THE BLOG

Yoga: How We Serve Combat Veterans Coping With Trauma

11/09/2012 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2013

This is an interview with Sue Lynch, who began serving her fellow veterans in 2005 when she founded There & Back Again with Dave Emerson, JRI Trauma Institute, Bill Donahue (Vietnam War veteran), LTC Scott Wakefield (ret.) and Silke Denker. Bessel van der Kolk was key in bringing them together so that they could draw on each other's experience to develop a program that incorporates yoga as its foundation and integrative therapies such as acupuncture, Reiki, and cranio-sacral massage. All these have come to provide integrative tools to veterans of combat to help manage the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

As an Army Reserve soldier, I deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1990. I returned at age 21 feeling disconnected from myself and those around me. I didn't understand what was going on. I've always been self-motivated and "Army Strong." At times, I couldn't pull myself out of bed. I experienced symptoms such as anxiety and depression, isolation. I cried all the time and felt like life was too difficult to continue. I never attempted suicide but I understand why others reach this point. At that time, not much was known about PTSD. Therapy helped me understand, intellectually, what was going on: I could see an emotional storm coming. I understood the triggers behind the emotional storm. But I wasn't able to prevent the storm from taking me down the black hole -- until I found a yoga mat. Everything changed on that mat. Therapy gave me the intellectual understanding of PTSD; yoga provided me the tools to manage the symptoms of PTSD. After hearing Bessel speak at a JRI Trauma Conference, I understand that there is no direct pathway in the brain between the intellectual and the emotional functions in the brain. We must go back to the body to release the trauma. His work validated my experience.

Is there a standout moment from your work with There and Back Again and with veterans?

My intention in sharing yoga with my fellow veterans was to give them tools for immediate relief, instead of suffering for decades, as was my experience and that of many generations of veterans. When I actually observed that veterans experienced the immediate benefits of yoga, as I had, I was convinced that yoga has a profound effect on empowering veterans to manage PTSD symptoms. Yoga gives us choices, allows us not to have to try so hard, which is contrary to military training ("no pain, no gain" and "pain is weakness leaving the body"). Yoga connects us to ourselves. This connection in turn allows us to then connect to our loved ones and our communities. A profound moment for me occurred after I taught a six-week pilot program at a vet center. After completing the six-week program (one class a week), the veterans gave me a fire extinguisher as a gift. Initially, I was a bit confused by the gift; the veterans explained that the significance of the fire extinguisher was to thank me for creating a safe place and helping them put out their own fires. These veterans' experience truly validates the power of yoga.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if at all, have those assumptions changed?

I have served in the military for more than 25 years as both an enlisted soldier and an officer. I know military culture and understand many of the issues facing returning veterans, such as fear of the stigma, impact on career progression, and belief that "leading from the front" means that it's not okay to disclose that we need support (the military doesn't issue emotions, so therefore we don't have them). Given that we are humans and humans have emotions, this idea is not realistic. Learning the concept of self-care is central to empowering us to feel better; the military is now getting this and is working to implement programs that are more in alignment with overall wellness.

In what way does your teaching style differ from the way you might teach in a studio?

The major difference in my vets class is in how I use language. I don't use Sanskrit. I do incorporate military terms and examples to support a better understanding of the practice. For example, I refer to how we use the breath on the rifle range to create awareness of the inhale and exhale. I also tend to teach like I'm "back on the block" as we call it in the military, which is down-to-earth, irreverent, and invoking lots of humor. The other way my veterans class is different is we do an "after action report" after we practice, to share what shifts may have occurred while on the mat. I've found this quite powerful. Often the discussion brings as much awareness as the actual practice. Group discussion also helps validate their experiences, which is key.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

My biggest challenge continues to be to have good boundaries in place. One of the reasons for founding There & Back Again was to ensure that my fellow veterans get access to practices that provide relief from PTSD as quickly as possible. Over time I've learned that this impulse tempts me to try to "fix" others' problems. After seven years, I've gained a better awareness of this dynamic, and now I dial it back as something that belongs to me, not the veteran standing before me. It's a matter of knowing what's mine and what's yours and letting you have your experience just as it is while offering guidance and support.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population that you work with?

I recommend the following:

• Take a trauma-sensitive training, Warriors at Ease or JRI Trauma Center with Dave Emerson.
• Be mindful not to say that you "get" what a combat veteran has gone through unless you've had a similar experience.
• Understand that teaching veterans is similar to teaching any student in your public classes who carries his or her own individual experiences, some of which may involve trauma.
• Dispel the fear that veterans may have a PTSD meltdown. As yoga teachers, it is important to understand how to be present for students who have abreactions. Everyone is susceptible to have one -- not just veterans.
• Teach from your heart. Let intuition guide you. I've found that mine has never let me down.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

My hope is that the yoga community can continue to collaborate to bring the benefits of yoga to those who lack access and the funds to reap those benefits. Our work continues to raise awareness that yoga empowers individuals to understand how they tick, what they need, and gives tools to support self-healing and the discovery of trust of themselves and others. I hope this rising awareness will lead to increased funding to ensure that everyone has access to integrative practices, especially yoga, which I believe is the foundation of a path to wellness.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My work has compelled me to help organize an effort to form the Military Mind Body Health Consortium ("MMBHC") to ensure that military personnel, families, and veterans have access to the benefits of yoga and the many integrative therapies. The mission of the MMBHC is to unify and galvanize the mind-body professional community to support a common mission.

What other organizations do you admire?

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Because of stories like these, The Give Back Yoga Foundation is committed to offering free yoga and meditation resources to veterans nationwide. With the help of sponsors and individual supporters, they have helped create and distribute empirically-tested multimedia resources to over 30 VA hospital facilities, various Soldier and Family Assistance Centers, and wellness programs for wounded warriors. Their goal is to reach 10,000 veterans across the country.

Demand Continues!

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering from 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, 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.

GaiamTV.com, the world's largest online collection of conscious media including films, documentaries, yoga, and health and wellness videos, is a proud media partner of The Give Back Yoga Foundation. Together, GaiamTV.com and GBYF are helping to bring the gift of yoga to veterans and supporting programs that empower individuals, build relationships and communities, and cultivate a peaceful and healing yoga practice for all. Check out the direct link on GaiamTV.com and let us know what you think and what else you'd like to see: www.gaiamtv.com/gby

Help our heroes transition back to a civilian lifestyle by giving them easy access to mindfulness meditation. Veterans who take the class at the Washington, DC VA say mindfulness meditation helps them sleep better! Access is easy and anonymous. http://ow.ly/eAj77

Join us at the Yoga Service Conference at Omega June 7-9.

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