Can Yoga Help Treat PTSD?

07/12/2017 04:10 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2017

The U.S. military is beginning to embrace yoga as a means of treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Stephanie Lopez, a therapist and meditation trainer, explained at the Global Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center’s Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance.

Since 2010, the military has explored the use of a yogic-based meditation protocol called “integrative restoration,” or I-Rest, to help PTSD sufferers. Lopez, who helped pitch the program to the armed forces and develop it for use in a U.S. military setting, said that I-Rest is now used at over 50 Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and active-duty settings, and may eventually be incorporated into basic training as well.

Lopez said that meditation helps bring about the kind of deep self-awareness, or mindfulness, that can create a therapeutic basis for reducing the symptoms of PTSD. Lopez describes I-Rest as “mindfulness on steroids,” since it’s meant to help soldiers directly cope with some of their most traumatic experiences. “We can meet difficult emotions, difficult memories, and difficult experiences through meditation,” she explained.

Lopez says that she and her partners “secularized the (I-Rest) protocol and made it trauma-sensitive” in the course of adjusting yoga to military use. Differing from yoga in some important respects, I-Rest is not pose-based, and versions of the treatment attempt to reduce the frequency of the long silences that are common in other forms of yoga, but which can trigger unpleasant experiences in PTSD sufferers. Still, I-Rest takes its inspiration from traditional meditation, and incorporates breathing exercises that originated in yogic practice. “Those that study yoga understand that yoga is a path of meditation, and it’s a path to understanding ourselves, in our wholeness,” Lopez said.

I-Rest was a remarkably easy sell, even among top military brass. Any clash between an ancient meditative practice and the culture of the present-day U.S. armed forces was counteracted by the scope of the military’s needs—and I-Rest’s effectiveness in meeting them. Military leaders “wanted to understand how this protocol could help people,” Lopez said. Even just four weeks of I-Rest can produce a number of important changes in PTSD sufferers, like improved sleep, moderated behavior, and better emotional regulation. It can even lead to a decreased pharmaceutical regimen for PTSD patients. ”The changes are really across the board,” Lopez said. Yogic meditation turned out to be a cost-effective means of dealing with one of the 21st-century military’s defining mental health challenges. “It works,” said Lopez. “And the military likes things that work.”

As Lopez explained, yoga’s efficacy has a scientific basis. A number of studies, including research from Northeastern University neuroscientist Art Kramer, PhD, have suggested a link between yogic practice and improved cognitive function. In PTSD patients, I-Rest creates beneficial changes in the volume of the amygdala and the hippocampus, parts of the brain that deal with both memory and emotion. “The research shows that through meditation the amygdala actually shrinks and the hippocampus is actually growing,” said Lopez. “And we’re reconnecting new neuronal connections to bring them back online in a healthy way.”

This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit HuffPost’s Brain Health page.

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