Whole Life Magazine

April/May 2014

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By Beth Shaw Yoga helps vets with PTSD W hen she fi rst joined the military 20 years ago and was working in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center psychiatric ward, Lt. Col. Shaye Molendyke saw plenty of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While it wasn't actually discussed by doctors and specialists at the time—it had only just been named in 1980 and to some extent was still regarded as sissy stuff—Molendyke noticed that veterans experienced extreme amounts of anxiety, anger, depression and suicidal behavior. Still, it took time before she fi gured out how to put together a personal injury, her love for yoga and her masters degree in counseling to help her fellow troops. Five years after joining the military, a devastating knee injury forced Molendyke to hang up her running shoes and fi nd an alternative. She immediately resonated with yoga, and knew within weeks that she wanted to teach. After earning her certifi cation, she teamed up with educational organization YogaFit to build a therapy program designed to help vets and other survivors of traumatic experience. PTSD is epidemic among veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 30 percent of men and women treated at V.A. hospitals since 9/11 have been diagnosed with PTSD, and that fi gure includes only those who sought help. Their depression, anger and alienation symptoms are so extreme that their families often develop their own form of PTSD—in which the vet is the precipitating trauma. Many vets turn to drugs and alcohol addiction, and once every 80 minutes, there's a suicide. Memories of combat are stored not just in the brain, but within the body itself. Neuropeptides, nerve proteins that are produced primarily in the brain but are active throughout the body, are key in triggering memories of a traumatic event or series of events. They function as messenger molecules that send information to receptor cells on cell membranes, and when the body stays in the fi ght-or- fl ight mode—the reaction that prompts the body to either raise fi sts or fl ee from a potential threat—for a sustained amount of time, neuropeptide production changes to adapt. Eventually this response gets locked into the body. Yoga puts us back in our bodies and in our breath, allowing us to address unwanted memories and create new, healthier neuropeptide pathways that lead to a better feeling-state. It acts as a powerful medicine by teaching us how to engage the parasympathetic nervous system more effectively and at will. This is done through the lengthening and strengthening of musculature, and calm, even breathing. Regaining emotional control over our bodies and learning the signals of when our bodies are moving into sympathetic nervous system overdrive (fi ght-or-fl ight mode) is just one simple way yoga helps. Yoga's ability to calm troubling emotions and thought patterns and release chronic tension offers tremendous promise in easing the result of emotional or physical trauma. Even among active-duty troops, reports the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, alternative therapies for stress reduction are now being used at rates up to seven times higher than among civilians. But great care is needed. Because anxiety and PTSD are held in the body, yoga can sometimes trip those wires if instructors are not thoughtful, veterans are rushed, or new asanas are attempted too quickly. Teachers need to show students with PTSD how to be masters of their own bodies and go only as far as they can tolerate, then come back to a safe place. Through this pendulum-like movement of "touching in" to tender places and then back to a safe zone, they can begin to heal themselves. A gentle pace and words that encourage feeling, breathing, listening to the body and letting go of judgment are a soothing and healing balm to a burned-out nervous system. Beth Shaw is the founder of YogaFit, the world's largest yoga fi tness education organization, hosting Mind-Body-Fitness Conferences and teacher trainings worldwide. yoga & spirit TRAUMA LIVES IN THE BODY Triangle Pose Warrior I april/may 2014 17 FINAL-WLT-APRIL-MAY.indd 17 3/30/14 7:58 PM

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