As many as 30% of service members suffer from PTSD. Some are turning to yoga to quiet their minds and heal their wounds.
Brianna Renner had just given birth to her second daughter when she felt herself slipping into postpartum depression. Renner, who served in the Marines Corps for five years, was accustomed to serious life challenges, but her colicky infant’s nonstop tears left her feeling hopeless and alone.
So she turned to the mat — her yoga mat, to be precise — and then things turned around. Renner rediscovered her mojo.
“When I practiced yoga, it was the only time that I could actually be Brianna. I wasn’t a mom, I wasn’t a wife, I was just me on the mat,” Renner said. “And that was kind of beautiful and amazing.”
Renner felt that she’d stumbled across something that could profoundly change the lives of people — specifically, her fellow service members — who had been through serious trauma, both physical and mental.
So Renner googled “veterans” and “yoga” and found the Veterans Yoga Project. Intrigued, she read on and saw that the organization was hosting a trauma-yoga training in Arlington, Virginia. A couple of weeks later, Renner made the drive from her home in New Hampshire. “I drank the Kool-Aid,” she said, laughing. “Afterward, I talked to the executive director and told him, ‘I’m in, I’m sold. What can I do to help out?’”
That was in 2014. Now Renner, who teaches yoga at a Veterans Affairs facility in White River Junction, Vermont, is Veterans Yoga Project’s director of programs. In that role, Renner manages all of VYP’s trainings, including their 15-hour free-for-veterans Mindful Resilience for Trauma Recovery training — one of which helped turn Matthew Adams’ life around.
Adams served in the military for eight years. While in Iraq, an explosion threw him from a vehicle, leaving him with permanent physical problems. Upon discharge, he found himself in a dark place and subsequently “lost a couple of years in a bottle,” he told News Center Maine. Adams struggled with symptoms of PTSD before finding the mindfulness training program organized by VYP in Bangor, Maine. After his initial reluctance, Adams decided to attend, and he now credits the program, and yoga in general, with changing his life.
“It really brought down the amount of pain I experienced in my back, it really calmed me down, helped me focus my mind and gain more control over my breathing,” he said.
As a sufferer of PTSD, Adams is hardly alone. As many as 30% of former U.S. service members live with the crippling disorder. What’s more, roughly 20 veterans die by suicide every single day. And of those who have been diagnosed with PTSD — the symptoms of which include anxiety, depression, insomnia, uncontrollable anger and issues with addiction — only about half will ever seek treatment through the VA.
Renner emphasized that yoga is not intended to replace other forms of treatment for PTSD, which typically include a combination of medication and exposure-based talk therapy. “Our program was designed specifically to be a part of a complementary practice, if you will, to therapy that may already be in place,” she said. “We work with yoga teachers and health clinicians to bring tools of mindful resilience to veterans and to their community.”
So why yoga? Why not rugby or pole-vaulting or anything else that requires exertion and concentration?
It has to do with how the body engages the brain during the practice of yoga, according to Daniel J. Libby, a Yale-trained clinical psychologist and a founder and executive director of VYP.
“All traumatic events are defined by a lack of safety, predictability and control,” Libby said. “For someone who develops post-traumatic stress that perpetuates, the world continues to feel unsafe, unpredictable and uncontrollable, and my own mind and body are also unsafe, uncontrollable and unpredictable. As PTSD is a psycho-physiological condition, it only makes sense that a body-mind approach [like yoga] would be helpful.”
FROM BATTLE TO BUDDHA
It makes sense that yoga can increase flexibility and resilience. But on the face of it, active wartime combat and sun salutations hardly seem simpatico. Part of it is yoga’s image problem, Renner said.
“There is a huge stigma around the word ‘yoga,’ and I can remember 20 years ago when I went to my first class, I fell right into that stigma,” she said. “I’m like, this is not for me. I’m a badass Marine, I’m not doing yoga!” But it soon became clear to her that there was much more to the practice than nice leggings and Instagram-worthy visits to exotic ashrams. “You can still be a badass in uniform and have balance in your life. You don’t have to be super-hardcore all the time, because you can’t live in that place of hardcore-ness all the time.”
