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Yoga: How We Serve Our Veterans

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This is an interview with Felice Brenner, who had been working as a "headhunter" for 20 years to become a full-time yoga instructor. She teaches two classes a week at the Veterans Administration in Boston, Jamaica Plains campus. This year, Felice received the Outstanding Federal Volunteer award from the VA Boston Healthcare System for her service and commitment.

Rob Schware: Is there any particular trend you see in your classes with veterans who are recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

More and more women are attending, victims of rape or assault while they were serving. Sexual abuse of women in the military is rampant. And I see a growing number of Vietnam War veterans, who are feeling empowered to get help. They seem less macho about coming to a yoga class. Their PTSD had become a chronic condition. Almost three decades after the Vietnam War, many veterans are just now getting treated for their emotional trauma from high levels of combat exposure.

What motivates you to do this work?

There are many heartwarming moments working with veterans. One of my students, an 87-year-old WWII veteran, started in a chair and now has enough flexibility to practice on a mat. Some of the participants are returnees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as women who have experienced traumas that include but are not limited to military sexual trauma (MST), combat trauma, and training accidents.

What continues to motivate you?

It's the best part of my week! The veterans motivate me to keep coming. A lot of students I see who get involved are transformed by their yoga practice. I'm given an opportunity to do this. Their reaction after classes is simply profound. Psychotherapy, or "talk therapy," especially for those I see with PTSD, only goes so far as an effective treatment. On its own, psychotherapy may not be enough to resolve severe depression. It can play an important role I think when complemented with yoga, which is a somatic experience, and with breath work.

What are some of the changes you've seen in your students over time?

One of my students, Richard, a Vietnam War veteran, for decades was unable to lie on his back because of feelings of fear. He simply couldn't sleep on his back. The first day he came into class and prepared himself for Savasanana (corpse pose) he just did it and was fine. He was only able to do this in the yoga room for a long while. He now practices at home and can lie easily on his back without fear. I think Richard is a "poster child" for yoga in the VA.

I'm interested in your thoughts on how effective yoga is in terms of evidence for reducing symptoms of trauma among veterans. Why aren't more classes offered to veterans?

Things move slowly in the VA. Just getting one yoga program was a struggle. It's a conservative organization. I want to grow the program throughout the VA here. It should be under one umbrella, tightly run, with trained, compassionate, committed teachers working specifically with veterans. Teachers coming straight out of yoga certification with say 200 hours, as a registered yoga teacher, may not be well-equipped to work with this population until they have had further training.

Have you had any challenges reconciling some of your personal beliefs about veterans and trauma with your work with them?

None whatsoever. The real challenge has been working with a complex bureaucracy and the VA's sprawling health care system.

What's your ideal vision for yoga with the veterans you are trying to serve? What would you like to see happen?

A full-fledged and funded yoga program developed for the VA here in MA that would offer classes to staff a couple times each week, and yoga and mindfulness meditation classes offered in each unit of the VA -- the PTSD clinic, Drug and Alcohol, Behavioral Health Unit, Occupational Therapy, etc. This would include a referral system within the VA coordinated by the yoga program. In addition, there should be chair and wheelchair yoga offered in the cardiac rehab unit with yoga teachers trained to teach simple and gentle exercises, guided relaxation, and breathing exercises. Haven't there been enough studies already evaluating the effectiveness of a yoga program on reducing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in veterans? The results of many studies suggest yoga is an effective complementary therapy for improving PTSD-related symptoms of increased arousal, such as sleep problems.

How do you look after yourself? How do you avoid burn out?

I limit the number of classes I can teach. I make sure I practice yoga at least twice every week, and I make sure to take someone else's class. I no longer say yes to everything.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email me at rschware@gmail.com if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

Hot Off The Press

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Coping with Trauma, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website, http://givebackyoga.org/shop/mindful-yoga-therapy-for-veterans-coping-with-trauma, if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans.

This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.

Coming Soon:

Yoga Service Resource Guide for teachers who desire to work with populations such as military veterans, trauma survivors, people who are homeless, those who abuse substances and alcohol, inmates, people with chronic conditions, and more.

Available from The Give Back Yoga Foundation www.givebackyoga.org and Kripalu's Teaching for Diversity Program http://www.kripalu.org/be_a_part_of_kyta/137/.

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