A yoga program that has benefited male veterans will be expanded to help the growing number of female veterans in southeast Louisiana who have seen combat.
Yoga has been practiced in India for 2,000 years as a way to expand consciousness, develop spirituality and control body and mind. Now veterans enrolled in the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System are discovering how the ancient practice also can reduce the emotional symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain while improving physical flexibility and sleep.
Yoga classes for male veterans conducted in six Louisiana parishes over the past year achieved such high marks from participants that the agency applied for a $19,600 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs Women’s Health Service to fund a yoga initiative specially designed for female veterans, including classes, floor mats, blocks, blankets and an in-home demonstration video. The customized video will be made available to all 4,700 female veterans in southeast Louisiana this summer.
“Younger women who’ve served in recent conflicts voice different complaints from their male counterparts,” said Chaquetta Johnson, program manager for female veterans. The women often complain of muscular pain, chronic low back pain, functional disabilities and mental health issues. Before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, female soldiers were not directly involved in combat situations. Women now make up 15 percent of U.S. armed forces and serve on the front lines.
“Yoga addresses stress reduction, pain management and overall mental health,” Johnson said.
Dr. Madeline Uddo, who has been interested in incorporating mind-body interventions into the treatment programs, conducted a pilot study in 2013 to evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of yoga as an adjunctive therapy to alleviate PTSD. Veterans who participated showed a marked improvement in hyper-arousal symptoms.
“It’s the breathing that calms you,” said Rodney Ferrier, a veteran who served in North Korea. “Most of us are walking around with a short fuse.”
Dr. Karen Slaton, a psychologist and registered yoga instructor, taught the first men’s classes. “We know that yoga resets the nervous system as a result of breathing rhythmically. When we do that type of breathing, it turns on the parasympathetic nervous system and turns off the sympathetic nervous system,” she said.
Ferrier said yoga relieved his PTSD symptoms better than all the medications he was taking.
“You’re always feeling defensive, but in those classes, you feel calm. Yoga gives us peace.”
Medication can decrease pain only by about 20 percent, Uddo said. Yoga cannot replace medicine but, as a complementary therapy, further reduces pain and anxiety.
Slaton shows veterans how to move with the breath within a pain-free range of motion, gradually allowing that range to expand. Because many veterans have limited mobility, most class participants begin sitting in chairs or standing holding a chair for support, doing gentle twists and stretches. Over time, they may be able to sit on a mat in the classic lotus position.
Ferrier no longer needs to use a step stool or chair to reach above his head because stretching has helped him become more flexible. He has added his name to a waiting list to participate in the VA’s newest class in tai chi.