Written by Deborah Halpern, LPCC
Edited by Monique Parker
Steve and Janet Oliver find that sharing a yoga practice brings them closer together.
I attended my first Yoga class at age twenty-two and have now enjoyed a yoga practice for over forty years. In 2007 I was introduced to what felt like the most authentic form of yoga I had ever encountered. My teacher, Monique Parker, who now directs the yoga teacher certification program at the University of New Mexico-Taos, offered something called Svastha Yoga. Her mentors, the originators of Svastha Yoga, A.G. and Indra Mohan, were long time personal students of the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Because Svastha Yoga is primarily about developing a state of internal peace and secondarily a form of physical exercise, it fit perfectly with my work as a psychotherapist. I have now been practicing Svastha Yoga for close to five years. After completing a course in 2010, taught by A.G. Mohan called “YOGA Psychology for Personal Transformation,” I realized that yoga can help war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and also help those who care for them.
Two years ago I got involved with weeklong Healing and Wellness Retreats offered in Angel Fire, New Mexico for veterans and their partners suffering from PTSD. There is more awareness today that veterans need help with the devastating symptoms inherent in PTSD. Including an intimate partner in the healing process is significant, helpful, and powerful for both partners. Partners can be spouses, parents, children, siblings, gay partners, or a close friend committed to the vet and to their healing.
At first I functioned as a psychotherapist at the retreats, offering counseling to couples. During the second retreat I introduced a daily yoga practice as an option for those interested, while continuing my role as counselor. After the third retreat, based on feedback from the vets and their partners, I shifted my responsibilities from that of psychotherapist to directing a yoga program where a daily asana practice was available, as well as “couples yoga.”
Couples yoga consisted of releasing old painful behaviors, attitudes, and feelings while focusing on the positive in the relationship between the veteran and his/her partner. We used communication exercises, counseling skills, and guided imagery to replace old habits that no longer worked in the relationship or in their lives. We also used the tools I had learned through yoga, such as pranayama, meditation, chanting, and asana. We would begin and end each session reciting “Namaste,” with the couples looking into each other’s eyes, holding hands and saying together: “I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you, which is of love, of truth, of light and peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are one. Namaste.”
After 43 years of marriage, Steve and Janet share a heart-centered place to help rise above the pain and confusion of PTSD.
I realized that couples needed to reconnect with each other from a loving place, the original heartfelt place of their relationship, which has been covered up by the traumas of war and subsequent PTSD. At one of the retreats I met a couple, Phil, an Iraqi veteran, and his wife Diane, who worked at and enjoyed a very solid and loving marriage. After sharing “Namaste” on the first day of couples yoga, Diane turned to me and said, “This is the first time in eleven years, since the day we were married, that we’ve held hands and looked into each other’s eyes.”
The aspect of yoga that can give hope back to those suffering from PTSD is a psychological principle right out of the Yoga Sutras where it refers the “samskara/vrtti cycle.” Samskara in Sanskrit stands for latent impressions and memories. Vrtti means thoughts and emotions. What happens when we’re caught in this cycle is that an old unconscious memory can rise to our consciousness out of the blue. That memory, or samskara, often triggers an emotion, vrtti, which can then cycle back to ignite a latent impression, samskara, which in turn, gets more thoughts—vrttis swirling up into our consciousness. Suddenly we’re going in painful emotional circles and living in the PAST with no connection to today.
For veterans old war memories can rise from the unconscious. Such memories can trigger extreme emotions that force them to revisit traumatic war experiences from years ago. Suddenly they’re living in the PAST with no connection to today. This experience is called PTSD. In yoga it is called the samskara/vrtti cycle. Since yoga is “an action that quiets the mind” and helps address the samskara/vrtti cycle, it’s easy to see how many veterans could benefit from quieting their minds through yoga. Once the mind is quieted, inner peace can again become a cherished part of life and PTSD can be controlled.
How yoga helps with PTSD
What are the ingredients that help vets overcome horrific, emotional responses to life after being trapped in a deadly fight to survive? The power of yoga lies in its simplicity and adherence to some very basic practices:
1. Asana Practice
2. Pranayama Breathing
In the west, the emphasis on yoga often lies within the asana practice, thought of primarily and valued greatly as a form of exercise. Granted, exercise is important in balancing a healthy body and life, but in yoga the exercise functions to support the most important aspect of the practice: quieting of the mind.
