Hatha Healing: Studio aims to mitigate PTSD in veterans

Yoga studio aims to mitigate PTSD in veterans
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One of yoga’s biggest appeals is its ability to heal people from all walks, including military veterans. Yoga Warriors, based in West Boylston, Mass., about an hour west of Boston, aims to do just that: help alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and combat stress (COSR).

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In 2005, a vet and yoga student approached Lucy Cimini at her studio, Central Mass Yoga & Wellness in Boylston, Mass., and asked if she could teach a veterans-only class at the nearby Worcester Vet Center. After leading a class of easy poses and gentle stretching, Cimini grew the first program to work with combat veterans and active-duty military personnel: Yoga Warriors.

Cimini offers two Yoga Warriors class a week at her studio. A hatha yoga teacher trained in Iyengar and restorative yoga, Cimini focuses her classes on slow, rhythmic movements, empowering poses like mountain and warrior, and gentle backbends to help stimulate the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. Deep backbends, Cimini says, bring up too much emotion and stimulate the sympathetic nervous system — “fight or flight.” “Their hearts are already racing,” she said. “They’re already in that state, all the time, so you don’t want to encourage that more. They need to slow down and get in touch with their breath, mind and body.” Based on Iyengar yoga, each Yoga Warriors class finishes with a relaxing, restorative pose followed by savasana.

In addition to calming breath and poses, Cimini uses positive affirmations in her classes, like, “I face life’s challenges with an open heart,” or “I feel steady and calm.” She says these out loud, and students repeat back to her three times. “People start to feel more positive about their lives,” she says. “They use them during the week by themselves.”

Cimini also offers the Yoga Warriors International Teacher Training, a 16-hour course, open to both existing yoga teachers and people from other professional fields, including therapists and psychologists. Already-accredited teachers will receive an official certificate, while others receive a “certificate of attendance.” In addition, this training is approved by the National Association of Social Workers, and provides attendees 16 credit hours of continuing education.

In the course, Cimini guides prospective teachers on the science behind PTSD, how to reduce triggers during a session, how to handle flashbacks, and how to design a Yoga Warriors class, plus more. She has trained more than 300 teachers across the United States.

The program is based on a 2009 study titled “Effects of Sensory-Enhanced Yoga on Symptoms of Combat Stress in Deployed Military Personnel.” Seventy military personnel in Iraq participated, with 35 taking nine yoga classes over three weeks; the other 35 did not practice yoga. The results were encouraging: The yoga proved effective in reducing anxiety. Even better: multiple active-duty personnel have taken the training “and gone right over to Afghanistan,” says Cimini. “They’re doing yoga more frequently while deployed.”

Along with the teacher training, Cimini holds a yearly retreat to the Marie Joseph Spiritual Center in Maine. It’s open to everyone, but “vets go every year and love it,” Cimini says. Central Mass Yoga gives a scholarship to a vet every year to attend the retreat.

To find out more, visit yogawarriors.com.

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