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Warriors at Peace

Combat veterans take refuge in yoga, discovering its ability to soothe and repair war-torn minds and spirits.

By Neal Pollack

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In 2007 Samantha Lord was stationed in Iraq with her Army National Guard unit, assigned to some of the most stressful military police work imaginable. On some days, the communications specialist, who is also a sergeant, found herself driving top Iraqi government officials in a Humvee convoy. Constantly under threat of gunfire and mortar attacks, her nerve never wavered. "You can't mess up on those missions," she says. "They're no fail." She didn't mess up, but she did pay a price.

Her mind remained on high alert, even after she returned home to Massachusetts. Fourth of July fireworks made her run for cover. Plagued by memories of wartime driving, she was unable to drive her own car. There were times she felt she had to have a drink before she could even leave the house. Severe insomnia plagued her, and when she did fall asleep, she had nightmares of explosions, being shot at, or of her Humvee overturning. It was difficult to shed the feeling that every action had life-or-death consequences. "Even something like burning dinner," she says, "it's like you failed the mission."

Her experiences in the war were darkening her civilian life back home. "I felt severely disconnected from reality," she says. "No one here understands what I went through."

Lord attended therapy sessions at the local VA, or Veterans Affairs, center, which helped a little but not enough. The nightmares and paralyzing fears persisted. In October 2009, almost a year after she had returned from Iraq, Lord started practicing yoga with the There and Back Again program in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The teacher, Sue Lynch, understood what Samantha Lord needed, because she was a veteran herself.

"Yoga is calming," Lynch says. "You develop the ability to feel safe and in control, to be aware of what's going on. If you feel an intensity of sensation in your body, you can work with it. You don't have to take it on if it's overwhelming. Those types of cues in the practice translate to life off the mat."

Through yoga, Lord began to regain her confidence. She's also able to focus better. "I'm a much more even person," she says.

For active-duty military personnel, recently returned vets, and those who came back from the Persian Gulf or Vietnam decades ago, the problems associated with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can be intractable and crippling. But yoga helps soldiers deal with the effects of their wartime experiences. Thanks to yoga, many report feeling less anxiety, sleeping better, and having an easier time reintegrating into civilian life. In the past few years, yoga programs for vets, once almost impossible to find, have proliferated all over the country. Many programs were started by current or former military personnel, and in some cases, they're sponsored and funded by the military itself. "The military doesn't have a choice," says Sat Bir Khalsa, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of research for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and the Kundalini Research Institute. The military has to be open to it, Khalsa says, "because yoga may contribute to benefits above and beyond those provided by traditional therapies." To prove some of those benefits, Khalsa is conducting a 10-week study of yoga for veterans with PTSD, which is being funded by a Defense Department grant. The study incorporates postures, breathing techniques, meditation, deep relaxation, and more.

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