Rolly Alvarado, a 34-year-old Marine combat veteran, served two tours of duty in Iraq. When he returned to civilian life after seven years of service, the trauma of his combat experiences followed him.
Nearly one in five service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
And although half of returning service members who need treatment for mental health conditions seek it, SAMHSA reports that only half of those who receive treatment get adequate care.
For Alvarado, the key to healing came in the form of a yoga class. On the mat, surrounded by other veterans, he learned how to cultivate peace and clarity by focusing on his breath.
“Going through depression and not being able to sleep and not being able to think correctly — I had just a lot of things going on in my mind,” said Alvarado, who lives in Ewa. “Yoga helped me to start focusing on what’s important now in my life, not to think too far into the future and forget about the past. I started to be more relaxed and better accepting of how things are.”
Marketed by American gyms as a fitness class, yoga offers its practitioners much more than a workout. It’s an ancient science linking controlled breathing with movement. The primary work of the yoga student is to curate inner peace by quieting the restless mind.
Embraced by prisons, schools and businesses as a wellness tool to increase productivity and relieve stress, yoga is gradually being welcomed by military leaders. Military hospitals and clinics now increasingly refer patients to yoga classes as a form of treatment for health issues ranging from chronic pain to PTSD.
In 2011, the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments funded a series of clinical trials that verified the utility of yoga as therapy for combat-related health conditions. Born on the heels of that research, the national nonprofit Warriors at Ease formed to offer free yoga and meditation instruction to current and former military service members and their families.
Informed by military culture and sensitive to the triggers of combat-related trauma, the program’s teaching curriculum is tailored to the needs of veterans and service members.
“In a normal yoga studio, they’ll play Indian music a lot of times and it’s in Sanskrit,” said Susan Alden, an Oahu resident and the executive director of Warriors at Ease. “That doesn’t work for these people. That kind of music might sound like a call to prayer and then all of a sudden we have a student who is finding themselves right back in Afghanistan. They’re physically on their mat, but their mind is back in Afghanistan.”
Alden said instrumental music with no lyrics is better, and they make sure everyone can sit where they can see the door.
“Somebody who has severe PTSD will not be comfortable with their back to the door,” she said.
On Oahu, Warriors at Ease offers yoga teacher training programs and free classes on military bases and at veterans centers and private studios.
“We’re kind of like the modern version of the VFW,” Alden said. “Back in the day, it was Vietnam vets sitting around drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. Well, now we’re getting together and doing yoga together.”
The organization also advocates for the integration of funded yoga and meditation programs in the VA and the DOD health system. Currently there are a few of these programs funded nationwide — but none in Hawaii.
Alden said she is working with Tripler Army Medical Center to initiate funding for a regular yoga class at the hospital’s inpatient PTSD unit.
At Bella Kai Yoga studio in Kailua, Warriors at Ease has partnered with a pair of neuro-acupuncturists to offer free, community-style acupuncture treatment to veterans and service members. The studio is owned by a Navy helicopter pilot.
Cyndi Lee, a marine veteran and amputee from Waipahu, said the yoga-acupuncture offering has boosted her entire disposition, helping her attain a sense of calm and ease that had long been lost.
Without a left leg, Lee relies on the aid of the instructor and props like a folding chair to practice yoga safely and maintain balance in standing poses. She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable attending another yoga class, where she might worry about the instructor’s ability to work around her physical limits.
“None of us want to go see a psychiatrist, none of us want to go to a physical therapist, but coming to yoga covers all of that and in these classes you get to do it with other people in the military who understand you,” Lee said.
While plenty of people seek out Warriors at Ease to aid their mental health, the yoga classes attract service members and veterans for many other reasons.
Alli Houseworth, who teaches yoga in a fitness center on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, said students find her classes for reasons that range from a recovery from harsh workouts to the desire to heal a mild knee injury.
“A lot of people who jump out of airplanes have terrible backs,” Houseworth said. “Or you’re walking around in these really heavy boots so your knees and ankles are bad. It doesn’t have to be a severe injury, but a lot of them will come as an alternative to physical therapy.”
At the U.S. Coast Guard Base in Honolulu, Taryn McLaughlin, a Navy veteran, instructs a weekly class focused on cultivating proper alignment.
“These men and women spend a lot of time on little ships, hunched over, crawling through small port spaces,” she said.
A Coast Guard officer realized it would be good for the crew to stretch and gain flexibility that would counter problems from the back-bending work “and now I’m teaching them weekly yoga,” she said.
McLaughlin said she’s sure to let her students know that yoga offers healing powers that extend beyond the physical. But she doesn’t push it on them.
“I was one of those people who had that preconceived notion that yoga is for flexible people, it’s not for me,” McLaughlin said. “But then I did it and I learned that it’s for everybody. It helped me heal from trauma that I had been burying for 20 years. I share my own journey so my students know they can come to me if they want to talk about it.”
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