Yogic practice for combat veterans: Snapshot of a VA program

By Anne Platt

I teach yoga therapy, the therapeutic application of yoga developed specifically to help heal damaged bodies, minds, and spirits. My “students” at the Los Angeles Veterans Administration (VA) include a wide range of veterans, from the Vietnam era all the way through recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These folks typically suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), physical disabilities, drug and alcohol addictions, as well as depression and homelessness. They are housed in the VA’s inpatient center for a 3- to 6-month healing support program, with some staying longer. I work directly with the psychologist in charge of the Combat Track, which handles, as the name suggests, our most highly stressed patients.

See a clip from one of Anne’s classes here.

My approach is tailored to manage the unique energy and ability of each veteran, so I generally have several practices going on at once during the same hour-long class. Some students use a yoga mat, whereas others, depending on their needs, practice seated in a chair. We emphasize specific breathing methods designed to reduce stress and encourage positive focus in the meditations that end classes. Each session begins with setting an intention that encourages this positive meditation. Examples include gratitude, freedom, joy, trust, and release. The intention becomes a thread that connects us throughout the hour.

To keep things interesting, I like to arrange special classes involving musicians. Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen and Lauren Monroe of The Raven Drum Foundation recently gave us a brilliant drum circle in the VA Rose Garden. Bob Dylan’s favorite violinist, Scarlet Rivera, has played for us on more than one occasion. Once we get the word out, we’ve found the music community eager to help. Their creativity and passion help set the tone—and give the students great joy!

Each class I teach is unique because each soldier is a unique individual worthy of respect. They typically arrive filled with stress and anxiety, and often are dealing with serious physical pain. Perceived stress levels are generally at 7 or 8 out of 10 when they walk in, and they’re often skeptical about the whole idea of yoga, complaining that it’s girly or too difficult. My job is to ease their anxieties and to help them reduce what are often crippling levels of stress. It’s always a challenge, but it’s also the most fulfilling teaching experience I have ever had. Or, as they like to say around here, “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”

Anne Platt, C-IAYT, RYT 500, co-created the yoga program for the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration. She has been teaching yoga at the VA for 14 years and has completed Loyola Marymount University’s yoga therapy program.