Yoga and the Military

Yoga is gaining momentum as a therapy option within various organizations, and the military is one of them.  The VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, a Veterans Affairs Hospital in North Las Vegas, offers yoga classes which utilize the Trauma Recovery Yoga (TRY) philosophy for Veterans who are struggling with PTSD and/or pain management. The VA psychologist who runs the PTSD group therapy program using yoga suggested that it could be expanded to other areas of the facility’s treatments.  She encouraged its use in pain management and rehabilitation as a complementary therapy.  

When the program was being put in place a couple of years ago, one of the mandatory requirements is that the yoga instructor for the classes must be certified in Trauma Recovery Yoga (a 20 hour certificate program). Having a 200 hour RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) certificate and being a Veteran were preferences for the position. 

Scott Amberson was hired by the VA to be the full-time yoga instructor. He holds a 200 hour RYT and a Trauma Recovery Yoga certification. He was in the Air Force for 6 years, serving three tours in Afghanistan. It was during his second time in Afghanistan that he became concerned about the anger he was experiencing. Not so much so that he required medical intervention, but enough to be concerning to himself. He started researching meditation and was rather irritated that he kept finding yoga in conjunction with it. He said, “I didn’t want to do the ‘sissy stretching’, just the meditation!” As he started to teach himself using videos and information from the internet, he realized yoga is by far not “sissy stretching”, but indeed can be exertive and powerful, and of great importance in self-regulation, including controlling his anger. Over the past year or so, he has built the VA yoga program to be what it is today, providing therapy for up to 75 Veterans a week. The yoga clinics, as they are called, are prescribed therapy for the Veterans and are tracked and monitored as such. Scott must report on each Veteran’s progress as the clinics progress.

Scott Amberson also teaches a Spinal Stability class at the Downtown Yoga & Wellness Co-op in addition to yoga for Veterans at the VA.

The class I sat in on and observed is called Core Yoga Group and was attended by 9 Veterans – 7 men and 2 women. An hour in length, this class focused more on floor work as requested by the participants who cited sciatica, low-, and mid-back pain as the areas which were of concern. As in Trauma Recovery Yoga classes, focus on breathwork, grounding, and ways which the poses help to detoxify the body were key, as well as mindfulness – “we’re focusing on how we feel.”

I was impressed by the level of participation; while there were certain poses that were more challenging for some people, I could see every one of them trying, in some cases, using modifications provided by Scott. Perhaps the most surprising part of the class was that 6 of the 9 participants were able to achieve and hold boat pose, which is not an easy pose. Although on the second boat, one Veteran said vehemently to Scott, “Oh god, I hate you!” It was all in good fun; Scott’s teaching style is casual, with humor and stories sprinkled throughout the session to divert the participants’ attention to how long they are holding a pose. He speaks quickly but takes time to make sure everyone is doing ok. He explains what is happening physiologically as the class goes on. Veterans’ focus on camaraderie encourages group involvement.  At one point, a Veteran exclaimed excitedly, “We didn’t have to use blocks today!”, a sign of improvement for the group.

One of the female participants shared with me after class her excitement for the yoga program as an integral part of her physical therapy.  A fueler and truck driver in the Army National Guard with 12 years of service, including a tour in Kuwait, Laura has permanent injuries in both her knees and her shoulder.  But she was the most agile of the Veterans in this group and credited Scott and the yoga program with her well-being and healing. 

Max Carter found Trauma Recovery Yoga two years ago from a post I shared on a Facebook neighborhood page about the classes I host every Wednesday evening at my building in downtown Las Vegas.  He found comfort and peace in the method.  After attending 705TRY weekly for over a year, he was drawn to enroll in the 200 hour YT program and following that, the Trauma Recovery Yoga teacher training workshop.  He now teaches a TRY class of his own every Monday night at EndureLV, an addiction treatment center in the southeast part of Las Vegas.  While visiting his youngest son, a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army currently stationed in Ft. Lewis, Washington, Max led a Trauma Recovery Yoga class for a group of soldiers as part of their physical therapy program.  Max’s comment, “I just led a Trauma Recovery Yoga class for HHD, 502d E-MI BN for PT this morning.  Resiliency is so important for these awesome soldiers who are giving their all every single day!” Their response to the class ~ “We would all like to thank Max (SSG Carter’s Dad) for conducting a yoga session for PT.  We definitely need to add more yoga to our PT calendar!”

