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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

Regaining Calm and Control

While serving as an artillery-man in Iraq, Paul Bradley twice suffered concussions when the vehicles he was riding in turned over. After he returned to his former life as a Boston firefighter in 2006, a doctor at the VA diagnosed him as having a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

Loud noises drove Bradley crazy. He had trouble remembering things and would fly into violent outbursts at the slightest provocation. He responded to everything the way a child would. "There was no thought process," he says. "I'd just react." To cope, he drank and lived, as he says, "the fast lifestyle."

Symptoms like Bradley's are common for returning veterans who suffer from PTSD, says Lynn Stoller, an occupational therapist who works with Yoga Warriors, a program for veterans in Massachusetts. With their survival dependent on hyper-vigilance at all times, soldiers at war basically reset their neurological patterns.

In regular daily living, the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the "fight-or-flight" instinct, releases cortisol, the stress hormone, whenever the body senses danger. In wartime, when the body senses danger virtually all of the time, the sympathetic nervous system is cranked into permanent overdrive, and soldiers remain in that state even after they are out of danger. "When that self-regulatory mechanism gets distorted, then it's hard to regain it sometimes," says Bill Donoghue, a minister, yoga practitioner, and former Marine who counsels returning soldiers. "Yoga seems to be the simplest, least expensive, and most efficient vehicle for regaining that sense of calmness and control again."

Dave Emerson is the director of Yoga Services of the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. He says that yogic breathing techniques are important for people who suffer from PTSD to learn.

Simple practices, like counting the out breath or doing alternate-nostril breathing, can make a difference. Quickly and simply, breath work replaces the fight-or-flight response with the relaxation response, a state of physiological relaxation, where blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning, and hormonal levels return to normal.

Returning soldiers, says Donoghue, have already experienced the powerful way that controlled breathing can focus and redirect the mind, even if they've never heard of pPranayama. "An integral part of centering on your target is controlled breathing. So Marines can relate to that concept. They just haven't used it, except on the firing range."

Bradley, after struggling with PTSD for several years, saw a flyer in 2008 at the VA center for a There and Back Again yoga course. After just one class, "I left more centered and relaxed," he says. "From there, I just got hooked on it. It's what worked on me. Since I'v e started yoga, I've gotten more productive. I started seeing a counselor again. I'm able to talk about my problems, whereas before, I wanted nothing to do with it. It seems like I'm not as angry after I do yoga. I'm able to function more in regular life."

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