Inner Oasis of Poise

Life not happening. Life is responding.

Inner Oasis of Poise

By: Paramahansa Yogananda

“All of us will have to face circumstances in which we will be sorely tempted. Even Jesus was not free from these great temptations and the Buddha as well. When cravings propel us, when we find ourselves almost helpless before them, the battle is so intense that no victory in worldly life can compare with it.

The soul needs to cut through the stifling cocoon of delusion to emerge as the butterfly of omnipresence. Voracious desire and frustration spring from nature’s activating quality (Rajas), which spawns illimitable variety and enticement, exciting us into unskillful, habit-forming actions.

The soul, having descended into the senses from the sphere of unvaried calm, becomes feverishly active with unskillful desires; anger, and habits arising from these emotions, thereby making us identify with thought and form.

The Self is motionless, unfluctuating joy. But once we wander into the activating attributes, we become the ego, and proceed, sometimes unwillingly, whirling and swirling, blindly awash in a revolving door. The wise learn how to establish and maintain, an inner oasis of poise.”

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Yoga and Spirituality

Yoga and Spirituality
By: Sri Chinmoy

I found this explanation by Sri Chinmoy and it, like many of the articles on my website, resonated with me.

Spirituality is a vast field. You can regard spirituality as a body. Inside the body is the heart. Yoga is the heart of the spiritual body.

Yoga is a Sanskrit word. It means union with God. This union is a conscious union. We are all united with God but we are not aware of it. When we practice Yoga, we become conscious of our union with God.

Why practice Yoga? There are millions and billions of people who are not practicing Yoga. We want to practice Yoga in order to be satisfied. If we are sincere to ourselves, we know that we have everything except satisfaction. Some seekers feel that everything in life has meaning only when God comes first. They feel that God is the root. When they become one with the root, the source, then everything has meaning and everything is satisfaction. The practice of Yoga can lead us to this goal.

When we enter into the field of Yoga, a few significant questions arise. Is Yoga something normal? Is Yoga something natural? Is Yoga something practical? Is Yoga something attainable? Yoga deals with God. What can be more natural and normal than dealing with God, our very creator? Yoga is something practical. Yoga is inevitable, for God will not allow any human being to remain unrealized forever. We are all seekers. Some of us are at the foot of the tree, some of us are climbing, some have already reached a great height. But we all have to climb up to the Highest, and from there we can bring down the fruit to the world at large. If we eat and do not offer the fruit to others, then God will not be satisfied.

Some seekers want God only for themselves, but this is not the highest attitude. After we have realized God, we have to do something more. We have to reveal God to the world at large. Then God wants us to do something even more significant. He wants us to manifest Him. God realization, God revelation and God-manifestation: these are the three goals that each seeker must eventually reach. Today God realization, tomorrow God-revelation, the day after tomorrow God-manifestation.

Again, God realisation has no end, God-revelation has no end, God manifestation has no end. We are aspiring to realise the highest Absolute, but the Absolute can never be bound by anything. The Absolute Supreme is always transcending His own highest transcendental Height. When we go deep within, we see that He is not satisfied with His transcendental Height. It is in self-transcendence only that He gets real satisfaction. In our case also, it is in self-transcendence that we will achieve satisfaction.

Yoga is a subject, an inner subject, This subject has to be taught and loved. In this subject, an inner cry is of paramount importance. With our outer cry we try to possess earthly material objects. With our inner cry we try to transcend the earth bound consciousness, and enter into the Heaven free consciousness.

Yoga is a subject that has to be studied. When we study, there is a student and a teacher. There are many sincere seekers who are reluctant to have a teacher. They say that God is inside the heart, so it is not necessary to have a teacher. The Master says, “True, God is inside you. He is inside everything. God is also inside the books that you can read in the library. Why, then, do you go to the university and study under the guidance of a teacher? You study with the help of a teacher because you feel that when you study with him you will learn faster and you will be sure that what you learn is correct, whereas if you study alone, you will go slowly and doubt may assail you and make you think that you are not learning the right thing. In the spiritual life also, a teacher is necessary.

