoga reveals these habits and helps people let go of them. For example, at the end of one class, I asked a veteran with restricted movement in his TMJ (jaw joint), “How do you feel?” and he said, “I felt my jaw let go -- I’ve never experienced that sensation and I didn’t know I’d be able to.”

5. It brings you back to your body.  If a veteran has suffered from very intense trauma, they might disassociate from their body. Yoga brings them back to their body and helps them see that it’s still OK. Yoga also gives them allowance to experience flashbacks or whatever needs to come up, to welcome negative thoughts, habits, and emotions without freaking out, knowing it will pass. Or it may stay and they’ll be gentler with themselves in the process.

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