More than a thousand military veterans across the country are turning to yoga for relief from post-traumatic stress disorder and other maladies.
In yoga studios and Veterans Affairs facilities, veterans close their eyes and ready themselves for yoga class. Sitting on a mat or in a chair, they connect with their body and stretch. The goal: to beat whatever ailment plagues their life.
Veterans have turned to yoga through organizations such as Connected Warriors. This national nonprofit provides veterans with free yoga classes. Launched in Florida in 2011, Connected Warriors has spread across the country through partnerships with local yoga studios and yogis who volunteer their time to help veterans heal from nagging ailments, especially PTSD.
“Our military is the best in the world at teaching our soldiers to be present in chaos,” said Judy Weaver, executive director and national director of education for Connected Warriors. “We are the worst at teaching them to be present in peacetime, and that is the one thing that Connected Warriors does.”
More than 700 Connected Warriors instructors teach at yoga studios and community veterans centers across the country, according to connectedwarriors.org.
“We are in 14 states,” Weaver said. “We teach over 1,200 veterans a month, and we have over 55 classes a week.”
For former Marine Miles Demars-Rote, yoga relieves the physical pain caused by a torn anterior cruciate ligament tendon and helps control the mental stress of PTSD. The injury prevented the former Tucson resident from deploying overseas — a twist of fate that might have saved his life, as 30 percent of the men he went to boot camp with have died, he said.
Demars-Rote, who now lives in San Diego, is joining other yogis to bring Connected Warriors to Southern California.
“They already have great systems and studios in place and want to offer these things to veterans,” he said. “However, they don’t have a lot of the funding. They don’t have a lot of exposure.”
In Tucson, Southern Arizona VA Health Care (SAVAHC) holds free Connected Warrior classes, said Charis Domador, regional director for Connected Warriors in Arizona.
“Connected Warriors is a volunteer-based organization that focuses on bringing free yoga to veterans, service members and their families,” Domador said. She is certified as a Connected Warriors instructor.
In addition to teaching classes, some yoga therapists offer one-on-one sessions for those who prefer privacy. Anita Claney, who works as a contractor with SAVAHC, tailors her treatments to the different issues, traumas and stages of PTSD that each person is experiencing.
One aspect that is almost universal in yoga therapy is focusing on the students’ breathing. “We are teaching conscious breath regulation—in other words, paying attention to your breath and learning to breathe in a particular way,” Claney said. “We want (the brain) to begin to say, ‘OK, let’s lay down a conscious breathing pattern that strengthens synaptic pathways.’”
Chemical or electrical pulses that travel through the nervous system use synaptic pathways to move from point A to point B.
Researchers have found that yoga can help veterans, especially those who have never taken a yoga class. According to a 2013 article in the journal PLOS One, yoga and repetitive prayer have therapeutic effects on genes in the body. This helps counteract the adverse effects of stress and anxiety, according to the study’s authors.
After attending a few classes, Demars-Rote felt empowered by the meditation aspect of yoga.
“The meditation and everything else had profound effects on me,” Demars-Rote said. “It made me conscious of some of the things that I was depressed or damaged by. It was a way to actually focus on the root of the problem.”
Demars-Rote was not always passionate about yoga. Initially, it was only in his periphery because of his girlfriend, who was studying to be a yoga instructor.
“As a veteran and as a male, sometimes you walk into these yoga classes and you feel very outcast,” Demars-Rote said. “If I was surrounded with friends, veterans and other males that I could tell had the same sort of hesitations and reservations about yoga, then initially I would have felt much more comfortable.”
Demars-Rote eventually caught the yoga bug after learning about Brad Willis, a popular yogi known as Bhava Ram to his followers. A broken back had ended his journalism career with NBC News. The injury led to depression, addiction and PTSD, Ram said.
Ram’s injury mirrored Demars-Rote’s own physical and emotional pain.
“I was flabbergasted,” Demars-Rote said. “I had gone through chronic pain and PTSD in my life. I could just relate to him. He has a powerful story.”
Yoga saved Ram’s life, and now he wants to show veterans and others suffering from physical and mental ailments that yoga can help them.
“You’re not permanently damaged,” Ram said. “You’re still whole at the deepest level of your being. You can heal to your maximum capacity.”