"Hard core military guys and yoga—that doesn't really...go together does it?" people have asked. It's true that, when they first walked into the study, the young, tattoo-covered, hard-drinking, motorcycle driving men that participated in my study did not look like your typical yoga studio regulars. But their words after participating in our study said it all: "Thank you for giving me my life back." "I feel like I've been dead since I returned from Iraq and I feel like I'm alive again." In one week, they regained their resilience. If it for veterans - some of the most highly stressed individuals in our society - it can work for us too. It lies in one simple exercise: breathing (in a particular way).
Though the military trains service members for war, it does not train them for peace. After a long deployment of holding their breath in combat, they often return to civilian life no longer knowing how to breathe. Ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, service members embody courage, integrity, selflessness, and a deep commitment to protecting others. They have trained under extreme conditions to do things most civilians will never have to think about: lose parts of their body or even their life, kill or injure another human being under orders or by mistake, get right back to duty and keep fighting hours after seeing a friend killed, be separated from families and loved ones for months and even years, and live with the horrendous physical and emotional consequences thereof upon their return home.
The National Institute of Health estimates that 20-30 percent of the 2 million plus veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder involves hyper-alertness that prevents sleep and severely interferes with daily life, triggers painful flashbacks during the day and nightmares at night, and causes emotional numbness that leads to social withdrawal and an inability to relate to others. Side effects of PTSD include: rage, violence, insomnia, alienation, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. PTSD symptoms are associated with higher risk of suicide, a fact that may explain the alarming rise in suicidal behavior amongst returning veterans.
While traditional treatments work for some, a large number of veterans are falling through the cracks. Dropout rates for therapy and drug treatments remain as high as 62 percent for veterans with PTSD. Symptoms can persist even for veterans who actually undergo an entire course of psychotherapeutic treatment and drug treatment results are mixed.
Our research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford showed that the one-week Project Welcome Home Troops intervention was successful. Statistical analyses showed significant decreases in PTSD and anxiety. Improvements remained one month and one year later, suggesting long-term benefit. More telling even than the data are the veterans' words: "A few weeks ago shooting, cars exploding, screaming, death, that was your world. Now back home, no one knows what it is like over there so no one knows how to help you get back your normalcy. They label you a victim of the war. I AM NOT A VICTIM...but how do I get back my normalcy? For most of us it is booze and Ambien. It works for a brief period then it takes over your life. Until this study, I could not find the right help for me, BREATH'ing like a champ!" writes a marine of the war in Afghanistan.
The Project Welcome Home Troops program teaches Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, a specific breathing-based practice taught by certified instructors. Research in non-veteran populations shows that it is helpful for anxiety, depression, stress, and even gene expression for immunity. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Phie Ambo, shadowed our entire study and filmed the veterans' transformation. It is called Free the Mind and you can see trailers on my website.
Although many of the participants in my study were wary when they first walked in, expecting this to be "hippy dippy sh_ _" or even a "cry fest," they took to the breathing practices immediately. Why? Because they are fundamentally empowering—which is what being a service member is all about. Veterans do not easily embrace victim-hood. "I am not a victim" are the words of the young Marine in our study. A man or woman with the courage to go to war is not the type to feel sorry for him or herself. Instead, they seek to take responsibility. Yoga-based practices allow them to take responsibility because they do not require dependence on a therapist or drug. The veterans learn how to take care of their own mind and well-being using their own breath.
And truth be told—the military and yoga have another important element in common: an emphasis on service to society. Empowered and relieved of their anxiety, the veterans I have worked with often reconnect with the spirit of service that led them to volunteer for the military in the first place. Now, their spirit of service is directed in new ways: toward helping other veterans. Travis Leanna, the one who said "Thank you for giving me my life back," is a young marine who participated in our study and then decided to become an instructor with Project Welcome Home Troops so he could help other vets.
After learning how powerful the breath can be for resilience, I've dedicated a whole chapter of my book The Happiness Track (HarperOne 2016) to resilience. The breath is something we take for granted, but when we learn to use it, it can maximize our potential.
To learn Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, non-veterans can attend classes through the Art of Living Foundation.
For more information on Project Welcome Home Troops and how veterans can attend classes free of charge, please see www.pwht.org.