Steve practices yoga to help manage the bone pain that he experiences from Myeloma, which he developed as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange.
How does an asana practice function in quieting the mind? Asana means “to sit”. We do an asana practice so that we might be flexible and strong enough to sit while engaged in pranayama breathing and meditation as the primary avenues for quieting the mind. When we do pranayama and focus on the actual physical mechanics of the breath, we are forced to experience our body and ourselves in the moment. The physical mechanics of the breath consist of inhaling through the nose and feeling the air expand the chest to the front, sides, and back while filling our lungs to capacity. Pause. Then we exhale by contracting our lower abdominal muscles, right below our navel, and exhale all air from our lungs, again, through the nose, until our lungs feel empty. Pause again before beginning the next round of inhaling.
Meditation can be experienced silently or verbally by repeating a mantra or by chanting to help focus and quiet the mind. One meditates within the cycle of the breath that is already established as the foundation of the practice. Then, while still being aware of our physical breath, if we simultaneously meditate, then our mind is doubly engaged in our body, in the moment. When we are in the moment, in our body and in life right now, we are NOT stuck in the past, as we are when overcome with PTSD.
It is amazing how powerful pranayama can be for someone battling the effects of PTSD. Joe, a Vietnam Veteran, came to my “couples yoga” class extremely agitated and raging with anger. He was upset about his Veterans Administration (VA) benefits and felt he was being ignored and denied benefits for which he qualified. Feeling he had been lied to, he was irate that his call for help was being disregarded and that his life was meaningless to the federal government. This was so much more painful because it is the same federal government that had robbed him of his youth and happiness forty-five years before.
Since Vietnam, his life has been hell and he was furious! Other vets in the class tried to empathize and reason with him about how to deal with the VA office. Their attempts to help Joe were to no avail. His rage escalated and his control waned as if he was gearing up for a fight. I was afraid an innocent victim might be caught in his dangerous crossfire if something wasn’t done immediately. I knew it was imperative for Joe to calm down. Not sure he could hear me, I suggested that the whole class participate in pranayama breathing as a way for everyone to get grounded and as a way we could help Joe with his problem.
Luckily, Joe complied, although with skepticism. I believe he was so desperate for help that he’d have tried anything if there were a chance for relief. We practiced pranayama. To my amazement I watched Joe’s clenched jaw relax and his white knuckled fists gradually open with each breath. At the end of a round of breathing I asked everyone to slowly open their eyes and tell me how they felt after experiencing the exercise. Joe, looking astounded, gently shook his head and shoulders and with newly focused eyes said, “What just happened?” Then in disbelief, announced, “That was amazing!”
I felt that Joe had left the hell that was consuming him and returned to his own senses and his body. I no longer feared the potential of Joe’s violence and experienced him as the decent and sane man that he could be. All this was attained from just breathing in a conscious and focused way.
The beauty of pranayama is that it is incredibly effective, costs nothing, doesn’t require a prescription, and causes no negative side effects. It’s a gift for someone desperate to find relief from the debilitating and demeaning effects of PTSD. It’s also important to help vets realize that PTSD is a normal reaction to the very abnormal and horrific experiences of war.
Through breathing and meditating, supported by an asana practice, a person can work toward being free of the shackles and disturbances of the mind. The accumulation of old emotional debris can begin clearing out and a long forgotten and natural space within, a space we were born with, can be rediscovered. It is in that calm inner place where peace and serenity still reside. Over time someone can connect with the truth of who he/she is. In essence, a person who has long suffered from PTSD can finally come home.
Debby Halpern is a master’s level licensed clinical mental health counselor (LPCC) who has been practicing yoga for over forty years. She staffs the National Veterans Wellness and Healing Retreats in Angel Fire, New Mexico. She received her yoga teacher certification from the University of New Mexico-Taos and teaches yoga at the Angel Fire Resort in Northern New Mexico. Debby specializes in yoga and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, working with veterans and their families.