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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

A Deeper Peace

An inability to get to sleep is one of the most common problems that returning soldiers face. A hyperactive nervous system simply doesn't allow a body to shut down for the night.

Hugo Patrocinio, a 27-year-old Miami resident, served eight years as a Marine infantry man, including two tours of duty in Iraq. He was getting ready to go back for a third time when he was diagnosed with PTSD. He could sleep only with the help of heavy prescription medication. Psychotherapy didn't help. Then he took a yoga class. Within the first 10 minutes of the class, after some breathing exercises and instruction to let the mind drift away, he fell asleep. The teacher let him sleep the entire time. "When the class was over, I finally felt like I'd had some rest," he says.

Yoga may help returning service members get temporary relief from insomnia, but it can also, if practiced regularly, imbue them with a deeper sense of mental calm, so they can reestablish normal sleep patterns. Patricia Lillis-Hearne, an active-duty military doctor in Maryland, spent a year in Iraq. When she came home, she found herself suffering from neurological problems similar to her patients'. "Even though I'm a doctor and I'm supposed to be older and wiser, I wound up coming back with a certain amount of baggage of my own," she says.

She had trouble sleeping and suffered from intractable migraines that would last up to a week. Her doctors put her on two medicines to prevent them, and two other medicines to repress the symptoms. When they added a Percocet prescription for the migraines, Lillis-Hearne, who'd practiced hatha yoga on and off for years, decided she had to try something else.

One morning, while seeing her daughter off to school, she met a neighbor, Karen Soltes, at the bus stop. Soltes taught yoga, specifically, a practice called Yoga Nidra. "When I went to try the class, I went to get two blocks and a strap and I saw everyone else getting a bunch of blankets," she says. "That's when I knew this would be different."

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