When we face a perceived threat—anything that startles or scares us or is stressful or unexpected—our body’s reaction is to turn on the fight-or-flight response.
This response, which erupts instantaneously in the oldest part of our brain, fires up the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, and gets us ready to either run away from the perceived danger or, if we think we can overpower the threat, to stand our ground and fight. This response is not necessarily a bad thing.
The two hormones are a helpful and life-saving part of our body’s response to stress and have saved our ass as a species for tens of thousands of years.
But it is important that the opposite reaction, the relaxation response, also be activated when the stress has passed so that the body’s functions can return to normal. This means we need to settle down and relax when the high-stress event is over.
However, when the body’s stress response is activated so often that we don’t have a chance to relax, to come down and to return to normal, we end up in a state of chronic stress.
Continuous stress, no matter what the source—be it reexperiencing a traumatic event, being deployed for the first time or continuously deployed, or our husband, wife, or boss yelling at us—takes its toll on our lives, our health, and our relationships.
Dr. Herbert Benson, the well-respected Harvard professor and author of The Relaxation Response, coined the term relaxation response over thirty years ago. He explained it as the polar opposite of the fight-or-flight response.
One of the ways in which yoga works is by facilitating the activation of this response. Yoga practices give us things to do that bring our attention into the present moment through focusing on our breath, on our yoga posture, on a gazing point, or through the use of a variety of other yoga tools.
In addition to the many physical benefits of a yoga practice that you might already be aware of, such as building strength, flexibility, balance, and agility, the corresponding mental effort to bring mindful attention to the present moment (in a safe and predictable environment like a yoga studio or gym or your living room) unites the body and mind.
The effort to focus on the present moment steadies the mind, pulls it back into the body, and can create a calming and balancing response. This brings about many other physical and emotional benefits such as lower blood pressure, slower respiration and heart rate, and calmer, quieter mental activity that can directly contribute, over time, to improvement in overall quality of life—mental, emotional, and physical.
That is surely something that can be a welcome aid to a returning veteran struggling to make sense of and adjust to a radically different environment than the one he or she just left.
A regular yoga practice, whether meditation, breath work, or moving through postures, can help anyone in the military deal with the stress of facing deployment, being in the field itself, or transitioning back to civilian life.
Yoga develops awareness, and military training does the same. Almost all the military service men and women, both veterans and active duty, with whom I have worked, seem to be pretty conscious and aware of what is going on around them. That heightened awareness is perhaps what has helped you to survive, to be here now. But that hypervigilance can turn into a liability rather than an essential tool for survival, and become a threat to your health and well-being.
Although warrior awareness can be an asset to help you see danger before others do and be more sensitive and compassionate to others’ suffering, the trick is to balance the ability to be aware and maintain the positive aspects of that sensitivity—without allowing that hypervigilance to run amok. Yoga can help.
Although it isn’t a magic bullet and not intended as a substitute for therapy or as treatment for post-traumatic stress (PTS) or any specific disorder, it can help you to ramp the hypervigilance down.
It is possible. And you, as a warrior, have great training for this work. You are a natural for yoga. The main difference I see between the discipline of being in the armed forces and the discipline of yoga is that the final objective in military training is to prepare the warrior for battle with an external force or enemy. In yoga training, the preparation is also geared toward battle, but the enemies are within!
Yoga and its mind-body practices are now viable medical treatment alternatives and support systems. Today, extensive research is being conducted—some of it even funded by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—that shows how conscious breathing, mindfulness meditation, a practice called yoga nidra (or yoga sleep), and the practice of the yoga postures are all—in the case of the DOD study—helping veterans heal and recover from debilitating mental and physical injury.
The scientific community is finally confirming what yogis have known for thousands of years: the mind can heal the body and itself.
Adapted from Yoga for Warriors: Basic Training for Strength, Resilience, & Peace of Mind by Beryl Bender Birch. Copyright © 2014 by Beryl Bender Birch. To be published in September 2014 by Sounds True. Pre-order the book on Amazon.
Beryl Bender Birch is the internationally recognized founder of Power Yoga and the author of the bestselling book of the same title. She is a founder and director of The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute and the Give Back Yoga Foundation. See power-yoga.com and givebackyoga.org.
Photo: U.S. Army Spc. Julio Coll assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment laughs during yoga class at Camp Bundela, India, Oct. 24, 2009. Photo by Fred W. Baker III. Courtesy of the United States Department of Defense.