Veterans Returning to Wholeness through Mindful Yoga and Meditation

By Carrie Leven

Questa Veterans find peace during free weekly Veterans Yoga class in Questa, New Mexico

Medical research shows that alternative and complimentary mindfulness practices like Yoga and Meditation can help trauma survivors return to a feeling of peacefulness.

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans teaches, “Mindful movement is a tool to direct the breath through the body. Movement connected to the breath is powerful and helps bring Veterans back into their bodies, while helping move trauma out of their body, mind, and spirit.”

After attending just two of my Veterans’ Yoga classes in Questa, a Vietnam Veteran who was used to sleeping in 2-hour shifts told me, “My sleep has gotten so much better since starting yoga. I’m now sleeping 3 or 4 hours at a time.” Another Veteran, of the Iraqi war, stated, “I feel so peaceful after your yoga class.”

Dedicated Veterans and their family members continue to attend our Friday morning Free Svastha Yoga class at Questa Health Center, now well into our second year serving the community. A few have come and gone, but one Veteran loved the benefits of Yoga so much that he enrolled in the Yoga program at UNM – Taos and received specialized training in yoga for veterans.

Veterans under standard care for stress, anxiety, depression, and post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are usually treated with psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and sleeping pills. A typical remedy is to increase dosages to deal with increased symptoms, but some patients want to use less medication and maybe eventually, no medication. They want to begin healing their unseen injuries from inside, to reawaken the connection to their body and mind, to gain more control and become whole again.

Mindful Yoga Therapy for trauma survivors is complimentary to what I’ve learned through Svastha Yoga Institute with Monique Parker and Dr. Ganesh Mohan. Svastha is Sanskrit for “returning to self” and has reintegration as a goal. Both Svastha Yoga Therapy and Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans encourage a peaceful Yoga practice done at deliberate and slow pace, while focusing on the flow of the breath.

Together, these disciplines use familiar and simple movements to awaken the mind-body connection and keep one connected to the present moment while contributing to overall health and wellness. Repeated practice of mindfulness techniques retrains the brain and body to be more resilient to stress, lessen future anxiety and depression episodes, and recover more quickly from mental and physical setbacks.

The best advice from Veterans to other Veterans is to reach out and seek help when feeling overwhelmed or if having trouble after returning from military service.

In the Taos area, counselor Kirsten Wing at the Taos VA Clinic is also trained in Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans, as is psychotherapist and Svastha Yoga teacher Deborah Halpern in Angel Fire.

VA Representative Michael Pacheco can direct Veterans to New Mexico VA services and programs, and Not Forgotten Outreach in Taos is a treasure for Veterans and families. Please see The National Center for PTSD website for more on Mindfulness Practices at www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/therapy-med/mindful-ptsd.asp

Svastha Yoga teachers offer Svastha Yoga classes for stress management in Taos, El Prado, and Questa. A complete schedule of classes can be found at Svastha Yoga Institute at www.svasthayogainstitute.com.

Please join us in Questa for Carrie’s Free Weekly Svastha Yoga class for Veterans and families, every Friday 10:30 to 11:30 am at Questa Health Center. Her Community Svastha Yoga class on Wednesdays is also Free for Veterans, and held from 5:30-7PM at OCHO in downtown Questa.

Carrie Leven is an archaeologist and Svastha Yoga teacher living in Questa with her husband Monte Doeren, a Vietnam Veteran who attends her weekly yoga classes. This article first appeared in The Taos News May 22, 2014.

How Yoga can help Veterans with PTSD

by Monique Parker

Of the 3,218 veterans residing in Taos County (not including those who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan), 40 percent or more may be living with post-traumatic stress disorder and personal traumas. According to Michael Pacheco, Veterans Service Officer for the New Mexico Department of Veterans Service in Taos County, that number is likely greater when you add recent veterans of the middle eastern wars.

What is PTSD?

What used to be called shell shock or Battle Fatigue Syndrome, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is frequently defined as “a normal reaction to an abnormal event.”

While psychotherapy and counseling have proven to be effective in treating PTSD, the meditative and physical aspects of yoga can help reduce symptoms which range from insomnia, irritability, and hopelessness to anxiety, the inability to concentrate, and difficulty in maintaining close relationships.

Michele Beuttel, a clinical social worker at the Taos VA Clinic reports, “Any meditative technique which brings the mind and body together, focusing on breath helps the nervous system settle down. Patients can be taught to observe their thoughts rather then they are their thoughts. Eventually, they can regain control of intrusive thoughts that contribute to a sense of hyper vigilance, which they perceive as threats to their safety or to the safety of their loved ones.”

As a complimentary therapy, yoga doesn’t cost a lot, has no side effects, and doesn’t require a prescription. And it can be adapted. “Many veterans have physical limitations,” adds Beuttel. “Yoga can be adapted specifically for them. It’s an opportunity to get the body and mind working together. It’s also an opportunity for community.”

