Yoga: an alternative therapy for wounded warriors with PTSD


Soldiers participate in a yoga class for the 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, Warrior Transition Battalion-Europe (U.S. Army photo).

Soldiers participate in a yoga class for the 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, Warrior Transition Battalion-Europe (U.S. Army photo).

Over time, yoga classes have been incorporated into civilian gyms, health centers and holistic therapy locations all over the world. Yoga uses meditation, deep relaxation, stretching and breathing to reduce physical, emotional and mental tension. In the last few years, yoga classes have also been added to the arsenals of many installations, Warrior Transition UnitsMilitary Treatment Facilities (MTFs) and Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities for Service members, veterans and their family members.

“Many people who have gone through combat stress feel disconnected from themselves and others,” said Robin Carnes, certified iRest meditation and yoga instructor. She has taught yoga and meditation for almost six years for an intensive outpatient program, most recently at Walter Reed National Naval Medical Center. “Yoga means union, bringing together parts as a whole,” she said. “Yoga helps people connect with themselves and others again.”

Yoga serves as a physical and behavioral health fitness routine for strength, flexibility and awareness of the body and mind for active duty Service members. It is also being used to augment more traditional means of care for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Experts such as psychiatrists, psychologists and researchers have praised yoga’s calming influence and focus on whole-body wellness. 

Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D., a PTSD author, clinician, researcher and teacher since the 1970s, asserts that therapists treating psychological trauma need to work with the body as well as the mind. He states that yoga may provide a safe and gentle means of becoming reacquainted with the body and allowing people to confront their internal sensations.

According to Nicole Carlin, a registered yoga teacher with a Master of Arts in gender studies and a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, yoga can help people find a greater sense of peace and wellbeing. Based on her experience, she believes it can have a calming effect and help to clear the mind of troubling or obsessive thoughts. She states that yoga poses allow PTSD sufferers to turn their attention to their body instead of the thoughts in their mind.

Service members and veterans reported that yoga was useful in keeping them relaxed, thereby, allowing them to deal with anxiety caused by traumatic events. In several studies, including, “The Effect of Yoga on Symptoms of Combat Stress in Active Duty Personnel,” study participants noted that yoga helped to reduce those anxieties associated with military service.

The Department of Defense also conducted research at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) on the efficacy of Yoga Nidra, an ancient meditative practice. A study of the practice was conducted with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who were experiencing PTSD. The study was led by Richard Miller, PhD, a clinical psychologist, author, researcher, yogic scholar and spiritual teacher. The practice was eventually renamed Integrative Restoration, or iRest.

The research showed that iRest helps heal the various unresolved issues, traumas and wounds that are present in the body and mind, and thereby, aiding the body and mind in returning to a natural state of functioning. Following the study, WRAMC integrated the iRest protocol into its weekly treatment program for soldiers. iRest is now available at Walter Reed National Naval Medical Center, Md.; Brooke Army Medical Center, Texas; Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, N.C.; and VA facilities in Chicago, Ill.; Evanston, Ill.; Miami, Fla.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Sacramento, Calif.; Yuba-Sutter, Calif.; and Washington, D.C.

“Yoga shows people that they can feel peaceful again,” said Carnes. “It is possible. And it is something they can do for themselves.”

With January recognized as National Hobby Month, it is an opportune time of year to consider starting an activity to assist in wellbeing, such as yoga. If you are interested in yoga, ask your physician about participating in classes in your area. Also you may visit the National Resource Directory and do a word search for “yoga” to find community organizations offering yoga classes.