(originally published: Optimyz Magazine, July/August 2015 Edition)
At the close of 2015, 39 first responders and 12 military members had committed suicide in Canada, add another 3 first responders 3 weeks in to 2016 (Tema.ca). In addition, Statistics Canada has revealed that between 2004-2014, more military personnel committed suicide (160), than soldiers killed in combat (138) through the entire Afghan mission (2002-2014).
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is described by Veterans Affairs Canada as “an anxiety disorder caused by experiencing traumatic events, such as combat situations, physical or sexual assaults, disasters, terrorist attacks and serious accidents.” Veterans Affairs also state that approximately 9% of Canadians and 7.2% of military veterans will have PTSD in their lifetime. Additional research claims that PTSD will affect first responders during their career at a rate of 25% for correctional officers, 22% for paramedics, 16.5% for firefighters, 9-12% for police officers and 5% for military members. These are the people that put their lives on the line for the safety of our communities, cities and country. However, PTSD not only affects the individual suffering, it also impacts those closest to them: their husbands and wives, children, family members, friends and co-workers. In addition to those on the front lines diagnosed with PTSD are those who have suffered trauma; “everyday people” who have experienced tragedy, loss or abuse in their lives.
In an article published by CBC on May 27, 2015, the dispatcher for the Moncton RCMP shooting calls out the Canadian government for more support for those with PTSD. This sentiment is echoed by countless other media reports. There are support groups and resources available where one can talk about their experiences, but what about those who are not ready, or willing, to talk openly about it? What about the memories that are deeply supressed? Or those who believe they will lose their job, their family, their supports due to the stigma of PTSD if they come forward? For those suffering with PTSD or unresolved trauma, there is a loss of connection to one’s true self, the feeling of living inside the mind or emotions, and outside of the body. This disassociation can lead to self-abuse such as unhealthy relationships, substance abuse and in extreme cases, suicide. To move into a state of healing one must experience a union between mind and body, to get back in touch with our own bodies. This is also known as the practice of Yoga. Yoga in Sanskrit means Union. In its simplest terms, just by noticing our breath (Prana, or life energy) moving in and out of our body can lead to a greater mind-body connection. By utilizing the three-part breath (breathing only through the nose, slowing the breath down and then allowing the belly, ribs and chest to fully expand with our inhale and compress with our exhale) we provide an instant way to calm our parasympathetic nervous system. This actively releases our bodies from a state of stress, or commonly known as fight, flee or freeze.
Gaining in popularity in the western world over the last twenty years as a way to release stress, gain strength and flexibility, clarity of mind and empowerment, Yoga has actually been practiced for over six thousand years. Could Yoga, an ancient science of the mind, be the answer? Yoga’s slow methodical flow, linking breath to movement, taking time to feel and listen to the body is being proven by research to be at the forefront of healing trauma. The fact that Yoga can be practiced in any form by anybody, no matter one’s ability or mobility, is empowering and innately healing. In practicing Yoga, we are able to awaken our own inner physician. We learn to listen to the subtle whispers of our body, to acknowledge feelings and movement. We learn to trust ourselves on our journey of healing.
Neurological research is showing that when trauma occurs, we store these memories not only in our mind, but also in our body. Many of us experience stress to some degree in our daily life, and we can often recognize the signs of stress we are carrying in our body through tension headaches, stiff neck and shoulders and sometimes accompanied by digestive upset. As a protection mechanism for the body, trauma moves deeper. Just as memories can either be supressed or rise as flashbacks, the body stores trauma deep in the psoas muscle or hip. The psoas muscle attaches to the femur (leg bone), travels up the front of the pelvis and carries underneath the obliques (side waist) to insert into the lumbar spine. Issues with the psoas muscle can be felt either in the hip itself, it can translate to achy knees and/or ankles, or present as lower back pain. Also interesting to note, in the world of Yoga, this area of our body below the navel and above the pubic bone is our 2nd or Sacral Chakra. This Chakra is represented by our emotional body, the ability to be in touch with our emotions and our kinetic creative life-force energy. As a way to balance this area of the body we want to create flow and ease, hip openers and gentle stretches to get our life-force energy moving again. Essentially, the same focus in a trauma-informed class.
