Breathing Helps Veterans—and You Can, Too

Military members practicing yoga

The word yoga, just like mental health, can have a stigma. People imagine attractive, flexible, young women in unattainable poses, but there is much more to yoga than mainstream social media portrays.

For example, more and more veterans are being diagnosed with PTS(D) and depression. The numbers of veteran suicides are staggering. But, it is not just the veterans suffering: their family members are left to mourn the person the veteran was prior to deployment.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can arm veterans and their families with tools for sustainable living with medications, therapy and some sort of mindful movement—matched with breath—leading to a path of managing mental health and recovery.

How Breathing Saved Me

I am a Marine Corps veteran living with PTSD. I experience sensations of anxiety and panic almost daily.  After my enlistment ended, I began to isolate myself, thus leading to agoraphobia (the fear of leaving my home and going into public places). I felt lonely and missed the camaraderie of my Marine brothers and sisters. I started a multiyear journey of talk therapy and medications. I grew tired of talking about my problems, and I desperately sought relief of the physical symptoms my mind and body were experiencing. In a final attempt, I found myself in a private yoga lesson in Okinawa, Japan.

In my first private yoga session, the teacher taught me what I needed, not what I thought I wanted. She taught me basic breathing techniques. Once I learned to breathe, I realized how quickly I could calm the fight/flight response: It is all about the breath. After that moment, I knew this was something I needed to learn and share with my fellow service members. I spent the next two years training in and teaching yoga to receive my 500-hour yoga teacher certification.

Why Breathing Matters

Connecting our breath to our body movements allows us to become aware of what is happening internally. We learn to start paying attention to the sensations that arise, and we learn to let them flow through us. Breath teaches us patience and acceptance—we could call this meditation, but just like yoga, we seem to think meditation is a spiritual practice where we float into thin air. Or, we assume our minds must be quiet to practice. This is far from the truth. We all have busy minds, and it is extremely difficult to turn them off.

How Breathing Helps Veterans

For many veterans, it can be intimidating or scary to finally listen to what our minds are saying. We spend so much time pushing it down and avoiding it. What if your mind has something important to tell you? If you gave yourself just 5 to 10 minutes a day to just listen, the results are phenomenal. In fact, studies are suggesting that a daily meditation practice can change our brain, more specifically, the amygdala, which is directly linked to the fear response.

How You Can Help Veterans

Veterans Yoga Project (VYP) is paving the way for our veterans, and a project that is very close to my heart. The mindful yoga for trauma recovery is focused on teaching the tools of yoga and meditation to our veterans. If the VA is inaccessible, individual yoga studios can also tap into this growing form of yoga therapy. If you’re interested in becoming certified to help veterans, you can learn more here.

If you are a veteran, or know a veteran who needs assistance, I encourage you to seek out teachers who have experience working with mental health. Not every class is the same, so don’t give up after your first time.  If you are not comfortable practicing in public, the Veterans Yoga Project has an online practice library for free!

It is incredibly important to move our bodies, breathe in fresh air, sit quietly for a few minutes per day, and practice gratitude. Isolating ourselves from the world only makes our mental health decline.

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