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When most people think about the military, a calm yoga room is probably the last thing that comes to mind. But with veteran unemployment, substance abuse, and suicide rates due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the rise, the U.S. Armed Forces are using yoga to do what conventional drugs and therapy cannot.

What’s the Deal?

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after experiencing a particularly traumatic episode like a natural disaster, physical or sexual assault, random act of violence, or a prolonged threatening experience. Not surprisingly, the condition is very common among soldiers. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 30 percent of men and women who spent time in war zones experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Specifically, 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans are affected by the disorder. PTSD is responsible for many of the issues (drug and alcohol addiction, alienation from friends and family, unhappiness, and even suicide) that soldiers face after returning home.

Basically, PTSD is the result of the nervous system “freezing” during a mentally traumatic episode. It causes ongoing sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system reactions such as rapid breathing and pulse. Typical symptoms of PTSD include depression, flashbacks or nightmares, trouble sleeping, irritability, emotional detachment, and difficulty concentrating. In the past, the military relied exclusively on psychoanalysis, group counseling sessions, and psychiatric medications to treat the hundreds of thousands of cases throughout the armed forces.

The take-orders mindset of the armed forces and the go-your-own-way flow of yoga seem totally opposed, but researchers believe that yoga can be an effective alternative therapy for PTSD among veterans returning home with physical and mental trauma. Studies show that yoga can “unfreeze” the nervous system, alleviating PTSD symptomsEffects+of+yoga+on+the+autonomic+nervous+system,+gamma-aminobutyric-acid,+and+allostasis+in+epilepsy,+depression,+and+post-traumatic+stress+disorder.+Streeter+CC,+Gerbarg+PL,+Saper+RB,+Ciraulo+DA,+Brown+RP.+Department+of+Psychiatry,+Boston+University+School+of+Medicine,+Boston,+MA.+Med+Hypothesis.+2012+May;+78(5):571-9.. Unlike prescription medications, yoga does not cause undesirable side effects like addiction, lethargy, or weight gainEffectiveness+of+yoga+therapy+as+a+complementary+treatment+for+major+psychiatric+disorders:+a+meta-analysis.+Cabral+P,+Meyer+HB,+Ames+D.+Department+of+Psychology,+California+State+University,+Northridge,+CA.+Prim+Care+Companion+CNS+Disord.+2011;12(4)..

Back in 2006 the Department of Defense funded a research project that created a program designed specifically for returning soldiers. Since then, the program, called Integrative Restoration or iRest, has been used at VA centers throughout the United States. Non-profit programs around the country like Yoga Warriors, The Give Back Yoga Foundation, Yoga For Vets, and Warriors at Ease (to name just a few) use yoga, meditation, and other alternative or holistic techniques to help veterans readjust to civilian life.

Why It Matters

Why yoga as opposed to, say, spinning, or taking long walks in the woods? Yoga specifically encourages mindfulness, which fortifies the body-brain connection and helps soldiers rebuild their senses of control and safety after a traumatic experience. It’s a structured activity, so vets have to approach classes with patience and discipline. Yoga teaches veterans how to control the overactive “fight-or-flight” responses that make daily life with PTSD so difficult. Yoga is all about body alignment and breathing, which can help calm down anxieties and help veterans focus on what’s going on inside instead of responding to external stimuli.

In 2008, the Department of Defense funded a Harvard Medical School research project to study how yoga can benefit those suffering from PTSD. The study is ongoing, but early results have shown that more than half of the participants saw reduced symptoms after using yoga as a therapeutic treatment. While yoga is not a cure for PTSD in and of itself, it has already become an important part of the toolkit used to treat PTSD effectively and efficiently.

Photo: The National Guard

Do you think alternative treatments like yoga should have a role in treating veterans or other people suffering from PTSD? Join the conversation below or tweet the author at @sophbreene.