As an Army medic, Sara Limb was in constant rotation between training in Korea and combat in Iraq. This resulted in four years of sleepless nights and a schedule that no human can withstand for long – at least not without a practice. “When I saw that my comrades were falling apart mentally, I started to share my personal yoga practice with my unit,” says Limb. “I led Yoga Nidra, deep pranayama breathwork, and one-on-one therapy sessions for injured soldiers who couldn’t go into the field or go home.” Limb now lives and works in Huntington, West Virginia. She is a full-time yoga teacher and advocate for Veterans Yoga Project (VYP).
Veterans Yoga Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of military veterans through Mindful Resilience Training. These are programs developed specifically to undo the nervous system dysfunctions that underlie Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The protocols include focusing on breath, meditation, mindful movement, guided rest, and gratitude.
VYP trains instructors on how to teach yoga safely and effectively to veterans and active-duty members of the military in clinical settings, yoga studios, VA centers, and in individual therapy sessions. The organization also hosts free healing retreats for veterans and their families at The Feathered Pipe Ranch in Helena, Montana every summer.
“There has been an incredible increase in awareness about how these practices help support the transition from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth,” says Dr. Daniel Libby, a clinical psychologist and Executive Director of VYP. “In July, 2017, we reported 103 yoga programs taught by VYP-trained teachers. These teachers are reaching active duty service members, veterans, families, and even mental health staff. We are constantly working to spread the word that these techniques truly help.”
Veterans Gratitude Week is the VYP’s largest event. It is held November 3-12. The initiative involves encouraging yoga teachers around the country to host donation-based yoga and meditation classes or to donate the proceeds from their weekly classes to the cause. In 2016, instructors held 425 classes across 46 states for Veterans Gratitude Week. This year, in 2017, their goal is to raise $85,000 for VYP programs, with groups committed to holding more than 500 donation-based classes across all 50 states.
“Veterans Gratitude Week allows communities to come together to support the men and women who protect and serve our country,” says Libby. “We want as many yoga teachers as possible to get involved through donation-based classes, fundraising through their studios, and spreading awareness in their communities. All proceeds go directly toward our programs with veterans and training more teachers in trauma-based Mindful Resilience so they can pass it on.”
The Veterans Yoga Project directly impacts people. For example, Larry Kofler has benefitted firsthand from the organization’s mission. Kofler served in the Army in the late 1960s, and came to yoga through the Northport, New York, VA Medical Center, where he has been attending classes for almost two years. He has seen dramatic improvements in his physical health, anxiety and sense of community. “After being a couch potato for years, I now walk between four and five miles every day. The breathing exercises have improved my lung function, according to tests from my pulmonologist,” says Kofler. “The meditation helps me cope, and the camaraderie of the other vets in all age groups has been great.”
VYP board member and yoga instructor Christian Allaire spent 20 years in the US Coast Guard. He was searching for his place in the civilian world when a friend brought him to his first yoga class. “Once I stepped into a power yoga studio, I found my new community,” Allaire says. “It made sense to me. There was a routine, a start and end time, a leader, and it was a system that took into account the whole person.”
Allaire raised nearly $10,000 during Veterans Gratitude Week in 2016. He began his efforts in June and educated students at his studio in Marin County, California, on the challenges of military service. “There were not many veterans in my local community. So when I began to raise awareness to the civilians that I teach, they really showed up through donations, volunteer time and fundraising ideas,” Allaire recalls. “I put a fish bowl in the studio asking people to donate if they weren’t going to be able to attend classes during Gratitude Week. The bowl filled up again and again.”
Veterans in the VYP programs report that they sleep better and they are able to concentrate and think more clearly. Veterans practicing yoga say that they are also able to more effectively manage anger and aggression and generally find comfort in their own skin. Allaire says, “Yoga is a transformative practice, and I believe that it’s a complete system for leadership.” He also mentions that he is now pursuing a Master’s Degree in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. This is the only school in the United States — and one of three in the world — to offer this program. “The military never taught us about breathing, mental fitness, or diet to help the mind and the body function properly. I wish I knew about yoga when I was on active duty, that’s for sure.”
To get involved, visit veteransyogaproject.org/veterans-gratitude-week.
Published in November 2017 by LA YOGA: https://layoga.com/community/cause-activism/veterans-yoga-project-approaches-ptsd-with-mindful-resilience/