Combat Yoga

Allistair Santiago

army-yoga.JPGI read a newspaper article today. This alone is surprising as I have an acute aversion to current events – I find their reality disruptive to mine. But this morning, as I sat waiting for my coffee to percolate, the newspaper was the only thing within reach. With careful ambivalence, I paged lazily through it (looking mostly at the ads).

An article with the word “yoga” in it soon caught my eye, however, and recklessly I began reading.

It turns out that yoga is starting to be used rather extensively as a form of psychological therapy. The article outlined a new, unorthodox, and potentially ill-conceived plan by the US Army to include yoga training for their soldiers on the front lines in an effort to combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

This radical movement was inspired by Posing Warriors, a particularly successful yoga program originally intended to help Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD. Since its inception, the program has grown to include veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

So, with the increasing incidence of soldier suicides, the army has turned to yoga. And already arrangements are being made with a yoga instructor in Iraq.

Now I get to editorialize.

As good an idea as this may seem to be, it sounds downright silly to me. Whoever’s in charge has missed the point of yoga. One of its first and most important tenets is a principle of no harm. It seems to me that, as a practice, yoga is conceptually and psychologically at odds with the soldier mentality – so much so as to make the two mutually exclusive. Simply put, the violence required of the military profession does not accommodate the successful practice of yoga. Practiced this way, it will become a meaningless waste of time and serve only to confuse rather than enlighten.

Well, that’s my two cents. And I’ve since remembered why I rabidly avoid the newspaper.[tags]newspaper article, army, post traumatic stress disorder, ptsd, vietnam veterans, iraq, afghanistan, soldier, military[/tags]

9 Responses to “Combat Yoga”

  1. Angie says:

    I think it’s great to see that Yoga is being used in the military to help people cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

  2. Hi Allistair,
    I think my opinion would have echoed yours until recently. I’d like to tell a quick story. I received a call from a young army private recently. He had found one of my postcards and was standing outside my building with his wife. He was on leave from Iraq and was shipping out in a couple of days. for another 16 months. He wanted to take a semi-private yoga class with he and his wife. We made an appointment for a couple of hours later. The first thing that hit me was how young and soft these folks were. I had a hard time seeing him as a warrior. Yet here he was. He wanted to share the gift of yoga with his beloved before he shipped out. In there two years of marriage they had spent more time apart than together. He kept calling me sir. I told him he could call me Shawn. He started calling me Mr. Shawn. He had taken some yoga instruction in Iraq. He said that it helped calm his mind. That is exactly the purpose of yoga as described by Patanjali. We started with an Aum. I had them bring awareness to their breathing and their bodies. They went deep into themselves as I guided them through postures having them reflect often to their connection to the earth, their hearts, to their breath, and in while in tadasana they held hands and connected with one another. They warmed down, had a short meditation, and took savasana. When finished they had a beautiful transformed glow. The private said to me “something life changing just happened for me”.

    My job as a yoga therapist and teacher is to offer the opportunity for change in my students. It isn’t for me to judge whether they are worthy or not. I offered an opportunity for inner exploration, peace, connection. The experience brought us all one more step toward aligning with, then merging, the devine; the ultimate purpose of yoga. Ahimsa, Brhamacharia, any of the yamas, niyamas, chanting, meditating are in service of bringing us closer to merging with The Universal Consciousness. This reminds of a t-shirt design that said. The purpose of life is soccer. Everything else is details.

  3. Allistair says:

    Yes, I do see how yoga is beneficial to individuals with any sort of stress disorder. And I certainly recognize that soldiers are exactly the sorts of people who are likely to have high-stress lives. I further recognize that soldiers shouldn’t need to suffer PTSD. I don’t, however, think that they’re going about it in an appropriate manner, rather an offensive one.

    Here’s why.

    Stress is caused and alleviated by many different things. In the case of the soldier, stress is inherent to their profession: shooting and being shot at. They are trained in the arts of survival and violence. This part is key.

    If one of yoga’s central teachings is a principle of utter non-violence, then true practice of yoga includes refraining from violent activities, soldiering being one of them. Thus, successfully teaching yoga to soldiers should result in the dissolution of the military. A brilliant and maximally desirable outcome, I think, but unrealistic.

    Instead, yoga is being used by the military only in certain aspects (or perversions if you’ll allow me to editorialize) as a means of staving off the stress that naturally accumulates in an aggressive profession. They’ve hand-picked the aspects of yoga that they want to benefit from and have tossed aside the spiritual/ethical/intellectual tenets which support the practice in the first place.

    You are right, Shawn, you yourself said that you “offered an opportunity for inner exploration, peace [and] connection.” How is this soldier supposed to feel about this life-changing experience while stationed on the front? Has this connection with peace actually engendered peace as yoga should or is he still a soldier?

