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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

Military Protocol for Yoga?

Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, is one of the four states of mind described in the Yoga Sutra. It's not sleep as we traditionally know it, but rather a state of conscious sleep used for deep relaxation and subtle spiritual exploration. Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and president of the Integrative Restoration Institute in San Rafael, California, has developed a protocol for the military, based on the techniques of Yoga Nidra, that is in use at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, DC; the Miami and Chicago VA hospitals; and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Miller says he designed the program to help returning soldiers find "a place of well-being that was never wounded."

Miller's program is a 35-minute guided meditation, initially learned lying down, and then integrated into all body positions. He incorporates breath awareness and "body sensing" but goes beyond that, asking participants to observe their emotions, thoughts, and memories from an objective distance. It introduces the yogic concept of the observing Self, something beyond body, mind, and spirit that never changes, regardless of thoughts, emotions, or experiences. This is referred to as purusha, though Miller deliberately left yoga and Sanskrit terminology out of his program. At the military's suggestion, he renamed it iRest.

It can be tricky to impart this esoteric brand of yoga thought to a military population that has seen and experienced terrible things beyond ordinary imagination, says Soltes, who teaches the iRest protocol at the Washington, DC, VA Medical Center. But through this practice, she says, soldiers learn that they are more than all these things. They have these thoughts and feelings and images, but they learn to remember that there's a part of them that's never been touched by trauma. It's still whole, it's still healthy, and it's still intact.

Yoga Nidra may sound like an odd fit for VA hospitals, but it's finding enthusiastic quarter in a military medical establishment dealing with a huge and growing population of traumatized soldiers returning from a nearly decade long war. Nisha Money is a preventive-medicine physician for the U.S. military, who is helping to integrate programs such as iRest (Yoga Nidra) protocols as an adjunctive therapy for post traumatic stress disorder. She says that soldiers with PTSD respond well to the practice because it draws on internal resources during the stress of military life and post battle trauma-related disorders.

"Much of military training involves re-assembling the internal mental structure to become a warrior," Money says. "As a result, a typical soldier is more inclined to have a beginner's mind. It opens up the awareness that you don't know everything, and that you'll have to be open to new ways of being."

After her first class in the Yoga Nidra program, Lillis-Hearne started sleeping better. "By the second class, I knew I was at home," she says. Very gradually, her headaches became more manageable. She dropped her medications. Much more quickly than she'd expected, she went from pain and confusion to a state of feeling calm, centered, and whole. Within a few months, she was training to be a Kripalu instructor herself.

"In a million years, I never thought that I'd be teaching yoga," Lillis-Hearne says. "But what it did for me was so incredibly profound that I really wanted to share it in any way I could, and in particular with a group of people who ordinarily would never enter a yoga studio."

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