The spiritual teacher is not like an ordinary teacher who gives examinations and passes or fails the student. Rather, he is like a private tutor. The spiritual teacher expedites our journey and increases our thirst for Truth, Light and Bliss. In the spiritual life, the teacher and the student have a relationship founded upon mutual faith and trust. The student feels that the teacher has the capacity to illumine him. The teacher feels that the student is sincere and aspiring.

No human being can be the real Master. The real Master, the real spiritual teacher, the real Guru is not a human being at all. The real Guru is the Absolute Supreme. The human being who is a spiritual teacher is like the elder member of the family. The Father has taught the eldest son a few things about inner height and inner power. The Father has told the eldest son, “I have taught you. Now it is your duty to be of service to Me, to help your younger brothers come to Me so that I can also share with them My infinite Wisdom and Light.” The eldest son listens to the dictates of the Father and takes the younger brothers who are meant to listen to him to their common Father, the real Guru, who is God Himself.

There are sincere teachers and false teachers, just as there are real coins and false coins. How can we recognise a false teacher? If a teacher says he will give God-realization or a spiritual experience in the twinkling of an eye, then rest assured that he is a false teacher. The teacher who says that he will give you God realization if you give him a large amount of money is a false teacher.

Creator and creation. We are fond of the creation but not of the Creator. But inside the creation is the Creator. Again, if we are afraid of the creation and run toward the Creator, that is also a mistake. If we feel that the creation does not have anything to offer, we are making a mistake. Real Yoga will never ask us to renounce the world. We have to accept, transform and divinise the world and bring perfect Perfection onto this earth.

The world has everything except peace of mind. We get peace of mind when we feel that the world can go on without us, but that we cannot go on without the world. We have to know that we are not indispensable; only God is indispensable. When we come to this realization, only then can we have peace of mind. When we have peace of mind, we love humanity, we expand and spread our wings. When we love humanity, we are satisfied because we have satisfied God.

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Yoga, Spirituality & Dharma

Understanding Sanatana Dharma

Yoga, and meditation are terms that the vast majority of us are familiar with. What most people are not quite as familiar with, however, are the ancient, rich and profoundly spiritual dimensions of these terms. Yoga and meditation are infinitely more that just a series of calming and effective physical and mental exercises. Rather, Yoga and meditation are an ancient and rich spiritual tradition, philosophy and lifestyle designed to help human beings realize the highest degree of excellence in all they do, and ultimately to know themselves and God.

Sanatana Dharma is another, lesser known, name for the path of Yoga Spirituality. In fact, it can be truthfully said that the practical techniques of Yoga are nothing less than the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma in practice. 

Sanatana Dharma is the world’s most ancient culture and the spiritual path of almost one billion of the earth’s inhabitants. Followers of Sanatana Dharma are known as Dharmis (“followers of Dharma”). Though the majority of followers today are Indian (South Asian), Sanatana Dharma is a global spiritual path that has adherents from almost every nationality, race and ethnic group in the world, including an ever-increasing number of Americans. There are approximately 5 million followers in America, of which roughly a third are from India and the majority (3.5 million) are non-Indian Americans (Whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, etc.). Statistics aside, Sanatana Dharma represents much more than just a religion in the normative sense of the term; rather, it provides its followers with an entire way of life and with a coherent and rational view of reality.

Sanatana Dharma is by its very essence a term that is devoid of sectarian leanings, denominational prejudices, or ideological divisions. This is evident by the meaning of the very term itself. The two words, “Sanatana Dharma”, come from the ancient Sanskrit language. “Sanatana” is a Sanskrit word that denotes “that which does not cease to be”, “that which is eternal”. 

