While there are many excellent male yogis in the US, a large portion of our society still views asana as an activity mostly practiced by women. Thankfully, the imposition of this gender-bias on yoga is breaking down in many sectors of our culture, perhaps most notably in the highly male-dominated armed forces. As the therapeutic use of yoga has slowly gained acceptance from the military over the past several years, it has repeatedly been shown to help both active soldiers and veterans deal with the affects and stresses of their profession.
In 2005, the US Department of Defense (DOD) investigated the effects of yoga nidra practice on soldiers returning from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After only eight weeks, all of the participants had reduced symptoms—a result so successful that further study was funded and the iRest meditation program was born. “The program provides them body relaxation and breathing exercises that are tools for managing the emotions, the memories, the cognitive thoughts that come with war,” says Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist and advisor to the study. The program is now used at several medical centers across the country to treat veterans with PTSD. This has contributed to the slow integration of meditation and yoga into military culture, which has begun to loosen the stigma surrounding these practices for many soldiers.
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According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 and 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. Unfortunately, there is also a stigma associated with the diagnosis of PTSD, and many soldiers never seek treatment. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates nearly 800,000 vets suffer from its effects, yet only 78,000 cases have been diagnosed. The stigma associated with the “disorder” is so great that the Army’s vice chief of staff has approached the head of the American Psychiatric Association with a request that the diagnosis be given a new name.
However, rebranding the condition won’t make the diagnosis any easier for soldiers who want to continue serving active duty. After 18 months of sleepless, nightmare filled nights, Marines Sgt. Hugo Patrocinio still wasn’t ready to accept the diagnosis, describing it as “career suicide.” Patrocinio also resisted advice to try yoga at first, thinking he “was this tough guy”, and the two were diametrically opposed. When he finally decided he had nothing to lose, it took only one class for him to realize it could help. He didn’t even try any poses in his first class, but as he lay on his mat trying to clear his head, he fell asleep for the first time in a long time without medication. “That was when I knew yoga could help me get better,” he says of the experience.
Regardless of where your stress comes from, it is clear that yoga is an effective coping mechanism for many. One benefit of yoga going mainstream may be the breaking down of barriers so that those who could benefit from it the most take that first step to try it out.
Any ideas on how to successfully encourage a veteran or active duty soldier in your life to try yoga?