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The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma

“Military guys doing yoga and meditation?” I’ve been asked in disbelief. It’s true that when they first arrived to participate in my study (a yoga-based breathing program offered by a small non-profit organization), the young, tattoo-covered, hard-drinking, motorcycle-driving all-American Midwestern men didn't look like your typical yoga devotees. But their words after the study said it all: “Thank you for giving me my life back" and “I feel like I’ve been dead since I returned from Iraq and I feel like I’m alive again.” Our surprisingly positive findings revealed the power that lies in breath for providing relief from even the most deep-seated forms of anxiety.

As many of us know, there is an unspoken epidemic that is taking 22 lives a day in the U.S.

Who is impacted? Those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in protection of others: Veterans.

How? Suicide.

Why? War trauma.

Average age? 25.

After a long deployment of holding their breath in combat, these men and women often return to civilian life no longer knowing how to breathe. Though the military trains service members for war, it doesn't train them for peace. Ready to give up their life for others, service members embody the values of courage, integrity, selflessness, and a deep commitment to serving. They've trained under extreme conditions to do things most civilians don’t encounter: lose parts of their body, kill or injure another human being under orders or by mistake, get right back to work and keep fighting hours after seeing a friend killed, be separated from families and loved ones for months and even years, and live with the horrendous physical and emotional consequences thereof upon their return home.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 20-30 percent of the over 2 million returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder involves hyper-alertness that prevents sleep and severely interferes with daily life, triggers painful flashbacks during the day and nightmares at night, and causes emotional numbness that leads to social withdrawal and an inability to relate to others. Side effects of PTSD include rage, violence, insomnia, alienation, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. PTSD symptoms are associated with higher risk of suicide, a fact that may explain the alarming rise in suicidal behavior amongst returning veterans.

While traditional treatments work for some, a large number of veterans are falling through the cracks. Dropout rates for therapy and drug treatments remain as high as 62 percent for veterans with PTSD. Symptoms can persist even for veterans who actually undergo an entire course of psychotherapeutic treatment and drug treatment results are mixed.

Our research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford showed that the week-long Project Welcome Home Troops intervention was successful, with our analyses showing significant decreases in PTSD and anxiety. Improvements remained one month and one year later, suggesting long-term benefit. More telling even than the data are the veterans' words; with a veteran of the war in Afghanistan writing:

A few weeks ago shooting, cars exploding, screaming, death, that was your world. Now back home, no one knows what it is like over there so no one knows how to help you get back your normalcy. They label you a victim of the war. I AM NOT A VICTIM... but how do I get back my normalcy? For most of us it is booze and Ambien. It works for a brief period then it takes over your life. Until this study, I could not find the right help for me, BREATH'ing like a champ!

The Project Welcome Home Troops program teaches a specific breathing practice - Sudarshan Kriya Yoga - taught by certified instructors. (To learn more about the science why breathing can help us overcome anxiety and trauma, see this post on the science of breath.) Research in non-veteran populations shows that it's helpful for anxiety, depression, stress, and even gene expression for immunity. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Phie Ambo, shadowed our entire study and filmed the veterans' transformation. It is called Free the Mind, and you can see trailers on my website.

Although many of the participants in my study were a little reluctant when they first walked in, expecting this to be "hippy dippy sh_ _" or even a "cry fest," they took to the breathing practices immediately. Why? Because the practices are fundamentally empowering - which is what being a service member is all about. Veterans don't easily embrace victim-hood. "I am not a victim." A man or woman with the courage to go to war isn't the type to feel sorry for him or herself. Instead, he or she seeks to take responsibility. Yoga-based practices allow veterans to take responsibility because they don't require dependence on a therapist or drug. The veterans learn how to take care of their own mind and well-being using their own breath.

Besides, the military and yoga have another important element in common: an emphasis on service to society. Empowered and relieved of their anxiety, the veterans I've worked with often reconnect with the spirit of service that led them to volunteer for the military in the first place. Now, their spirit of service is directed in new ways: toward helping other veterans. Travis Leanna, the one who said, "Thank you for giving me my life back," is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a veteran of the Iraq war who participated in our study and then decided to become an instructor with Project Welcome Home Troops so he could help other vets.

Project Welcome Home Troops would like to help more veterans. But because the organization offers programs free of charge, it needs funds. It recently launched an online fundraising campaign, and a sign of the success of the program is that many of those who have pledged to raise funds and many of those who are donating are none other than veterans themselves!

Inspired by the results that I've seen in our research, I've also created a fundraising page for their campaign, which you can find here. If you feel moved to do so, please start your own fundraising page or donate what you can to mine. Even if you're not able to help financially but wish to contribute, you can do so by sharing this article or the cause on your social networking sites.

For more information on Project Welcome Home Troops and how veterans can attend classes free of charge, please visit this website.
 For more on the science of breathing, see here. 
To see the trailers of the Free the Mind film made about the research we conducted, see here.
 And non-veterans who wish to learn Sudarshan Kriya Yoga can attend classes through the Art of Living Foundation.

Emma Seppala, PhD, is associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and a research psychologist at the School of Medicine. She is also a certified yoga, pilates, breath work and meditation instructor. A version of this piece originally appeared on Psychology Today.

Previously: The promise of yoga-based treatments to help veterans with PTSD, Using mindfulness therapies to treat veterans’ PTSD, As soldiers return home, demand for psychologists with military experience grows, Stanford and other medical schools to increase training and research for PTSD, combat injuries and Can training soldiers to meditate combat PTSD?

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