The word “Dharma”, on the other hand, is a term that is only properly rendered into the English language with a bit of difficulty. This is the case because the word “Dharma” is describing, not an object, but rather a profound philosophical concept. Its approximate meaning is “Natural Law,” or “the Natural Way”, or those principles of reality which are inherent in the very nature and design of the universe itself. 

Thus the term “Sanatana Dharma” can be roughly translated to mean “The Eternal Natural Way.” 

Dharma – Natural Law – is universal. Dharma is eternal. Dharma is nothing less than God’s laws as they are manifest in the natural world around us. Sanatana Dharma is referring to those natural principles and ways of being that are in concert with the Absolute. Being a direct reflection of God’s will in this world, such principles are therefore axiomatic, or unalterable, laws of the cosmos. The term Sanatana Dharma is not referring to something that is open to alteration, speculation or human manipulation. Neither is Sanatana Dharma referring merely to some denominational faith or sectarian belief system. The principles of Dharma are transcendent and eternal laws, and thus applicable to all people for all time. 

Sanatana Dharma – the Eternal Natural Way – is the metaphysical basis of all true spirituality. 

To give an example of the eternal and natural origin of Dharma, we can compare it to many of the principles of science. The laws of gravity, mathematics or logic, for example are not open to sectarian debate or relative opinion. They transcend sectarian belief, and are true regardless of our belief or disbelief in them. 

Gravity, for example, is an inherent law of nature regardless of whether one believes in the law of gravity or not. It’s not that gravity works for Roman Catholics, but it won’t work from Scottish Presbyterians! Rather, anyone who walks off a roof will end up with the same effect: falling to the ground below. Similarly the subtle, metaphysical laws of God known as Dharma transcend all partisan concerns and sectarian affiliation. 

Referring to this eternal concept of Dharma by the term “Tradition”, the great Italian philosopher Julius Evola explains Dharma’s universality and eternal nature in this way: “Tradition, in its essence, is something simultaneously meta-historical and dynamic: it is an overall ordering force, in the service of principles that have the chrism of a superior legitimacy (we may even call them ‘principles from above’). This force acts through the generations, in continuity of spirit and inspiration, through institutions, laws, and social orders that may even display a remarkable variety and diversity.” (Julius Evola, Men Among the Ruins, pg.115) 

Whether known by the terms Dharma, Tradition, Natural Law, or any other term, the essential nature of Dharma is eternal, universal and axiomatic. 

Teachings of Sanatana Dharma 

Followers of Dharma Spirituality (Dharmis) believe in one, all-pervasive and all-loving Supreme Being. Though worshiped in different ways, and by different names, in a variety of ways, there is ultimately only one God. God is not Hindu, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Rather, God is the ultimate inspiration of all sects and religions, and this is the case whether any particular religion acknowledges this truth or not. 

Sanatana Dharma teaches panentheistic monotheism – the principle that God is both transcendent and immanent in all things. God is omnipresent in all things. There is no where in which God is not present. God is further away than the furthest star, and closer to you than your own soul. God has unlimited divine names and positive attributes, all of which share fully in God’s transcendent nature. 

Every living being is a spiritual being in our deepest-most essence. Our true nature is one of pure spirit (atman). Not all beings, however, may be aware of the fact of their true spiritual nature at present. Thus, we find ourselves presently in a state of illusory separation from God. In reality, of course, we can never be truly separated from God. But we can have the illusion of separation. Our reason for being in existence is to spiritually evolve toward the eventual goal of re-union with God. Dharma teaches that God’s desire is that all living beings will ultimately attain liberation, or moksha. 

Personal spiritual development occurs through the closely related processes of karma and reincarnation. The individual soul undergoes the cycle of repeated birth and death – this is known as the wheel of samsara. During each earthly manifestation, an individual’s karma (literally ‘work’ or ‘actions’) determines her future psycho-physical state. Every ethically good act performed by someone results, sooner or later, in happiness and spiritual development; whereas ethically evil actions end only in loss and sorrow. Thus, the principle of karma is an idea that celebrates freedom, since at every moment of our lives, we are all free to create our future states of existence through our present actions and states of consciousness. This philosophical world-view encourages Dharmis to live happily, morally, consciously and humbly, following the path of Eternal Natural Way. 

