Yoga for Veterans: Making a Difference Where it Counts

The best way to honor our veterans is encouraging them to honor themselves. Read on for ways to help.

As a yogi and veteran, Tara Patterson understands the importance of physical and mental health, especially when it comes to mindfulness. But it wasn’t always this way—like many veterans, Tara suffered from a windstorm of confusing health issues that plagued her day-to-day life. It wasn’t until she found her yoga practice that she began to tackle the pain (both in her mind and body) head on. The results, she describes, were well worth sharing. “I didn’t know much about yoga when I started, but it took over my life,” Tara says, her voice touched with fond nostalgia. “There was so much to learn, so much healing.” Tara, now teaching at Yoga Mat in Clarksville, Tennessee,  is just one of many veterans who experienced the transformational power of yoga. Yoga for veterans is gaining traction in popularity, and rapidly increasing as a form of treatment for PTSD and physical ailments. The practice has helped thousands achieve mental and physical healing—a term that shouldn’t be used lightly in the yoga community. Teachers interested in helping veterans can easily find opportunities for specialized certification, where they’ll learn various techniques for working with victims of trauma. Warriors at Ease, or WAE, is one of these options. “There was an opportunity for military spouses to attend YTT [Yoga Teacher Training] through the Guiding Wellness Institute,” Tara tells me. “Tuition was completely covered. 320 hours with a focus on trauma sensitive yoga.”  The Guiding Wellness Institute is a school and studio based in Fayetteville, North Carolina, with programs available in Killeen, Texas and Clarksville. In addition to a plethora of classes and therapy options, the school offers various yoga teacher training programs, including one with Warriors at Ease. WAE is all about providing therapeutic assistance. The curriculum is based around yoga for special populations, adaptive yoga, and mindfulness techniques to create a safe container for victims of trauma, PTSD, TBI, and limb loss. Teachers in the program are given the proper tools in order to best prepare them for veteran-specific classes. For example, providing a cue when it comes time to close the eyes, while informing students that your eyes (as the teacher) are open. Trainees are also taught to be mindful of abreactions possible triggered by music—it's not clear what memories anyone associates with music, and while teachers do not necessarily need to know the specifics, they learn to develop awareness around music and sound. The program as a whole is designed to make veterans feel comfortable, welcomed, and hopeful.

Spreading the Love, Sharing the Release

For Tara, the program was an opportunity to share all the benefits of yoga that so deeply contributed to her growth. She suffered from a hip injury in 2011, just two weeks before she left for boot camp. When the pain got worse, she visited the military doctors, who told her it could be anything from sciatica to degenerative bone disorder to ITB syndrome. “I was given the typical military answer of Motrin and water,” Tara remembers. After separating from the military, she was diagnosed with arthritis, given a disability rating, prescribed pain pills, and sent along her merry way. But Tara wasn’t sold—she refused to be on medication for the rest of her life when the pills were addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead, she came to yoga, where she was able to regain some range of motion and shift focus to her breath. In this type of injury, movement is crucial in rebuilding synovial fluid in the joints, but rigorous exercise is likely to cause inflammation. Yoga was an ideal balance. But the experience for Tara, and many veterans, surpassed her physical health. The whole ordeal was mentally exhausting. Many veterans, even those without injuries, share similar experiences. The military is very much Yang without the Yin, a storm without the calm. Tara’s yoga practice offered a space to release pent-up emotions.  Those of us who practice yoga can relate—the mat consistently serves as a warm and welcome home, and thus tends to attract all sorts of sensitive souls looking for a place to unleash their not-so-nice emotions. It allows us to go inward. This is especially important for those in the military, where an attitude and approach to yoga is a bit more hesitant. Tara puts it bluntly, saying that there’s “a bit of stigma.” “The higher-ups aren’t as accepting of yoga,” Tara says. “It’s not in their typical scope of focus.” Luckily, that's a shifting pattern. Warriors at Ease, with a teacher network spanning throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan, is just one organization dedicated to changing stereotypes. Veterans Yoga Project is another of the many groups expanding mindfulness programs into the lives of those suffering from trauma and PTSD. Last July, Veterans Yoga Project reported 103 yoga programs led by VYP teachers. One of the organization’s largest projects is Veterans Gratitude Week, held November 3–12. Yoga teachers around the country are encouraged to host donation-based yoga and meditation classes, or to donate the proceeds from their regularly scheduled classes to the cause. The goal is to translate the idea that yoga is so much more than physical flexibility. For those of us immersed in our practice, and spend a portion of our downtime with other yogis or like-minded thinkers, it’s easy to forget that the practice is still a mystery to some. There are dozens of negative stereotypes associated with yoga, and these stereotypes are preventing would-be yogis for benefiting from the practice. Yoga for veterans is a prime example.  Think of it this way: At the end of a practice, have you ever experienced a teacher encouraging you to take the goodness you’ve learned and share it with the world? Organizations like Warriors at Ease, and Veterans Yoga Project are doing just that. “The biggest thing that yoga helped me heal was my self-worth,” Tara says. “I felt guilty that I received a disability rating for my pain, when there are a lot of veterans who have been through a lot worse and received a lot less… I had to learn that I was worthy of healing. We are all worthy.” Tara's difficulty accepting care was not abnormal—she later tells me how time and time again she hears of those in need refusing to ask for help or seek healing because they don't want to take those resources away from someone who maybe needs it more. But the healing powers of yoga are infinitely abundant. They are available for everyone, and even more so if we take the time to share what we know to be good. Yoga isn't a limited resource because health shouldn't be a privilege. Tara is right: We are all worthy. Interested in learning more? Below are a few programs offering veteran-focused classes and training programs. Warriors at Ease - warriorsatease.org Connected Warriors - connectedwarriors.org Wounded Warrior - woundedwarriorproject.org Lone Survivors Foundation - lonesurvivorfoundation.org Veterans Yoga Project - www.veteransyogaproject.orgAmanda Kohr is the editor at Wanderlust. You can find her exploring new highways, drinking diner coffee, and on Instagram