Yoga for Veterans

According to Newsweek (April 27, 2009), “Some 8 million Americans have the disorder [PTSD] in a given year and the military is at even greater risk.” Now, Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine Captain, is teaching Yoga to veterans. In this interview, she discusses her journey from a depressed and angry vet to a healer.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How did you first get introduced to Yoga?

Anuradha Bhagwati (AB): I was a Marine officer on active duty for five years. In my second year, I was on leave for two weeks and decided to go to the Sivananda Yoga Ranch because I wanted to do something relaxing. That was my first introduction to Yoga, and I loved it. It was an odd situation, as I was completely militarized. Everyone there was tickled that I was even setting foot inside a Yoga place. They talked about vegetarian diet and, even though I’m East Indian, I explained that we don’t do vegetarian in the Marines. I needed to sit and to quiet down but it wasn’t the time in my life to really relax, but it was a good hint of what Yoga was all about.

Toward the end of my fifth year, things got really bad. An officer was sexually harassing women in my unit. I filed an investigation outside the chain of command—as those in command were trying to sweep it under the rug. My command threatened me, and I was under more stress than ever before. There was a local Yoga place nearby that became my refuge from the sexual trauma whirlwind happening on base. A few years later, when I took Teacher Training, I heard about people who can’t sit still because of so much stress in their body. I couldn’t do more than a minute of savasana or my body would begin to break down. The women who owned that studio helped save my life.

IYM: Is that when you decided to leave the Marines?

AB: I was very angry and disappointed with the system. The people who had conducted the investigation supported our claim and made certain recommendations. Those recommendations were ignored and the perpetrator was even promoted. They gave him command of a unit with a lot of 18 year-old female Marines. So, I got out and I immediately went to graduate school. Soon after, I began falling apart, so I sought counseling, moved back home—until I realized I wanted to stop being angry and just wanted to do something good for myself again. I decided to pursue Yoga again.

IYM: Did that lead to Teacher Training?

AB: I found the Integral Yoga Institute in New York in 2008, while I was undergoing Military Sexual Trauma (MST) counseling. I got really tired of being offered little white pills for my pain and feeling like I had no control over my life. I wanted to immerse myself in something healthy. I had been through hell for three years. I wanted to do Yoga Teacher Training and took it in Mexico with Swami Ramananda. Finding this program was an amazing, life-changing experience.

Swami Ramananda saved my life at that point. Layers were coming off, left and right. I had a lot of injuries—physical and emotional—from my time in the Marines, so I was dealing with a lot of pent up pain, frustration and anger. Teacher Training was a struggle for me. The teachers would say, “You can just sit and breathe,” and I’d get angry because I was a Marine and was used to always having to step up. I came to see that pushing through everything wasn’t working for me. While others were doing handstands, I was learning to stop fighting everything all the time and to begin to let go.

IYM: Had you already decided you wanted to teach Yoga for veterans?

AB: I didn’t really think of helping vets. I didn’t really want to. It was pretty traumatic being in the Marines and to never be on equal footing with men (just six percent of us are female) and everything that is part of the daily grind of being a female officer. That, along with the investigation that I had initiated, led to my being treated and punished as if I were the enemy. So, I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable toward the military or wanting to serve this population.

However, when I decided to become a Yoga teacher, a lot changed. I learned that I did not have to be a victim to my thoughts and emotions. I saw that, by meditating and regulating my breathing, I could actually calm down and even feel better about things. Having gone through Teacher Training, a lot of counseling and speaking about veterans’ issues at forums, my anger started disappearing. At Teacher Training, I was able to forgive the people involved in the investigation and I released a lot of that pain. I started seeing people—even those who hadn’t done the right thing—as victims of the system and the national culture that makes men do things to prove they are men. I started forgiving people, left and right.

IYM: How did Yoga for Vets NYC come about?

AB: I started teaching at the IYI as much as I could. After a while, I realized that I didn’t want to focus my service on the general population. I had taught Yoga to a Marines in my last unit. I had been teaching close combat techniques and I loved teaching and I was in a good position to share Yoga with broken people. I was teaching people at IYI with HIV and that was more what I wanted to do. People with life-threatening illness are at a point where they really embrace life. I wanted to help this population and the vets too and I wanted to further let go of the fear and anger.

Yoga for Vets NYC started in July 2008 as a service designed specifically for veterans dealing with injuries or trauma, but every veteran is welcome, regardless of age, era or experience. It’s a free weekly class and eventually I’d like to make it a daily class. Classes are small enough to give attention to individual students who may be dealing with specific injuries, challenges or disabilities. No prior experience with Yoga is necessary. Each class includes simple instructions in four key elements of Yoga:  breathing techniques, meditation, deep relaxation and poses that are therapeutic or invigorating.

IYM: What adaptations did you make for a class geared to veterans?

AB: It’s beginning to intermediate hatha, with a lot of variations for those not as agile and therapeutic Yoga for those not so able. I learned therapeutic Yoga with Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peal at the IYI. This is an approach that uses bolsters, blankets and other props to place just about anyone, including wounded and older people, in regular Yoga poses so that they can experience the health benefits of those poses. We do a lot of pranayama and meditation in the beginning of the class so we are sure to get it in.

In this class, it’s okay to rest and relax, or to just flat out not do a technique or pose that doesn’t work for you. I think that anyone who has been through the military is an expert at sucking up pain and functioning well under extreme stress. Many vets have already pushed their physical and mental limits beyond imagination. I try to make the class a place where they don’t have to do that anymore. They already know how to sweat. I think it’s more challenging for most of us to calm down, and let things go. The therapeutic Yoga helps them relax. Lots of vets say that the therapeutic Yoga is their favorite part of class, because it is so relaxing, and they don’t have to think about anything while they’re doing it.

IYM: What types of challenges have you faced teaching veterans Yoga?

AB: It was a difficult process to convince extremely macho people that Yoga is good for them. But, many vets are also extremely fed up with the VA system and with what is being offered in the way of traditional care. They are tired of popping pills and they have tried everything else, so they are ready to try Yoga. When the really tough guys—with ego and swagger and something to prove—see that that doesn’t impress me and that it’s a safe environment, by end of class they are like Jello. All that toughness has evaporated and they are calm and happy. It’s amazing. Hopefully, they will begin to realize that their humanity is so much more than how much they can lift and what they can bench press. One of the reasons I wasn’t as comfortable doing Yoga in the Marines, is that it forces you to let go of the characteristics that make us lethal soldiers. It’s easier to do Yoga now that I am a veteran.

IYM: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

AB: I love teaching this class. In doing good for this community, it helps me to heal and be happy. I hope that other Yoga teachers start programs for vets at their studios. It is challenging to find vets open enough to come, but I want to encourage others to offer these classes and to offer them for free, because a lot of vets can’t afford the normal cost of a Yoga class. Any Yoga teacher who is interested or wants some moral support may contact me through the website.

About Anuradha K. Bhagwati:
Anuradha K. Bhagwati was a Captain in the Marines. She earned a BA in English from Yale University and a Masters of Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She is the founder of Yoga for Vets, NYC. She is also a writer and is currently working on a novel about the psychology of violence. She is the Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Summer 2009 issue

*IYM added note: Check out this online video: Yoga Therapy for Veterans: Overview of a Florida program
In Tampa Florida at the James A. Haley Medical Center, Yoga instructors from a private organization are working with VA therapists and donating their time to help recovering veterans. We look at how the centuries-old healing properties of Yoga when used in conjunction with modern medical therapy are soothing minds and strengthening bodies.

 

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