The Path 

The Dharma way of life has many important facets. Sanatana Dharma is a way of life that is deeply rooted in a sense of ethical concern. Among the many other virtues that Sanatana Dharma seeks to instill in its followers is the principle of non-violence (ahimsa) towards all beings, and compassion for all life. This sense of love and compassion is directed toward animals and the Earth, as well as all of our fellow humans beings. As a result of these highly ethical standards, Dharmis are vegetarians and strongly pro-environment. The personal goal of every follower of Dharma Spirituality is to live life in such a way that she harms none and benefits all whom she encounters. 

In addition, it is taught by Sanatana Dharma that the spirit of service and selfless work for others (known in Sanskrit as the principle of seva) bring one’s consciousness closer to that of God. Consequently, it is quite common to witness followers of Dharma Spirituality engaging in a myriad of charitable and educational activities. 

For Sanatana Dharma, practical importance is also placed on studying the ancient Vedic scriptures (such as the famous Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Yoga Sutras and Narada Bhakti Sutras), temple worship (puja), sacred ritual and personal acts of meaningful spiritual purification. 

Yoga and meditation practice are also essential aspects of Sanatana Dharma. The true goal of both being to achieve self-realization and God-consciousness.

The Art of Reason 

Perhaps one of the most beautiful aspects of this ancient spiritual path is its tolerance of other people’s cultures, religions, and views. Dharmis believe that “God is one; though sages call Him by many different names” (Rig Veda). Indeed, Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharyaji (one of the most respected and important Dharma teachers alive today) has said that “Sanatana Dharma is the only religion in the world that doesn’t believe that it is the only religion in the world!” 

Within the nurturing framework of this path is a tremendous spiritual freedom that encourages and provokes followers of Dharma to think, learn, explore and look inside themselves for the meaning of Sanatana Dharma and of life itself. Dharma encourages us to use both our heads and our hearts in how we make decisions and how we approach God. We must use both our God-given ability to discern Truth from untruth, in addition to using compassion and love in all important decisions. Sanatana Dharma is a path of reason coupled with compassion. There is no room for fanaticism, fundamentalism, or closed-mindedness anywhere in Sanatana Dharma. 

How Can I Become a Follower of Dharma Spirituality?

You may actually be one already…and just don’t know it. There are approximately 5 million followers of Sanatana Dharma currently residing in the United States. About 1.5 million of those are of South Asian (Indian) ethnic heritage. The other 3.5 million are non-Indian Americans who accept and practice the teachings of Sanatana Dharma. While most of these 3.5 million non-Indian Americans follow the practices of Sanatana Dharma, believe in many of the most important teachings of Sanatana Dharma, even have gurus (spiritual teachers) or Sanskrit names, despite all these facts, many do not necessarily consciously identify themselves with Sanatana Dharma. Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya has termed these non-Indian Dharmis the “Hidden Hindus” of America.

Here is a test to know if you are already a follower of Sanatana Dharma, and are possibly just not consciously aware of it:

  1. Do you practice any form of Yoga?
  2. Are you a vegetarian?
  3. Do you read the Bhagavad Gita, or other Vedic literature often?
  4. Do you practice meditation?
  5. Do you believe in the process of karma and reincarnation?

If your answers to at least four of the above is “Yes”, then you are already following Sanatana Dharma. You are a Dharmi! Sanatana Dharma welcomes all sincere seekers who wish to adopt Sanatana Dharma as their spiritual path. These are a few things you can do to get started in your practice of a Dharmic lifestyle. By protecting Dharma and supporting your spiritual teacher, you can become a great example for your community. 