    No, what they are doing in the military is not yoga. It is something else. Something far more ideologically dangerous.

  4. Amber says:

    I am actually doing research on using yoga therapy with people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition, I use yoga in my psychotherapy practice to help people heal from trauma. Whether the trauma comes from war or other forms of abuse we humans inflict on one another, I have seen yoga heal wounds that other therapies could not. One thing to consider, Alistair, is that by treating soldiers returning from war with yoga therapy, we offer them an opportunity to return to productive citizenship and speak out about the horrors they witnessed. This is the slow process of societal change.

    We might choose to see our soldiers as victims themselves… of a society that values violence, of broken education systems that leave young people with few choices but to join the military, of dualistic nationalism. Yoga in the military could have the effect of eventually eliminating the need for the military, but in the meantime to deny soldiers access to yoga is in itself a form of avidya and antithetical to the concept of ahimsa.

  5. Allistair says:

    Oh, no one said anything about denying soldiers anything – certainly not those returning from the war. Stress and trauma is lamentable, to be sure, and deserving of relief.

    I think people are missing the larger point here. I only have a problem with the mindset of those who decided it was appropriate to introduce yoga on the front lines. They clearly understand enough about violence to know that it’s stressful. But they only understand enough about Yoga to know it’s de-stressing. Then they put the two together without any second consideration. These soldiers are taught yoga and expected to carry on soldiering the next day.

    So, while the practice of yoga may be beneficial to soldiers and their rising stress-levels, it is in principle disrespectful to yoga as a coherent, unified, belief-system. Yoga is ideologically incompatible with violence, but here it is being used by the army to ensure that the soldiers are staying mentally healthy enough to continue soldiering; to extend or improve their violent careers. To introduce Yoga to soldiers is either the height of stupidity or the pinnacle of arrogance. You decide which you’d prefer in your politicians.

    Granted, I agree that for the soldiers yoga is better than nothing, but what I’m especially concerned about is the trend indicated by decisions such as these. It’s wonderful that the soldiers, victims of society in this respect, have support. It is, however, terrifying that those making the decisions are being less than thorough in their considerations.

  6. superman says:

    This is a very interesting article Santiago but I think you are being a little short sited (no offense). Please let me explain. To begin with it is important to truly understand who a soldier is. It is not what you see in the movies. I have been in the Army for over 15 years and I consider myself a soldier of peace, not a soldier of war. I don’t want to commit violence or hurt others. I serve so that others don’t have to. I will grudgingly use violence, but only as a last resort.

    Now getting be to yoga. I have actually recently started to get into yoga through what you would call a perversion of yoga. I started doing yoga as part of a video fitness program called P90X. In this case Yoga is used purely for fitness and to aid in soreness recovery and to improve overall flexibility. OK, so this might be a perversion and not pure Yoga, but it is causing me to read more about it. to look into it and see how I might go beyond simple fitness Yoga and to a more pure Yoga as you have talked about.

    By condemning the Army’s use of Yoga your missing the possibility that this could be a valuable stepping stone to people to get further into yoga. Many soldier are only in the Army for a few years and would then no longer be at odds with the purity of Yoga as you have stated.

    Please not that I understand your frustration I just hope you might see the second and third order effects that the Army’s use of Yoga might have which would be very beneficial to all.

  7. Allistair says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, Superman. I appreciate your point of view, especially given your background. I realize I may have come across fairly strongly there. I have written a follow-up blog dealing with my idea of the necessity of violence in general. I hope it will expand on the excellent discussion taking place here, and present a more sympathetic point of view. It should be posted in a few days, I’d love to hear back from you!

  8. kowabungak says:

    It’s interesting isn’t it because really we as humans often only take the parts or pieces of any way of thinking, or religion etc that work for us as individuals.

    I might embrace one aspect of a culture but not necessarily other aspects of the culture that don’t work for me, or fit in with what I believe or need. I dont see it any different than someone who goes to the gym and uses the oliptical machines but not the weights. Or someone who believes in God and prayer but doesn’t go the Church. We pick what we need and go with it. Who is to judge really?

    Its mostly a matter of survival to the individual. We do what we need in order to help us get through the day.

    If these soldiers need to practice parts of yoga a few times a day or week in order to better survive the trauma that is war, then all the power to them.

  9. Cliff says:

    There has always been two components to yoga, one for healing (which also encompasses Ayurveda), and the other for combat. In ancient times, Indian sages developed Vedic martial arts for self-defense and combat, known as Dhanurveda. It is believed that these systems, like yoga, were revealed directly through meditation to those sages, also known as seers.

    Yoga and its potential for healing is perfectly suited for people serving in the military, esecially those suffering from PTSD.

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