Yoga for Veterans: An Ancient Practice with Life-Saving Potential

By Olivia Kvitne
After teaching yoga for many years, it is inevitable that one finds a niche. Some excel at teaching a practice that celebrates the physical aspects of yoga. Their goal as an instructor may be to get as many people standing on their heads as possible. Others prefer teaching in a hot room, or to pregnant women, dancers, yoga for weight-loss, yoga for addictions, and everything in between. I found my niche in teaching yoga to a population who for quite some time has been overlooked by the modern yoga community yet would benefit from the practice in a profound way, to the point of even saving lives.
Contrary to popular belief, yoga isn’t about becoming more flexible. Yes, you will become stronger and more flexible in your physical body, but we are using the physical form simply as a tool. The guts of the practice is becoming stronger and more flexible in the mind and nervous system.
Yoga is a mindfulness practice, and the first step in mindfulness is the breath. Breath is the tool we use to become an observer of the present moment. If we are not rooted in the present moment, our mind is living in stories of the past that result in guilt and regret, or we are festered with anxiety about the future. All of which are a big waste of time and take a serious toll on the nervous system.
The breath belongs to the Autonomic Nervous System yet is the one thing we can influence and manipulate. Because of this, it is our doorway into our own Neurological System. It is in this way that we are able to take control of our emotions, reactions, habitual patterns of thinking and yes, even change the structure and function of our brains; Neuroplasticity. A person’s mood, anxiety level, sense of peace and overall happiness is reflected in the pattern of breathing. If we change the breath, we can change the mood.
When we take the practice of mindful breathing and connect it with mindful movement, we are strengthening the mind-body connection and reclaiming our inner power. Without that power, we become a victim of the trauma and stress taking it’s refuge in the body and mind. When this occurs, we are no longer living in an intuitive and truthful place, but reacting from unacknowledged pain.
This is true for most people who are enduring the tiny traumas and suffering that come with the human existence. It is ten-fold for our military and first responders who put their lives on the line and experience situations some of us couldn’t dream of. More than this, they are not being taught the tools to recuperate from these intense traumas or how to recover their nervous system from the hyper-vigilance of the Warrior state.
The first three places the body manifests trauma and stress is through back pain, headaches and gastrointestinal problems. Yoga has the added element of a challenging physical practice. Veterans are used to working hard physically. This familiarity along with adding the element of mindful breathing will not only help discharge traumas hiding in the body, it also will promote health from the inside out.
Mindfulness practices such as yoga have now been scientifically proven to have a healing effect on the nervous system. Studies through the use of Electroencephalography (EEG) machines have shown shifts of brain wave activity while practicing mindfulness. It has shown an increase in Alpha and Theta waves which is associated with the body’s relaxation response.
If we can use the proven science of mindfulness to help a veteran overcome a place of hopelessness, guilt and post-traumatic stress, then perhaps we can change the statistic of 22 veterans taking their lives daily. The loss of these lives is more than the loss of lives in combat.
With Congressman Tim Ryan’s Veteran’s Health Promotion Act (H.R.3516) these potential life saving practices, such as yoga, will be more readily available to veterans. The era of prescription medications as a bandaid for immediate relief of symptoms is now being replaced by mindfully working through real issues to address the source of the problem. I am happy to be working with Peacelink and Congressman Tim Ryan on what is truly a revolution for our country and our veterans.

Olivia Kvitne is Assistant Editor for LA Yoga Magazine. She also has written for other yoga publications and blogs.  She has been practicing yoga her whole life and teaching for almost eleven years. Olivia specializes in teaching trauma-sensitive yoga for military, veterans and first responders. Olivia directs free yoga workshops for military and veterans, Yoga for Heroes, as well as having taught workshops for the Los Angeles Police Department. She teaches regular classes for the Los Angeles Fire Department. In 2015, in association with Give Back Yoga Foundation and Sedona Yoga Festival, she will be directing a course for yoga teachers on how to teach yoga to first responders. Her work as a yoga journalist as well as bringing this practice to America’s Heroes has gotten her the name, “The Lois Lane of Yoga,” which she happily accepts. To see Huffington Post’s interview with Olivia on her work with veterans, click here.  

To learn more about Olivia, click here.

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This article appears in: 2014 Catalyst, Issue 7: Veterans Health Coalition