Yoga is first and foremost a peaceful practice, so for soldiers who return home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or both, it can be the perfect antidote to the atrocities of war.
“Veterans [who practice yoga] report improved sleep, less irritability and anger, and better focus and concentration,” says Rob Schware, Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, a Boulder, Colorado-based non-profit that supports and funds certified yoga teachers in under-served and under-resourced communities.
In 2010, the Give Back Yoga Foundation launched Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans, a training program for yoga teachers and a model for yoga programs in VA Hospitals all over the country. (This year, Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans introduced a 100-hour certification program for yoga teachers.)
“The protocol [of the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans program] consists of a series of breathing exercises, a moving warm-up, and standing, balancing, seated and reclining postures, which seem to aid in the recovery of PTSD when accompanied by psychotherapy,” Schware says.
In honor of Veterans Day, we asked five veterans to share how yoga helped them cope with depression, stress, sleep disturbances, and other war-related issues, and find a sense of belonging upon returning home.
1. Sarah Plummer Taylor
Hometown: Denver, Colorado
Her Story: “There were many challenges I faced after I returned home, like trouble sleeping, pain, depression, stress, and strained interpersonal relationships,” says Capt. Plummer, who was stationed in Iraq from 2005 to 2007. “Yoga helped me accept myself and others more. It helps me course correct, empowers me to serve, and makes everything in my life better.”
Favorite Pose: “Warrior II is deceptively simple, yet when held for long periods of time, it can become challenging,” she says. “Finding that fine line between challenge and pain to break through to growth creates the warrior feeling, I think.”
2. Elizabeth Corwin
Hometown: Virginia Beach, Virginia
Her Story: “I served in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom as a lieutenant and F/A-18 pilot,” says Corwin, a Navy Reserve officer who became a certified yoga teacher after her deployment in 2010. “Returning home is always bittersweet, and it is often hard to find the place where you belong again. But for me, yoga was the one thing that was always there regardless of whatever else was going on. No judgment, no expectations. It was just simply waiting patiently for me whenever I would show up.”
Favorite Pose: “My favorite pose is anything inverted—after flying upside down for so many years—but especially Handstand,” she says. “You can’t think of anything else when you practice Handstand. You can only breathe and forget distractions, so it’s the ultimate oasis.”
3. Ben Cardamone
Hometown: Boulder, Colorado
His Story: “I was a Marine helicopter mechanic and crew chief in Vietnam,” says Cardamone, who flew over 400 combat missions as an E-4 corporal. “I had a difficult time when I returned. I hid out a lot, lived in a teepee in the mountains outside of Boulder for a while, let my hair and beard grow and marched against the war. About five years ago, my partner asked me if I thought I should deal with my war energy. I asked around and found the Boulder Vet Center, where I’ve been going to meditation group and Give Back Yoga weekly. Yoga has helped me reduce stress, sleep better, and be aware of my breathing. And my body is in pretty good shape.”
Favorite Pose: “Boat Pose. I just like how I feel when I’m doing it.”
4. Chris Eder
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
His Story: “I retired in 2013 after 23 years of service,” says Eder, who was deployed to Iraq twice where he served as Master Sgt. Combat Correspondent. “I actually thought I was coming down with early onset Alzheimer’s because my memory was starting to go south quickly. About eight months after I returned from my second deployment, my body started to break. I’m pretty sure without my yoga and meditation practice, I would be a statistic. I had a pretty solid home practice and began teaching in 2008, but over the past three years, my therapists have taken me into some seriously dark places. The comfort and security of my mat, my space, and my practice have kept me going and given me hope.”
Favorite Pose: “If I had to pick one, Half Moon Pose, because it opens the heart and that is a space that I am still working on. I feel very vulnerable.”
5. Chris Giddinge
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nevada
His Story: “I have served three combat tours of duty, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan,” says Giddinge, an active duty combat medic in the military. “I came home with a lot of issues. I had restless leg syndrome, episodes of sleep apnea, and other sleep disturbances. I developed a drinking problem, which led to drug use. I self-medicated until the military told me to sober up. Upon sobering up, all of the same symptoms appeared, so I was admitted to a three-week outpatient program where I was introduced to the practice of yoga nidra. It allowed me to pull my focus off the traumatic and heartbreaking to appreciate the beauty and promise of life.”