A Surprising Yoga Practice to Heal Anxiety and Trauma

"Hard core military guys and yoga – that doesn’t really …um… go together, does it?” I’ve been asked. It’s true that, when they first arrived to participate in my study, the young, tattoo-covered, hard-drinking, motorcycle driving Midwestern guys did not look like typical yoga studio regulars. But what they shared after the study said it all: “Thank you for giving me my life back." "I feel like I’ve been dead since I returned from Iraq and I feel like I’m alive again." These words were spoken by two young veterans of the war in Iraq who participated in our study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford University on a yoga-based breathing program offered by a small non-profit called Project Welcome Home Troops. And this study revealed the power of breath for relieving even the most deep-seated forms of anxiety.

There is an unspoken epidemic that is taking 22 lives a day in the US.

Who? Those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in protection of others: Veterans.

How? Suicide.

Why? War Trauma.

Average age? 25.

Though the military trains service members for war, it does not train them for peace. After a long deployment of holding their breath in combat, they often return to civilian life no longer knowing how to breathe. Ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, service members embody courage, integrity, selflessness, and a deep commitment to protecting others. They have trained under extreme conditions to do things most civilians will never have to think about: lose parts of their body or even their life, kill or injure another human being under orders or by mistake, get right back to duty and keep fighting hours after seeing a friend killed, be separated from families and loved ones for months and even years, and live with the horrendous physical and emotional consequences thereof upon their return home.

The National Institute of Health estimates that 20-30 percent of the 2 million plus veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder involves hyper-alertness that prevents sleep and severely interferes with daily life, triggers painful flashbacks during the day and nightmares at night, and causes emotional numbness that leads to social withdrawal and an inability to relate to others. Side effects of PTSD include: rage, violence, insomnia, alienation, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. PTSD symptoms are associated with higher risk of suicide, a fact that may explain the alarming rise in suicidal behavior amongst returning veterans.

While traditional treatments work for some, a large number of veterans are falling through the cracks. Dropout rates for therapy and drug treatments remain as high as 62 percent for veterans with PTSD. Symptoms can persist even for veterans who actually undergo an entire course of psychotherapeutic treatment and drug treatment results are mixed.

Our research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford showed that the one-week Project Welcome Home Troops intervention was successful. Statistical analyses showed significant decreases in PTSD and anxiety. Improvements remained one month and one year later, suggesting long-term benefit. More telling even than the data are the veterans’ words: “A few weeks ago shooting, cars exploding, screaming, death, that was your world. Now back home, no one knows what it is like over there so no one knows how to help you get back your normalcy. They label you a victim of the war. I AM NOT A VICTIM…but how do I get back my normalcy? For most of us it is booze and Ambien. It works for a brief period then it takes over your life. Until this study, I could not find the right help for me, BREATH’ing like a champ!” writes a marine of the war in Afghanistan.

The Project Welcome Home Troops program teaches Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, a specific breathing-based practice taught by certified instructors. Research in non-veteran populations shows that it is helpful for anxiety, depression, stress, and even gene expression for immunity. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Phie Ambo, shadowed our entire study and filmed the veterans’ transformation. It is called Free the Mind and you can see trailers on my website.

Although many of the participants in my study were wary when they first walked in, expecting this to be “hippy dippy sh_ _” or even a “cry fest,” they took to the breathing practices immediately. Why? Because they are fundamentally empowering—which is what being a service member is all about. Veterans do not easily embrace victim-hood. “I am not a victim” are the words of the young Marine in our study. A man or woman with the courage to go to war is not the type to feel sorry for him or herself. Instead, they seek to take responsibility. Yoga-based practices allow them to take responsibility because they do not require dependence on a therapist or drug. The veterans learn how to take care of their own mind and well-being using their own breath.

And truth be told—the military and yoga have another important element in common: an emphasis on service to society. Empowered and relieved of their anxiety, the veterans I have worked with often reconnect with the spirit of service that led them to volunteer for the military in the first place. Now, their spirit of service is directed in new ways: toward helping other veterans. Travis Leanna, the one who said “Thank you for giving me my life back,” is a young marine who participated in our study and then decided to become an instructor with Project Welcome Home Troops so he could help other vets.

Project Welcome Home Troops is now trying to reach more veterans. Because the organization offers programs free of charge, it needs funds to pay for the travel of instructors across the nation. They recently launched an online fundraising campaign. Touchingly, many of those that have pledged to raise funds and many of those who are donating are none other than veterans themselves!

To learn more about the science why breathing can help us overcome anxiety and trauma, see this post on the science of breath. Inspired by the results I have seen in our research, I’ve also created a fundraising page on their campaign which you can find here. If you feel moved to do so, please start your own fundraising page or donate what you can to mine. Even if you are not able to help financially but wish to contribute, you can do so by sharing this article or the cause on your social networking sites.

For more information on Project Welcome Home Troops and how veterans can attend classes free of charge, please see www.pwht.org.
For more on the science of breathing, see here.
To see the trailers of the Free the Mind film made about the research we conducted, see here.
To learn Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, non-veterans can attend classes through the Art of Living Foundation.

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