San Antonio is home to more than 100,000 veterans, one of the largest populations of its kind in the United States. With a large veteran population comes a significant number of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other physical and emotional issues. For example, nearly one in five marines and soldiers returning from Iraq suffer from PTSD.
The city offers many services and perks to our vets, and sizable active military community. However, many holistic services of which our vets can benefit go under-used.
The Veterans Team Recovery Integrative Immersion Project (Vet TRIIP) was established by two San Antonio residents to ease the emotional and physical pains that many of our military families face. Vet TRIIP volunteers offer a variety of holistic, natural and energy-healing modalities including clothes-on therapeutic massage, qigong, Reiki, chiropractic adjustment, meditation, reflexology and acupuncture. Their statistics show that 98% of those who participate say that the sessions improved their emotional or physical state, with most positive results lasting from two days to two weeks or longer.
Yoga therapy is another useful alternative that most, even those that enjoy yoga, don’t fully understand. It’s not just about stretching jumping up and down. My style of yoga therapy, for example, draws upon Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda (the 5,000 year old Indian life science), physical therapy, acupressure, guided meditation, lifestyle, diet and movement coaching.
Pamela G. Pence is a fellow member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. As a yoga therapist, she has observed veterans’ continual search to find peace in their bodies, minds, and hearts. She prefers that vets practice breath work, guided imagery and Yoga Nidra, the latter which has been a welcomed and proven method to help people with stress, anxiety, PTSD and depression.
“In my experience, most veterans come to class because either (a) their doctor recommended it to them for stress reduction or for chronic pain or (b) they self refer because they are at a point where they will try anything that might help them. Most come in skeptical about whether yoga can help them,” Pence said.
Thanks to programs such as Warriors at Ease, the outcome of a consistent therapeutic yoga practice for vets or active military scores high marks.
“I have witnessed them enjoy less pain, benefit from the ability to breathe more easily and sleep more peacefully at night, and discover new ways to look at their challenges and life,” Pence said. “They tell me routinely how beneficial yoga is to them.”
Pence is on a mission to help those who’ve gone out on a limb for our country.
“This country’s veterans showed courage during their service,” Pence said. “I like to think that I am courageous and tenacious on their behalf. I find it extremely rewarding to serve the veterans, and I am honored that I am on their journey with them.”
Dr. Dan Libby is co-author of "Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering from Trauma: A Practice Guide." A clinical psychologist and yoga teacher, he co-founded the Veterans Yoga Project.
“Trauma and stress are rampant,” Libby said. “The conditions which cause us the most, in terms of healthcare dollars, are all stress related illnesses. Stress is bad for everything that ails you. Yoga can help you build coping mechanisms.”
In a research paper published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Libby and his colleagues confirmed, “Yoga has been shown to treat a constellation of symptoms at the same time, for example, chronic pain, PTSD, depression, anxiety, stress.”
Active duty military personnel tend to have hyperactive sympathetic nervous systems to help them respond instinctively to danger.
“If I’m in a war zone, I want to be hyper-aroused to meet the demands of my current situation. In yoga, it’s about getting people in the optimal arousal zone so they can engage in leadership and service," Libby said. "If you are inside your window of tolerance, instead of smashing someone’s windshield, maybe you’ll just take a breath or say ‘how can I help?'”
Brooke West is a yoga therapist training with Warriors At Ease. Her training includes adaptive yoga for traumatic brain injury and amputees, issues of cultural sensitivity, and the importance of self-care when working with specialized populations.
Mental health issues are close to West's heart. Her sister, who suffered from untreatable bipolar disorder, died of a heroin overdose in 1999. Not long afterwards, at the age of 27, West ended up in bed for several months, as a result of her own bipolar disorder and depression. She credits Bikram Yoga for getting her life back in gear.
“Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness, but yoga can be a lifelong practice. Yoga helped stabilize my moods. I’m walking testimony that this works,” West said. “It gave me everything I didn’t have.”
Yoga gave West the clarity, focus and calmness to get out of bed and help others. She provided yoga therapy at a federally-funded program designed by the nation's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Agency.
She designed a 13-week pilot program combining Yoga Nidra, restorative yoga, breath work, meditation, affirmations, postures and Ayurveda. She was diligent in recording her clients improvements by surveying her clients before, during and after the program. The project met all therapeutic objectives, including reducing anxiety, anger and depression, increasing medication compliance and improving overall well-being.
"Anxiety and depression are epidemic. The need for this is endless," West said.
*Featured/top image: Yoga for the whole family at Woolawn Lake Park during Yoga Day 2013. Courtesy Yoga Day.