The hidden wounds of PTSD are too often addressed through self-medication or substance abuse. As many as 30-50 percent of people who live with PTSD use drugs and alcohol to numb themselves from depression or anxiety. “Yoga provides an alternative, a natural way for veterans to reclaim their lives,” says Debby Halpern, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Angel Fire.

Trauma Sensitive Yoga for Veterans

Halpern specializes in trauma sensitive yoga for veterans and their partners. For over twenty years she has counseled people in public service: military, firefighters, and law enforcement officers. From 2009-2011, she provided counseling for and taught Svastha Yoga to veterans and their partners at the weeklong veterans retreats at the National Veterans Wellness and Healing Center in Angel Fire.

In 2010, Halpern traveled to India to study yoga psychology with A.G. and Indra Mohan. “When I learned about the vrtti-samskara cycle it all made sense,” says Halpern. “Everyone—not just veterans—is caught in a cycle of old unconscious patterns that can rise up from out of the blue. It’s particularly debilitating for veterans because when that old memory, or samskara, gets triggered it reinforces painful emotions and thoughts that never seem to go away.”

The Role of Latent Impressions on the Mind

According to the Yoga Sutras, the authoritative text on yoga thought to be at least 4,000 years old, mental unsteadiness is the root of our problems. As the instrument of perception, the mind perceives the external world through the sensory organs: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

Whatever actions we do or experiences we have creates conditioning upon the mind. Yoga calls this conditioning or latent impressions samskaras. For the majority of us, the future is an extension of the past because the samskaras are constantly giving rise to thoughts and emotions (vrttis) without our awareness or conscious control. Therefore, we constantly and unknowingly reinforce our conditioning in either a positive or negative way. This closed loop cycle is called the vrtti-samskara chakra or wheel.

Because the mind and body are intimately linked, the vrtti-samskara cycle affects our physical body and it’s functioning. The Yoga Sutras goes on to state that freedom is possible through physical exercise (asanas), breathing, and meditation techniques, which help to oppose the negative thoughts and feelings, while bringing the physiological systems of the body back towards homeostasis.

Hope and Healing

Monte Doeren of Questa served two combat tours in Vietnam and has since studied and practiced Eastern philosophy. “Meditation has helped me get to where I’m not combative about everything. There’s not so much of that feeling that I’ve got to watch my back,” says Doeren.

Doeren and his wife Carrie Leven attended Halpern’s workshop for veterans and their partners last month. “We’re being more appreciative to each other, saying thank-you,” Leven says. “We’re getting back to what we originally appreciated about each other.”

Halpern has worked with other couples that live with PTSD, including Vietnam veteran Steve Oliver and his wife Janet. “After forty-three years of marriage, we came to yoga to help rise above the pain and confusion of PTSD,” says Janet. “The physical exercises have helped Steve to manage the bone pain he experiences from Myeloma, which he developed as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange.”

“The good news is that there’s hope,” says Halpern. “Through personal effort, yoga offers us an opportunity to reduce physical discomfort and change the way we respond to stimuli.” By consistently practicing yoga or meditation veterans and their partners learn to directly oppose the latent impressions, thereby creating new, healthy thought patterns.

Pranayama or breathing exercises and simple movements are the first step in learning to reconnect the body/mind. “The body carries trauma. With PTSD there’s a disjoint between the cognitive self, one’s emotions, and the body. You have to rebuild trust with your body,” adds Halpern. “The way to start is through the breath. If you wake up in the middle of the night, breathe. It’s the foundation for quieting the mind.”

On using yoga techniques, such as meditation, Doeren warns, “The harsh reality is that no one will give it to you. A lot of people don’t want to do self-improvement. But if you do want to better yourself—and get better—you’ve got to be willing to do the work.”

Halpern offers weekly Trauma Sensitive Svastha Yoga for Veterans at Santosha Yoga on Wednesdays from 2:30-4pm. Cost is $72 for 6-classes or $15 drop-in. She also facilitates a workshop for veterans and their partners called “Trauma Sensitive Svastha Yoga for Veteran Couples”. The next one is September 8 at Santosha from 1-5pm. Cost is $120 per couple. A sliding scale is available.

Interested veterans can stop by the Department of Veterans Service in Taos to pick up a pamphlet on Halpern’s classes and workshops. Pacheco is encouraging. “Yoga’s a good thing for some of these guys,” he says. “If the wife can talk them into it. They listen to their wives. Then they can go as a couple.”

For more information contact Debby Halpern at 575-377-2514 or jdhalpern@msn.com.

*First appeared in The Taos News on August 16, 2012

 

The Role of Svastha Yoga in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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

3. Meditation/Chanting

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.

Namaste.

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.