Book Review: How To Teach Yoga To Military Veterans
The United States has engaged in military conflict for most of the 21st century. As a result, an increasing number of male and female armed service members have faced considerable stress. For some, this has resulted in trauma, and mental, cognitive and/or physical disability, leading an unprecedented number of veterans to seek out alternative therapies such as yoga to improve their health and wellbeing. Due to the complexity of military life and work, yoga instructors face the responsibility of educating themselves regarding how best to work with veterans and their families.
Book: Best Practices for Yoga With Veterans
Best Practices for Yoga With Veterans provides an excellent primer for those interested in providing yoga education to veterans, as well as those seeking to better understand the parameters of high-quality yoga education. Edited by Carol Horton, PhD, author of Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and Certified Forrest Yoga Teacher with a background in trauma-informed yoga, the book draws on the vast knowledge and experience of over 25 experts who were convened by the Yoga Service Council in 2015 to lay the foundation for this project. The result is a concise discussion of foundational principles that every yoga instructor must explore when considering working with current and former military personnel.
The book draws on several key principles including the need for knowledge of military culture, procedures and processes, understanding the need for trauma-informed training and the development of partnerships with medical and mental health professionals, exercising appropriate personal and professional boundaries and maturity, fostering safe, respectful, and collaborative student-instructor partnerships, and tips for working within the systems that serve veterans.
Yoga for the Modern Day Warrior
Military life is predicated on an idiosyncratic, “warrior culture” that emphasizes discipline, duty, respect, courage, self-less service, loyalty, and honoring the chain of command. Members are powerfully aligned with the values of their respective service (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard), each of which are different. Further, rank plays a pivotal role in creating one’s identity within the power hierarchy, and in military life.
Not all service personnel experience active duty or are engaged in combat, and only those with a history of active duty who were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable are legally considered veterans, although the term is often used to denote anyone with a military background. The uniqueness of military culture requires yoga instructors to be particularly mindful of their behavior and use of language, and refrain from communicating with service members as though their experiences are universal.
Military life comes with a high degree of variability as well as a unique set of stressors – high physical and psychological demands, frequent moves and deployment, family separation and high relationship stress, uncontrollability of circumstance, and, in some cases, combat – that place veterans at risk for trauma, and a host of psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, substance use, suicidality, and social isolation. Best Practices emphasizes the imperative that non-mental health professionals working with veterans have considerable training in trauma-informed yoga, a minimum of 5-years yoga teaching experience, and specialized training in working with those with physical, psychological, and neurological disabilities.
Key Components of Trauma-Informed Yoga
In addition to these minimal requirements, Horton and colleagues speak to the necessity of understanding the theory and science behind trauma-informed yoga, and the need for critical reflection on why, how and what practices are taught, by whom, and under what conditions. They offer a succinct explanation of the biopsychosocial impacts of trauma, and the potential for yoga practices not only to ease the symptoms of trauma and physical and psychological stress, but also to trigger them. They caution that “teachers working with students suffering from PTSD should always have a solid working relationship with support staff and clinicians” (pp. 21).
Teaching Yoga to Veterans with PTSD
Based on personal clinical experience this point cannot be overemphasized. Yoga classes serve a large proportion of individuals with trauma histories, many of whom have a hazy awareness of traumatic events, and/or no formal diagnosis of PTSD. As potentially healing as yoga practices may be, they also have the potential to be profoundly psychologically destabilizing. Work of pioneers in the field of trauma such as Bessel Van der Kolk, and Peter Levine have contributed greatly to our understanding of the mechanisms of trauma, however science is only beginning to examine the vast interconnectedness of mind, body and brain, let alone comprehend how traumatic information is stored in the body, and how to safely process and release it. Yoga classes, whether with veterans, children, adults, or the elderly need to be conducted with considerable reverence for the mystery of the body and mind’s capacity for self-preservation, and a commitment to work within professional boundaries, and seek networks of support. This is particularly true when working with military combat veterans, or those who have experienced some form of abuse or neglect.
High Yoga Educator Integrity
High educator integrity is another essential component of working in a culture of individuals bound by duty, honor, service, and a code of obedience of authority, note Horton and her colleagues. This is particularly significant when instructing physically or psychologically vulnerable individuals. An instructor’s professionalism, maturity, and ability to maintain appropriate conduct are indispensable elements for creating a safe, supportive environment, and modeling stress resilience.
Navigating the Military Health Service System
In addition to sufficient training, skills, and professionalism, success in working with military personnel can often rest in an instructor’s ability to successfully navigate the system. The book provides ample discussion of the nuances and complexities within the military health service delivery, and the need for yoga instructors to be facile and informed participants within that system.
A key takeaway message of Best Practices for Yoga With Veterans is that military personnel have a diversity of experience and lifestyles that must be recognized, honored and appreciated. Successful yoga teachers realize the importance of working in respectful collaboration with veterans and the institutions that serve them. Preparedness, knowledge, professionalism, maturity, humility, and the capacity to adapt to myriad challenge are attributes that will allow those working with veterans to be of greatest service to those who have dedicated their lives to serving our country.
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B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and well-being and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is also the Founding Director and Principal Consultant of the International Science & Education Alliance, an organization devoted to exceptional research, program evaluation, assessment design, strategic planning and capacity building to support equity, programmatic diversity and scientific integrity, and promote effective leadership, decision-making and social change. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com.
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (2012) and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (2005). She served as lead editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice (2012), and two books in the Yoga Service Council/Omega Institute “Yoga Service Best Practices” series: Best Practices for Yoga with Veterans (2016) and Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System (forthcoming 2017). Carol is the Vice President of the Yoga Service Council, an Advisor to the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and a co-founder of Chicago’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network (SEYN). She completed her foundational yoga teacher training with Ana Forrest, and studied trauma-informed yoga with James Fox (Prison Yoga Project) and Mark Lilly (Street Yoga). She has taught yoga in a variety of locations including Chicago’s Cook County Jail, a drop-in center for homeless women, a residential foster care facility, a community health center, and several independent studios. For more, see www.carolhortonphd.com.