Yoga. Famously practiced by Madonna, Gwyneth, and Sting. Less-famously practiced by 16 million others. And now... even by our military. Though we envision the typical yoga-going American as a Lululemon-clad, earthy female, a fresh crop of American yogis are being cultivated from this fatigue-clad, stereotypically-rigid repository.
The Department of Defense is currently investigating yoga as a therapeutic intervention in its men and women, and much of its interest has been spurred by the large numbers of returning combat veterans with PTSD.
"Historically, PTSD has been overwhelmingly treated as a mental health condition with psychological treatments, and the body has been ignored. But PTSD is a mind-body disorder with both mental and physical components. So yoga, in its blending of physical postures with conscious breathing, adds a strong dimension for the existing treatment of PTSD," says Sat Bir Khalsa, a researcher at Harvard Medical School who is conducting yoga trials on military personnel. "Our results are preliminary, but they do show a statistically significant improvement in the severity of PTSD with yoga," he says.
The juxtaposition of a stern warrior practicing gentle movement is stark, but this isn't the first time that a mind-body technique has been deployed to assist those on the battlefield. Tai chi, the ancient Chinese practice of subtle and deliberately-slow movement, was originally developed for Chinese soldiers. Only much later was this cloistered martial art made available to China's civilians. But unlike tai chi, yoga's origins are quite different. It was initially practiced by ascetics in ancient India as preparation for long periods of sitting meditation. In an ironic modern-day twist, the Indian army is now using yoga in its training in similar ways to ours.
In spite of yoga's foray into their world, our military personnel still heed the call of Uncle Sam, not Uncle Swami. But yoga's emphasis on being rather than doing does put a new spin on their jingle "Be all that you can be."
Yet for all its Kumbaya, yoga's entre into the military is not without controversy. As Khalsa reminds us, "As you make a more functional human being, you also have the potential to make a more functional warrior. So the question arises: Are you teaching yoga to help soldiers kill better? There certainly are people who have an ethical qualm about this." That's a big question, and sticking point, amongst those in the yoga community.
The therapeutic possibilities that yoga may provide are also being studied in another segment of the American population: its children. How might it be that a practice such as yoga, which seems to benefit military combat personnel, could also benefit the other extreme of the human experience -- a characteristically innocent childhood?
Khalsa doesn't think it's a stretch. "Our entire culture is dedicated to teaching our young people important life skills that are needed to function well in our society. And yet no aspect of our culture provides training in life skills such as stress management, resilience or emotional regulation. That's exactly what yoga can provide. If you teach yoga to children in schools, you eventually reach everyone -- the military, doctors, nurses, diabetics -- because everyone comes from childhood."
Khalsa does have a point. Where else but in yoga can you embody the strength of a fighter (warrior pose) and the security of childhood (child's pose) in one fell swoop?
In fact, in a study conducted by Khalsa of high school students, he found that those who practiced yoga over a semester fared better than those who didn't. "The kids who weren't taught yoga had a deterioration in resilience and emotional regulation, whereas the kids who were taught yoga stayed the same. They were able to hold their own."
So, should yoga be taught in schools? Khalsa would unequivocally say yes. As for yoga's place in the fabric of our culture, Khalsa is optimistic. "I hope it becomes an integral part of our culture, similar to how dental hygiene is an integral part of our culture. We've all been trained early in life to brush our teeth and floss. This message is reinforced by teachers in school. It's also encouraged by dentists and physicians. I hope that mind-body hygiene ultimately achieves that same cultural relationship."
Khalsa's prediction is a tall order, and whether it will come to bear is anyone's guess. But if yoga can help teach the life skills of resiliency and emotional regulation to our soldiers, as well as our children, who's to say it won't benefit the rest of us? After all, isn't life sometimes a playground, and other times, a battlefield?
Follow Aditi Nerurkar, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AditiNerurkar