When you hear the term “Military Yoga,” you may think of a rigorous Boot Camp vinyasa flow with a drill sergeant yelling at you. But there is no “military style” of yoga. The term “military yoga” refers to a practice tailored to the needs of the military community rather than an original style of its own. It is yoga therapy with a certified and trained yoga instructor who focuses on the physical, emotional and mental needs of our active duty military and our veterans to recover, restore, and find balance in their lives.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke or bind. This humble practice of uniting the breath, mind, and body — and thus a peaceful inner state of being — is especially beneficial for members of the military.
The military environment can often be described as chaotic and dynamic. Bringing yoga — and thus balance and calm — into the military discipline has been the goal of many yoga practitioners.
In recent years, Hawaii has become an integral part of a growing trend in yoga among the military. To backtrack, military presence in Hawaii was minimal up to the first half of the 20th century. The Pearl Harbor attack of 1941 drastically changed the tone of the islands, as the U.S. entered World War II to counter the Japanese military from the Pacific isles. Today, Hawaii is home to the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), which comprises of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, as well as Coast Guard, providing unique services to the islands and the Pacific. Since World War II, marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and coast guardsmen have been deployed to all corners of the world from Hawaii. Not surprisingly, the latest wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have weighed down on service members and their families.
As our brave men and woman in uniform fight for our freedom, they are also often struggling with their own internal battles such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Military Sexual Trauma (MST) in addition to physical and mental injuries, just to name a few. Our active duty service members and veterans deal with these issues daily, while trying to maintain “normal” civilian lives.
To cope with PTSD, anxiety, and depression, active military and our veterans are often given medications that temporarily “fade” the memory or trauma. But in reality, fear of never-ending battle usually persist. This is where yoga has become a sign of hope for those living with distress, as a healthier means to regain health and balance. In fact, studies have shown multiple benefits of yoga for military personnel, one being a healthier alternative to taking conventional drugs.
Many service members who practice yoga have found a significant change in themselves when their dependency transitioned from pills to the mat. Yoga had allowed them to face physical and mental challenges while being “in the moment,” helping them cultivate not only a calm mind, but a relief from mental and physical stress. In a sense, yoga helps soldiers tune into a skill that they’ve been trained to acquire for battle: to stay calm and analyze; to stay focused; to solve difficult situations.
Being conscious and aware in yoga encourages a stronger connection to the body and the mind, providing a sense of physical and mental control. The practice of controlling their own body and their own thoughts can create a sense of empowerment and safety.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can arise from prolonged or sudden exposure to danger and other threatening experiences. The nervous system “freezes,” causing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system to react under stress. Unlike prescription medications that treat the disorder, calming effects of yoga have been known to “unfreeze the nervous system.” In a sense, yoga — with its combination of stretching and deep breathing — creates a “thawing out” effect on the nervous system.
“Yoga is one of the few places where I go to be the ‘real Timmy,’” says Sgt. Timothy Thompson, “The practice itself, the essence of it, and the energy and encouragement I get from those that practice with me… It’s hard to explain, but I just know that being at yoga makes me feel happier.”
“Maybe it’s the smiles I see, maybe it’s the warm greetings I get from others that practice; maybe it’s the thrill of finally getting an asana technique correct,” Thompson continues. Developing connections that feel comfortable, and being able to share these experiences with other veterans and civilians who understand and support the process, are invaluable to this veteran’s healing journey.
Thompson appreciates the mentality that “all are equal” in yoga. “It all just makes me happier,” he says.
Fortunately for many on the island, the military is recognizing the benefits of yoga for recovery, and is building a curriculum that integrates yoga-like movements as part of physical therapy programs.
“Teaching yoga to the active duty soldiers for multiple-unit PT sessions for several months has shown me that for them, a regular practice of yoga can help them mentally relax with breathing techniques, meditation and mindful movement,” says Warriors At Ease and “Vetoga” instructor Christina Finely who, as an Army veteran herself, teaches on the island. “I am truly amazed by the progress each makes.”
Yoga brings hope to service members by helping them face issues and conquer them, rather than to ignore them. Yoga is by far a more meaningful and healthier method of coping than pills and drugs. As a civilian and yoga teacher, it is my goal to give back; to offer my services to those who have served and continue to serve, as well as bring awareness to the benefits of yoga for our service members.
The opinions contained in this article are solely of those individuals involved in the article and not of any branch of military service or the U.S. government.
For more information on yoga for military personnel, please reach out to these organizations in Hawaii; Vet Center Honolulu and West Oahu, Warriors At Ease (WAE), Team Red White and Blue Honolulu (Team RWB Honolulu), and Meghan’s Foundation.
Alexis has been practicing yoga strongly for 10 years and teaching for 8 years. She is a certified Yoga Alliance 200 RYT and certified with Warriors At Ease (WAE).