In practicing Yoga as a healing modality we need to focus on HOW we practice. Those who have experienced deep trauma may further increase anxiety by starting class laying still with their eyes closed like in Restorative Yoga, while at the same time a powered-up Vinyasa or Hot Yoga class may be entirely inappropriate as well. To fill this gap, YogaFit for Warriors was created by Lt Col Shaye Molendyke, a 23 year Veteran in the US Air Force and a RYT 500 YogaFit Master Trainer. As Shaye describes, “This deeper, scientific understanding of exactly how Yoga can affect our neurological and neurochemical pathways in the body has allowed us to create a powerful yoga therapy program, YogaFit for Warriors, to truly help those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as anyone with unresolved physical or emotional traumas. This advancement of understanding of what makes Yoga efficacious includes: slower mindful movement to awaken the emotional or limbic center of the mind; ujayi breath focus to stimulate the vagus nerve; and a physical focus on psoas and grounding postures to help release the high allostatic energy load of traumas stored in the body. This combination creates the opportunity for organic healing through yoga therapy and provides a new path forward for those suffering from not only PTSD but mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.”
YogaFit for Warriors is made up of 4 workshops that can be combined with YogaFit’s Level 1 foundation course to make up the new 100-hour certification program. These individual 2-day training workshops can be taken by anyone interested in teaching the program, and/or self-discovery and personal learning. Yogafit for Warriors, Balancing Moods, Restorative Therapeutics, Healing Physical and Emotional Trauma, Yoga for Addictions and the new Warrior Kids are currently being offered in Canada and the US along with International military bases including Germany and Italy. Further to that, YogaFit has developed the Warrior Ambassador Program as a way to link Teachers of the YogaFit Warrior program to Students, by placing teachers in Addiction rehab facilities, hospitals, mental health clinics, and military bases among others.
A typical YogaFit Warrior class is a combination of flowing movement along with restorative and therapeutic poses towards the end. After 1-2 minutes of deep breathing to centre the mind and body and become present, we begin a slow flow movement aimed to warm and increase mobility in the muscles and joints. In keeping with this slow pace the focus of the class is on creating rhythmic movement, linked to breath and designed to help discharge energy as well as facilitate the release of deeply held tension. In keeping with the YogaFit Essence of breathing, feeling, listening to our bodies, letting go of judgment, expectations, competition and staying in the present moment, we emphasize that the student is always in control of his or her own practice. A safe and nurturing environment is maintained throughout class. Emphasizing that the student is always in control of his or her own practice effectively connects the mind with the body while releasing trauma stored in the psoas.
As Shaye notes: “A mindful yoga practice leads to a healthy balanced body and mind. Over time yoga decreases emotional reactivity as we learn to embrace life more fully. Yoga practice helps us reframe situations so that we find more meaning even from difficulties and challenges. Essentially, yoga helps us to reclaim lost power, which is very important in healing trauma. Yoga teaches us that while we cannot control external events, we can control our reaction. Yoga gives us the tools to activate the innate healer within all of us.”
Yoga is increasingly being sought out for its innate healing properties. The practice of Yoga can be followed through many forms including Asana (physical practice), meditation, pranayama (breathing exercises) or in reading Yoga Philosophy. No matter your chosen path, with an open heart and open mind we all have the right to live the life we chose, to release pain and move forward with acceptance, joy and gratitude.
I’m very excited to be partaking in the Warriors Intensive put on by YogaFit Canada starting on Monday, Jan 25th and led by Shaye Molendyke, creator of the YogaFit Warriors program. I hope to have more to share with you soon. If you are interested in taking these trainings or would like more information on this type of healing class or one on one work please email me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org