There is no formal conversion process for becoming a follower of Dharma. After all, how does a person “convert” to the Way of Nature? In order to be welcomed into the Sanatana Dharma community, you simply need to have a well-informed understanding and personal acceptance of the principles of Dharma, and to then declare yourself a Dharmi (follower of Sanatana Dharma). You may want to then deepen your understanding and practice of Dharma by incorporating a serious spiritual practice into your daily life. The following steps will help you with this deepening of your practice. 

  1. Study the philosophy and teachings of Dharma.
  2. Adopt a healthy spiritual lifestyle, including vegetarianism, and following the ethical principles of Dharma.
  3. Practice regular spiritual meditation, mantras and puja.

If you would like to to better understand, appreciate, and consciously practice this wonderful spiritual tradition and how you can practice this path more thoroughly and meaningfully, we hope you will join us on for a class, retreats, or workshop. YogaBoundDeb

Military Battle PTSD With Yoga

Military Battle PTSD With Yoga
By: David Wood

(This is a subject close to my heart. Having a father that was a lifer in the Army, I witnessed first hand, the debilitating, and devastating impact of war on those that had to fight it. As well as their families. Thank you to my friend Annie, and all those that are working to make the transition for these amazing men and women more positive, healthy and manageable.)

For a decade, troops returning from war with mental and physical trauma have been dosed with cocktails of numbing drugs and corralled into talk-therapy sessions, often with civilian clinicians who have no experience in combat and its aftereffects.

But alarmingly high suicide rates among veterans, as well as domestic violence, substance abuse and unemployment, suggested to some military doctors, combat commanders and researchers that conventional treatments aren’t always enough. 

Now, one proven, effective treatment is gaining wide acceptance within hard-core military circles: yoga. 

Once dismissed as mere acrobatics with incense, yoga has been found to help ease the pain, stiffness, anger, night terrors, memory lapses, anxiety and depression that often afflict wounded warriors.

“It’s cleansing — I really feel refreshed,” Marine Sgt. Senio Martz said after finishing a recent yoga session. 

A stocky 27-year-old, Martz was leading his nine-man squad on a foot patrol through the lush poppy fields and rock outcroppings of the Kajaki district of southern Afghanistan 20 months ago when a roadside bomb knocked him unconscious and killed or wounded the Marines under his command. The blast put an end to his plans for a career in the Marine Corps. It also left him hyper-vigilant, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, and carrying the joint burdens of guilt and shame: As a squad leader, it had been his responsibility to bring his nine Marines home safe. 

“It’s a feeling of regret — failure — that really affects me now,” he said. “I didn’t see the signs that could have alerted me to warn them to get away.” He stared at the floor and then looked up with a tight smile. “I go on living where their lives have ended. I can’t help them now.” 

Yoga gives him relief from the acute anxiety that forces him to listen to and sight-sweep everything around him, constantly checking the doors and windows, always on alert, poised for danger, with no break. It is hard for him to let go. 

“I gotta push myself to try some of these techniques,” he admitted. “But last night after yoga, I had a good sleep. That’s a place I haven’t been in a long, long time.” 

Martz’s experience is backed up by reams of scientific studies, including research funded by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Researchers have demonstrated that trauma-sensitive yoga, which focuses on stretching, breathing techniques and meditation, can help patients regain their inner balance, calming that part of the brain that has become hyper-aroused under severe stress. 

Trauma or prolonged stress can cause a malfunction of the parasympathetic nervous system, researchers say. That’s the part of the brain which enables the body to relax, easing pain and even helping unblock digestive systems — often a problem for wounded troops who get high doses of medication and not enough exercise. 

In war zones, researchers have found, this parasympathetic nervous system often becomes “frozen” as the body gears up for danger by injecting adrenaline into the bloodstream, causing rapid breathing and pulse and hyper-vigilance — the “fight or flight” response. 

That’s good and necessary self-preservation in times of peril that helps keep troops alert and alive. Back home, however, that hyper-vigilance is out of place and can cause insomnia, anxiety and outbursts of anger. Returning warriors with PTSD become dependent on drugs or alcohol “because they have no other way to calm themselves down,” said Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a clinician and researcher who has studied PTSD since the 1970s. 

