It’s a sultry Monday morning in Florida as a group of about 40 vets gather in a large all-purpose room at the Orlando VA Medical Center for the first of their four classes this week in Tai Chi Easy, a special mind-body class developed for vets by Dr. Roger Jahnke, who has practiced and taught Chinese medicine for decades.
The class reduces the negative effects of stress by promoting relaxation and body awareness, something that many combat vets came home to discover they had lost while fighting to survive on the battlefield.
And it’s part of a remarkable national push by the VA to widen the availability of non-pharmacological treatments – a huge step forward. The $150,000 grant from the VA Center for Innovation funds three different activities: classes for the vets, a training Tai Chi Easy Practice Leaders, and a research on the program’s effectiveness.
To accommodate all vets, including those with disabilities, the class was designed to be easily modified to be practiced standing or sitting – even lying down. And it’s simple enough that it can be learned by vets with no previous knowledge of Tai Chi, says Jahnke, founder of the Institute of Integral Tai Chi and Qigong (IIQTC) in Santa Barbara, Calif.
To get the class started, Kevin Merrigan, a graduate of the IIQTC, instructs his students to warm up using a technique called Twisting the Torso. He notes that it’s important to concentrate on three areas, called the Three Treasures: adjusting the body through posture and movement, slowing and deepening the breathing, and focusing the mind on the present moment through focused awareness on the aspects of the practice.
“The Three Treasures promote physiological change, including boosting the immune system, improving brain plasticity, shifting the mix of neurotransmitters in the brain, and improving gene expression,” says Jahnke, explaining that boosting gene replication leads to a healthier gene pool with longer life.
When the warmup is complete, Merrigan begins teaching a new technique, one called Harmonizing Yin and Yang. It revolves around balancing the mutually opposing dualities of our human natures -- happy and sad, emotional and intellectual, head and heart, left brain and right brain, sympathetic and parasympathetic, etc.
Merrigan instructs his students to use their hands to form an invisible ball (Tai Chi Ball or Energy Ball), larger than a basketball, but smaller than large beach ball. With one hand below the ball and one above it, participants move the ball slowly to their left. Then they are instructed to separate the ball, bringing half of the ball across their torsos to their right side. Then they bring the other half over to the right and unite the two parts again.
“This means that you separate your yin and yang and then bring them both back together again,” explains Jahnke, who has trained about 100 VA officials around the country in Tai Chi Easy. “Repeating this movement is very soothing to the nervous system -- you slow your breathing down and focus on the exercise until you’re in almost a meditative state. This state produces healing resources - a medicine within. In China this "healer within" is referred to as an elixir."
“As you focus on deepening your breathing, the motions slow down too,” he adds. “That’s important for vets, who tend to be hyperactive and hypervigilant. By slowing down your movements and breathing deeply, you can go into a state that’s almost hypnotic. And, it is a very healing state.”
Students learn and refine five techniques like this over a couple of months, then learn and refine another five. “They can be used individually or be put back together in a variety of forms,” says Jahnke. “There are enough variations so it’s never the same. Our goal is to give our students enough instruction that they can be self-sufficient by doing the techniques at home.”
If you’re interested in seeing how Tai Chi is practiced, here’s a clip that available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/TaiChiAndQigongWay
In addition to Orlando, classes are now available at Greater LA Veterans Health System in Los Angeles, Northport VA Medical Center in New York, the Mountain Home VA Medical Center in Tennessee, and the New Orleans VA Medical Center.
“But we also recognize that there are many vets who simply avoid the VA, so we’ve also been training instructors to offer classes in a civilian setting,” says Jahnke. Here’s a link to his Tai Chi Easy Web site: http://TaiChiEasy.org
Tai Chi has some similarities with yoga, the ancient Indian discipline which contains physical, mental and spiritual practices. It’s also offered at some VA centers.
In his book, The Evil Hours: a biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, David J. Morris writes about how he discovered yoga. Morris is a former U.S. Marine who became a journalist and was blown up in 2007 as he rode in a Humvee outside of Baghdad with some soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division.
“There is nothing sillier than seeing a bunch of people standing around in a park twisted into enlightened pretzels, repeating words from a long-dead language,” he wrote. “Yoga is moronic, which is part of what makes it so great. In the Marine Corps, we had a saying: ‘If it’s stupid but it works, then it isn’t stupid.’
“Personally, I plan on doing stupid, functional things like yoga for the rest of my life,” Morris concluded.
It should be noted the Morris had already been through two of the conventional therapies that the VA offered and that it referred as its “gold standard of practice” therapies: the clinician-administered PTSD scale (or CAPS) and prolonged exposure (or PE).
Morris found that CAPS wasn’t realty effective for a combat vet because it focused only one or two traumatic events, whereas much of what happens in a war zone contributes to that trauma. He suggested CAPS might be more effective for a rape victim who truly had a single, well-defined trauma.
And PE – talking about the traumatic event until the trauma finally wears off – was torture for Morris because the trauma never wore off.
“And then, five weeks into therapy, it happened,” he wrote. “One evening, a few hours after our afternoon session, I picked up my cell phone and tried to dial a number and it died. I flew into a rage and began pounding the phone into the corner of a nearby bookcase, knocking it over and making a mess out of my bedroom. Rushing into the kitchen, I grabbed a large stainless steel knife and, like a murderer in a Hitchcock film, began stabbing the phone over and over again, screaming obscenities.
“And I continued to stab my phone until I had bent the knife blade fully 90 degrees,” he wrote. “Outside the window of my apartment, I could hear my neighbors debating the pros and cons of calling the police.”
No wonder VA prescribes so many pills. And no wonder therapies like yoga and Tai Chi Easy are so attractive to many vets.