Healing veterans' trauma through yoga

Story highlights

  • Some veterans use yoga to reduce trauma after active duty
  • Breathing, yoga postures and meditation can help veterans feel healthier

Dana Santas is the creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga style designed to help athletes move, breathe and focus better. She's the yoga trainer for the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Orlando Magic and dozens of pros in the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

(CNN)It might surprise some, but at veterans' centers around the country, life after active duty is leading warriors to their yoga mats.

It's not a new trend. Nearly a decade ago, the Department of Defense began to investigate the positive effects of yoga on veterans. In 2006, the department funded research that ultimately led to a yoga-based program called iRest. It's designed to help heal traumatic psychological wounds, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that affects more than 13 million Americans -- not just veterans -- that results from experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events ranging from combat to child abuse. The National Center for PTSD notes that experiences in combat can lead to PTSD.
    Brian Anderson, a Green Beret and co-founder of the Veterans Alternative Center in Holiday, Florida, said, "Too often, PTSD, as it relates to vets, has a stigma of 'broken' or 'violent.' "
    For that reason, Anderson said, he's careful not to label fellow veterans with PTSD. Instead, he focuses his support programs on addressing the compounded nature of their experience and the challenges they face during their transition back to civilian living.
    "The positive aspect of yoga's mind, body and spirit connection helps us keep a post-traumatic growth perspective as opposed to looking for something wrong or broken," says Anderson, who includes yoga as part of his center's programming. "It's amazing to see the relief they get from an approach that reminds them that they are connected and whole."
    I was recently honored to teach a yoga session at the Veterans Alternative Center. Below, I've shared three primary elements of the yoga practice I taught, leveraging research-based techniques for abating stress symptoms in trauma survivors, including those suffering from PTSD. I also outlined ways anyone can use these strategies as part of a personal yoga practice to heal their own trauma and reconnect their mind, body and spirit on the mat.

    Breathing to initiate the relaxation response

    Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat, hip-distance apart, 6 to 8 inches from your bottom.
    People who suffer from PTSD often experience difficulty modulating their "fight-or-flight" response. When in danger, it's natural to feel anxious and trigger your sympathetic nervous system, raising your heart rate and blood pressure while increasing your respiration and stress hormone production. However, trauma survivors are often stuck chronically in this mode, or they switch into it at inappropriate times.
    Thankfully, just a couple minutes of diaphragmatic breathing can actually reverse our fight-or-flight reaction and tap the opposite, calming parasympathetic nervous system. Doing so elicits our "relaxation response," a term coined by Harvard Medical School Dr. Herbert Benson to describe lowered heart rate and blood pressure, stifled stress hormone production and slower, deeper respiration.
    Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, hip-distance apart, 6 to 8 inches from your bottom. Put a folded blanket under your head and neck for comfort. Place your hands on your low ribs to feel the expansion of your ribcage out on your inhalations and contraction back and down on your exhalations. Emphasize your exhalations like long, drawn-out sighs of relief. Pause briefly after completely emptying your lungs. Try to establish a nostril breathing pattern as follows: five-count inhalation, seven-count exhalation and two-count pause. Repeat this pattern for 10 to 20 breaths.

    Yoga postures to connect mind and body