In 2018 alone, VYP documented more than 20,000 visits by veterans, said Renner (classes are always free for veterans; some are open to their spouses and children, too). Currently, VYP has over 120 national volunteers who chip in to teach yoga and help run the organization. In addition, VYP hosts an annual Veterans Gratitude Week, where thousands of civilians and veterans come together in studios across the country to practice yoga “with an attitude of gratitude for our service members,” Libby said. All proceeds benefit VYP (this year’s event will take place from Nov. 8–18).
Despite the increasing numbers of vets taking up yoga, some people argue that those who practice it are a self-selecting group. In other words, a veteran who elects to take a yoga class might already be open to the kind of change a regular yoga practice can engender. Dianne Groll, an associate professor and research director at Queen’s University’s Department of Psychiatry in Ontario, is one of them. “Who does [yoga] work for, and for how long?” she said. “It works really well for the people who like it, and are well enough to do it.”
Groll, whose husband is in the Canadian Armed Forces, co-authored a 2016 paper that examined the impact of a 12-week yoga program on members of the Canadian military who self-identified as having experienced at least one traumatic event while serving. The results for this group showed statistically significant improvements in their levels of anger, anxiety, pain and quality of sleep compared to those who did not participate in the program. Moreover, individuals “who met the PTSD screening criteria showed significantly greater improvement than those who did not.”
Groll added that there were significant obstacles in conducting the study — people with PTSD sometimes find it difficult to commit to a regularly scheduled class, and about 20% of the participants had dropped out before the three-month study concluded. But as Groll pointed out, the bar to entry for yoga is low, so why not give it a shot?
“Yoga is relatively cheap. It can be done pretty much anywhere, and a lot of people seem to benefit from it,” Groll said. “And there was a significant increase in people’s mood and a decrease in anxiety [among vets who participated in the study], so we should find out why people quit practicing yoga and encourage them to keep going.”
PSEUDOSCIENCE … OR NEUROSCIENCE?
Deb Jeannette teaches yoga at a VA Medical Center on Long Island. Her son spent 11 years in the Marines, part of it on deployment to Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot. “I was constantly having to worry about his safety, and dealing with that trauma of being in a situation where there was no control,” she said. Then she found the Veterans Yoga Project. Despite a lack of control over her son’s well-being, she realized, “I also had my yoga. I could roll out my mat. I could do the breaths. I could do the work. I could do the meditation. I could remember to live moment by moment, because that’s all we have.”
Jeannette is now president of VYP’s board of directors, as well as New York’s regional director. Jeannette said that VYP teachers track statistical improvements in participants via something called a SUDS sheet, which stands for Subjective Units of Distress Scale. She said that of the vets who attended a VYP class in 2018, 80% to 90% experienced a reduction in stress. “And that’s without drugs,” Jeannette added.
The science backs her up. Emily Hawken is a postdoctoral neuroscience fellow at Queen’s University who has spent the past six years investigating the effects of “things you do to your body as it pertains to the cellular and molecular structure of the brain.” When it comes to trauma, the prevailing theory is that the body falls “out of homeostasis,” which produces all of the symptoms associated with PTSD. A “learned” controlled breathing, like the kind that undergirds yoga, changes the heart rate and modulates the vagus nerve, which collects info from all of our organs and peripheral nervous system and feeds it back into our brains. This increases heart rate variability and modulates some key neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically GABA, which researchers suspect boosts mood and has a calming effect on the nervous system. In other words, controlled breathing “keeps things quiet” in the brain.
“It’s mostly the breathwork that is the real driver of any sort of impact [from practicing yoga] we are going to see in the brain — at least, that’s the hypothesis,” Hawken said. “But there’s evidence to support it.”
For VYP founder Libby, proof of yoga’s significant impact on reducing PTSD symptoms is made real by every veteran who completes a yoga course. “I hear so many stories about veterans who are turning their lives around,” Libby said. “Veterans telling us that they leave class in less pain than when they arrived; that they leave class with less stress than when they arrived. And that they are finding meaning and purpose and a life worth living.”