Jahaira Farias is a Marine Corps combat Veteran who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a motor transport operator and wrecker operator with a Hazmat license.  She exited the service with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury and bulging discs in her back.   In addition, she suffers from joint pain, muscle and nerve damage from a motorcycle accident after getting out of the Marine Corps.  She credits Trauma Recovery Yoga with helping her to focus, center, and breathe through her anxiety and pain.  She said by doing yoga she is able to live a pretty normal life, continue to walk and be as active as she is in spite of her doctors telling her she might never recover. 

The meditation and healthy coping skills of TRY are helping her to deal with the PTSD.  Her passion for the method is such that she completed the Trauma Recovery Yoga teacher training workshop in June and will soon be teaching others who have suffered trauma in their lives.  She is also pursuing her 500YT certification in order to teach at a Las Vegas studio by next year. 

Leland Holgate, Sr., is an Air Force Veteran who has practiced yoga for years and now teaches at various Vegas locations. Two years ago he formed “Warriors for Life America”, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping active duty military members, Veterans, first responders, and their families with the struggle against suicide that is rampant.  An average 22 “warriors” are lost to suicide daily.  The organization provides yoga and meditation practices, as well as additional workshops to help these individuals find balance in life.  Prior to a horrific automobile accident in May, Leland taught TRY to Veterans and active duty military members through a program at Desert Parkway Behavioral Healthcare Hospital in Las Vegas.  He has since recovered from his injuries and will resume teaching as opportunities arise.

Leland Holgate, Sr. conducting a TRY class at the Downtown Yoga & Wellness Co-op.

In addition to the TRY class at the hospital, Leland teaches a class called “Warrior Flow” at the Downtown Yoga and Wellness Co-op.  This class contains many elements of TRY, but with additional hip and shoulder opening poses and spiritual aspects of yoga.  Warrior Flow focuses on opening the areas of the body where people hold their emotional baggage.  Open to the public, these classes are provided free of charge for Veterans by Warriors for Life America.

Leland Holgate, Sr. with another Air Force Veteran following a TRY class at the Downtown Yoga & Wellness Co-op.

Yoga for Veterans is taught at the Derfelt Senior Center located in Lorenzi Park at 3333 W. Washington Avenue, Las Vegas through a partnership between Yoga for Life and the City of Las Vegas Department of Parks and Recreation.  The classes are provided free to Veterans.  Yoga for Veterans is taught in a safe, comfortable environment.  Modifications for all abilities, including chair yoga, assure that all are able to participate to their own level and desire.  Goals of this program include helping men and women who have served our country to maintain optimal fitness, relieve stress, find peace, and deal with PTSD.  Because of the types of poses and modifications available, this yoga program is ideal for individuals with injuries or permanent disabilities.    The current yoga instructor is Christine Glidden.  While not yet certified in Trauma Recovery Yoga, Christine has a vast understanding of trauma and how it affects the body and mind.  The Veterans report not only feeling less discomfort in their bodies, but more relaxed and able to utilize the tools taught in class to manage their stress and PTSD outside of the classroom.  “It’s a great program and we are very appreciative,” was a comment by a participant of the Yoga for Veterans program.

Ziya Nicole, who teaches TRY at The 705 and other yoga at various Las Vegas locations, is also a teacher in this program.  While she is on maternity leave, Ziya is not teaching Yoga for Veterans but gave the following insight regarding the Veteran participants:  “What I have noticed is that in the military, people are trained to be hyper-vigilant and are in a constant state of “fight or flight” mode.  They often have to ignore the ways the body is trying to communicate and detach from emotion.  Then, there is nothing in place to help them tune back in to themselves once they leave the military.  Yoga helps them do that.  They can begin feeling again, both physically and emotionally.  They also learn coping and self-soothing strategies.  But most importantly, they learn that it is okay to not be okay.  It’s okay to show up just as they are and explore that.  They learn that they are not alone and that there is a way through.”  These feelings are also true for the general population.  Trauma Recovery Yoga teaches self-regulation and we emphasize #youarenotalone.

Additional information about Trauma Recovery Yoga can be found on their website at traumarecoveryyoga.org.  Class schedules and descriptions, workshop information and more about the Downtown Yoga & Wellness Co-op can be found on the website at dtlvcoop.com. 

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