Not all yoga helps. Some forms of yoga are used by special forces, for instance, to build muscle power and flexibility. But yoga teachers working with wounded troops have developed trauma-sensitive forms of yoga, including a technique called iRest. This adaptation uses meditation techniques in a soft and secure setting to reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system by drawing the patient’s attention and consciousness inward, rather than focusing on stress and the terrors that dwell outside, said yoga teacher Robin Carnes. 

For instance, Carnes has learned that when she is giving a class to troops with hyper-vigilance, like Martz, she should first open all the closet doors and drawers, so that her patients don’t spend all their time fretting about what might be inside.

In 2006 Carnes, a veteran yoga practitioner and teacher, began working with wounded troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, now located outside Washington, D.C. There, she was an instructor in a Pentagon-funded program to examine the feasibility of using iRest yoga nidra as an adjunct treatment for PTSD symptoms. After the study was completed, she was hired as the yoga and iRest instructor for a Pentagon-funded multidisciplinary treatment program for patients with acute PTSD and TBI. She later established an organization called Warriors at Ease to train and certify teachers to use the techniques with the military. 

Drawing from traditional yoga, trauma-sensitive yoga teaches patients to firmly plant their feet and activate their leg muscles in poses that drain energy and tension from the neck and shoulders, where they naturally gather, causing headaches and neck pain. 

“The goal here is to move tension away from where it builds up when you are stressed, and focus it on the ground so you feel more balanced and connected,” Carnes said. 

When she started at Walter Reed, she said, she was working with eight wounded troops with physical and mental health injuries. Some hadn’t slept for more than two hours at a time, for years, she said. “They were immediately like, ‘I can’t do this, it won’t work, you have no idea what’s going on in my brain.’ I’d say, ‘Just try it, it’s helped others.’ And probably because they were desperate — nothing else had worked, including drugs — they did try it. And I saw, sometimes within the first day, they started to relax. Snoring! They’d tell me, ‘I don’t know what happened, but I feel better.'” 

One of her patients was struggling with outbursts of violent anger, a common effect of PTSD, and had gotten into raging arguments with his wife. Several weeks into regular yoga classes, he went home one day “and his wife lit into him and he could feel a confrontation coming on,” Carnes said. “He told me that he’d taken a deep breath and told his wife he was going upstairs to meditate. And that was the first time he’d been able to do that.” 

Practices like iRest and other forms of yoga are so clearly effective that now they are taught and used at dozens of military bases and medical centers — even at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk, Va., home of the Navy SEALs, the branch of commandos who killed Osama bin Laden. 

“I knew anecdotally that yoga helped — and now we have clinical proof of its impact on the brain, and on the heart,” said retired Rear Adm. Tom Steffens, a decorated Navy SEAL commander and yoga convert. Within the military services and the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said, “I see it growing all the time.”

Steffens, an energetic man with a booming voice, first tried yoga to deal with his torn bicep, an injury that surgery and medication hadn’t helped. He quickly became a convert, practicing yoga daily. Visiting with wounded SEALs a decade ago, he noticed that “the type of rehab they were doing was wonderful, but there was no inward focus on themselves — it was all about power as opposed to stretching and breathing.”

Before long, Steffens had helped start a foundation, Exalted Warrior, that holds yoga classes for wounded troops and their families at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia, the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Fla., and elsewhere. 

The military’s embrace of yoga shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, yoga — a Sanskrit word meaning to “join” or “unite” — dates back to 3,000 B.C., and its basic techniques were used in the 12th century when Samurai warriors prepared for battle with Zen meditation. Still, some old-timers are shocked to find combat Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and amputees at James A. Haley VA Medical Center practicing their Downward Dog and deep breathing techniques. 

One early skeptic: Thomas S. Jones, a wiry retired Marine major general who likes to mask his love for Marines with a staccato parade-ground bark and a jut-jawed, prove-it approach to life. 

