Many yoga classes end with a meditation focusing on peace. So it may seem, on the surface, a bit surprising that yoga has gained popularity in military circles. Troops in Australia, India and the United States have started incorporating yoga into their training protocols, as well as using it as a tool for healing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers.
The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs organized a 10-day camp led by “yoga guru” Baba Ramdev that taught yoga as stress relief to para-military forces. And in Australia, yoga is part of a larger program that strives to reduce post-warfare trauma. Soldiers who have been stationed in war-torn regions like Iraq and Afghanistan often live in constant fear for months on end, and Australian psychologists found that this fear was transforming into anger in some individuals. They would return from their deployments exhibiting troubling symptoms like irritability, insomnia, anger, and hyper-arousal, as well as suffering from frightening memories of their time in battle.
The Australian army psychologists designed a program to counteract these symptoms, teaching soldiers to use the controlled breathing and physical and mental exercise of yoga to help them deal with emotions like anger, stress and fear. With more than 10% of Australian soldiers suffering from PTSD, this program offers hope to individuals who are having difficulty completing their deployments, as well as those who are attempting to adjust back to civilian life.
The United States military has opened its eyes to the potential benefits of yoga as well. At the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., studies have been undertaken to examine the effect of yoga on PTSD-afflicted active duty soldiers. One particular study looked at Yoga Nidra, a type of practice that emphasizes meditation and deep relaxation. According to Sharon Steffenson for Yoga Chicago, the results of this small study were so impressive that “the Deployment Health Clinical Center (DHCC) at Walter Reed integrated Richard’s Yoga Nidra protocol into its regular treatment program for soldiers rotating through the health clinic. Soldiers receive nine sessions of Yoga Nidra over a three-week period as part of their total program of various healing modalities.”
It’s not a stretch to see how yoga could help soldiers counteract the effects of battle. But what about helping them within actual warfare? In 2006, The Associated Press reported that yoga was becoming a trend among Navy Seals. And in some ways, it makes sense: yoga’s emphasis on balance, flexibility and focus has practical implications in battle. One retired admiral explained that his yoga practice not only helped him with the aches and pains developed from his years of service, but also could have helped him be a better soldier: “The ability to stay focused on something, whether on breathing or on the yoga practice, and not be drawn off course, that has a lot of connection to the military…In our SEAL basic training, there are many things that are yoga-like in nature,” he told the Associated Press.
So can yoga create super-soldiers? Peace-loving yogis might feel a bit uncomfortable with this concept. Fit Yoga editor Rita Trieger addressed this in her August 2006 issue, admitting that at first she found the use of yoga on the battlefield a “little shocking.” But there is a silver lining. As Trieger so eloquently explained, “War is hell, and if yoga can help them find a little solace, that’s good.”