Some years ago Jones started inviting wounded Marines to an intense, six-day retreat at a camp in the mountains of Pennsylvania to help them figure out what to do with the rest of their lives, to set goals and start working toward them. He quickly found that the Marines, struggling with physical wounds and PTSD, had trouble focusing. Someone mentioned that yoga might help. “Well, we’ve tried some ideas that didn’t work out and we threw them away,” Jones said dismissively, “but we’ll try it.” 

And? “It has helped,” Jones told The Huffington Post in a slightly disbelieving voice. Yoga has since become a centerpiece of the retreat, called Semper Fi Odyssey. “This whole idea of relaxation, there’s a lotta guys who can’t do hardly anything physical, can still do yoga. And there’s a lot of value in meditation.” 

The results, Jones and others have discovered, are indisputable. 

A study published earlier this year of 70 active-duty U.S. troops, then-based at Forward Operating Base Warrior, in Kirkuk, Iraq, found that daily yoga helped relieve anxiety, reduced irritability and improved sleep — even amid daily “gunfire and helicopter sounds.” 

Progressive relaxation, calming breathing and relaxation techniques “reduce physical, emotional, mental and even subconscious tension that characterizes PTSD,” according to retired Air Force Maj. Nisha N. Money, a physician who recently served as chief of fitness policy for the Air Force.

“Guys with trauma — their center is out there,” said Annie Okerlin, flinging her arm outward. She’s a yoga expert who works with wounded warriors, families and staff therapists at the VA hospital in Tampa, Walter Reed and elsewhere. “What we do is gently and sweetly bring them back to their center, here,” she said, touching her chest.

Much of her work is with amputees. “I always tell the guys, ‘Your brain still thinks your leg is there, so we are going to speak to your brain as if your limb IS still there,”’ she said. “I tell them to flex the foot — spread your toes! — and the brain goes, ahhh, that feels good, I’m stretching — even though that limb is no longer there. It settles the brain down, because it’s doing its job, the blood flow increases, guys can feel their body again, the trauma fades. It’s beautiful!” 

Working at Walter Reed, she once came across a double, above-the-knee amputee, who had been wounded by an IED. He was huddled in his hospital bed, his mother perched beside him on the edge of a chair, and for weeks he had refused to move, even for his physical therapy sessions. He admitted he was ashamed to be seen with his stumps twitching. Okerlin sat with him, leading him through some gentle breathing exercises. She could see him relax, and after a few minutes he fell asleep. 

The next day he showed up for his physical therapy appointment to begin the healing. 

With partially-paralyzed patients, Okerlin often has them lie on their back, put their hands on their rib cage and feel their breathing. One patient told her he was amazed to find he could feel a rush of energy toward his legs even though he still had no sensation in his legs. 

Okerlin recently spent several days at a Semper Fi Odyssey retreat, teaching yoga and iRest to Marines with physical wounds, PTSD or traumatic brain injury. She has a warm and engaging style and works to establish a non-threatening environment in her sessions. “People who’ve been traumatized have lost their ability to feel secure,” she said. 

As the wounded Marines settled onto floor mats, she told them, “You can close your eyes if that feels comfortable, but I will have my eyes open all the time watching,” emphasizing that they are safe and can relax. “There’s no wrong way to do this,” she said. “Are there any head injuries here?” she asked, and a wiseguy in the class called out, “We’re ALL head injuries!” to general chuckles. 

At one point she had them on their backs, knees drawn up and held by their arms, a posture she tells them “massages the descending colon.” “This will help ensure you have that morning constitutional,” she told them cheerfully as they gently rocked back and forth. 

Soon she had them focusing all their attention on their breathing, urging them to feel how each inward and outward breath lightly traces their spine. “Now I’m going to turn the lights out,” she said softly, “in three, two … one. If you fall asleep, that’s fine. If you’re snoring too loudly, I will come by and touch you on your right shoulder.” 

On the mat next to Sgt. Martz were two Marines. One was Billy Wright, 49, who did two combat tours in Lebanon in 1983 and was later paralyzed from the chest down in a car wreck. He uses yoga breathing exercises to loosen up his muscles and joints that stiffen from long periods in his wheelchair. “Even lying on my back I can feel my hips flex,” he said. “Sitting in the chair, they get real tight and this loosens them up.” 

The other was 24-year-old Joshua Boyd from Dry Fork, Va., a Marine lance corporal who did two combat tours in Iraq and came home wounded, with PTSD and mild TBI. He lost a good friend, a fellow Marine, who was killed by an IED. “They had stuck it inside a culvert,” Boyd said. “I had just gotten to Iraq and didn’t have IED training and I didn’t know what to look for. I didn’t look where I should have. It was my fault.” 

After the blast, he said, he and his platoon collected the body parts.

At night, Boyd often jackknifes awake, yelling and sweating, dreaming of an intense firefight he experienced in Iraq in 2007. During this recurring dream, his wife is there in the middle of the battle and his buddies have abandoned them both while insurgents are closing in on them. He can feel them sense his weakness. 

“I do have trouble sleeping,” he said sheepishly. During the long nights, he is often either deep in his nightmare, or terrified he is about to have it again. 

But yoga has helped change the way he sleeps and dreams. “Yesterday I did the iRest session. I fell asleep,” he said. “When I got done, I felt so much more energized. I haven’t felt like that for years.”

Clarification: Language has been added to indicate that Carnes was an instructor in a Pentagon-funded program to study iRest techniques and PTSD.

Yoga Warriors

Yoga Warriors
By: David Wood

David Wood writes about a tool increasingly used to help veterans confront the many challenges waiting for them when they return home from war zones: yoga. There’s a growing consensus among military doctors, researchers, and veterans themselves, that conventional treatments aren’t always enough to help vets navigate the consequences of PTSD — from unemployment and domestic violence to substance abuse, anxiety, and suicide. As Wood puts it, “Once dismissed as mere acrobatics with incense, yoga has been found to help ease the pain, stiffness, anger, night terrors, memory lapses, anxiety and depression that often afflict wounded warriors.” 

The embrace of yoga — especially among onetime skeptics in “hard-core military circles” — is a step forward in our efforts to give veterans the care they need and deserve. It’s also in line with the latest research and thinking about the destructive force of stress in our lives. The adrenaline-fueled hyper-vigilance that’s so vital to our soldiers in combat zones becomes, for many, a nightmare of anxiety that makes it difficult to function when they come back home. That was the case for Sgt. Senio Martz, a 27-year-old Marine who was knocked unconscious by a roadside bomb when leading his squad through southern Afghanistan in 2011. Today, yoga relieves him from the need to closely monitor his surroundings during the day — an obsession that was also keeping him up at night. “Last night after yoga, I had a good sleep,” he says. “That’s a place I haven’t been in a long, long time.” 

Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs researchers have found that yoga’s stretching, breathing techniques and meditation can help calm the part of the brain that the stresses of war kicks into a state of hyper-arousal. And more and more yoga teachers are bringing these practices to the vets who need them. Robin Carnes, who helped develop a program called iRest, found that meditation helps draw patients’ attention inward, away from outside stresses. She also founded “Warriors at Ease,” which trains and certifies yoga teachers to bring calming yoga practices to even more soldiers in need. 

As Wood writes, using yoga to help returning veterans isn’t as surprising as it might seem. “After all, yoga — a Sanskrit word meaning to ‘join’ or ‘unite’ — dates back to 3,000 B.C., and its basic techniques were used in the 12th century when Samurai warriors prepared for battle with Zen meditation.” As more and more skeptics are convinced, and as yoga becomes further ingrained in our military hospitals, that means more veterans will be making deep breathing and Downward Dog part of their recovery regimens.