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Yoga program focuses on wounded warriors

May. 18, 2013 - 11:01AM   |  
A YogaFit for Warrior program is being taught to base yoga instructors that will help those troops suffering from PTSD.
A YogaFit for Warrior program is being taught to base yoga instructors that will help those troops suffering from PTSD. (Photos courtesy of Shaye Molendyke)
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Lt. Col. Shaye Molendyke has seen the mental health effects of war up close and personal. She worked the psychiatric ward at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, and daily, she saw the invisible effects of war on troops.

“When the war first started, I saw the first trickling in of [post traumatic stress disorder] symptoms, even though it wasn’t really discussed, which was kind of odd in hindsight,” Molendyke said. “But [I saw] a lot of anxiety, depression and suicidal behavior.”

But she never knew her own injury, her background in counseling and love for yoga would one day allow her to help her fellow troops.

Trauma-sensitive approach

A severe injury forced Molendyke to hang up her running shoes and pick up a yoga DVD. That was 15 years ago. Now, when she’s not on the job in the Air Force Reserve, she’s trying to bring a new yoga program to a military installations.

The program is called YogaFit for Warriors, and it is designed with wounded warriors, emergency ­responders and those who may suffer from PTSD, stress, anxiety and other mental and physical traumas in mind.

A master trainer for YogaFit, ­Molendyke designed the program with YogaFit founder Beth Shaw and yoga therapist Kristy Manual to prepare teachers to work specifically with military members.

Molendyke, who also is an Air Force spouse based at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., will be going mostly to Army bases in the next six months, including Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Bliss, Texas; Joint Base San Antonio, and Fort Belvoir, Va., to train yoga instructors in trauma-sensitive yoga.

Molendyke said the YogaFit approach doesn’t require people to contort themselves into challenging poses, or to even do poses that make a person suffering from PTSD feel vulnerable.

“It’s accessible,” she said. “We’re not using Sanskrit. We’re speaking in terms everybody understands. We’re making it user-friendly.”

She said military members who take a YogaFit for Warriors class, or a yoga class taught by someone trained in the techniques, will be in control of their yoga practice.

“We invite people into their practice,” she said. “It’s not command oriented, and that’s a change for the military. People are used to being told ‘Do this, do this now,’ which is well suited for war. But then they come home and the pressures of war are relieved, and that’s where the symptoms of PTSD kick in ­pretty strongly.

“We give them that control back,” she said.

Stigma-free healing

Each instructor trained in YogaFit for Warriors is taught ways to modify their classes to provide safe environments for military members who might be experiencing symptoms of PTSD such as hyper-vigilance, anxiety and depression. Molendyke said that could be anything from not turning off lights, using any kind of straps, not touching someone or making sure class members never practice with their backs to a door.

Molendyke said research has shown yoga to not only be a pathway for healing PTSD, it also shows those who suffer from it are more open to accepting alternative treatments. She believes a program like YogaFit for Warriors will be a gateway to healing that isn’t happening under more traditional methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

A new study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine shows active-duty troops are using some alternative therapies — massage therapy, meditation and guided imagery therapy — for stress reduction at rates up to seven times higher than civilians.

The reason why troops are turning to these complementary and ­alternative treatments is unknown and needs more study, researchers­­concluded.

Molendyke thinks she knows at least one reason why troops are gravitating to these non-traditional methods.

“The stigma attached to being seen for PTSD in the military — you’re certainly not going to say, ‘I’m having trouble managing my emotions,’ ” she said. “What I hope happens is that people hear how yoga can help, then they go to a yoga class in their military community where someone has been trained and teaches a trauma-sensitive class ... where they’re getting help and they don’t have to self identify, or ... go and try to get in line at the VA for 18 months.”

Retired Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a former Army psychiatrist, wrote in the January issue of Psychiatric Annals that troops might be more drawn to alternative treatments because they are often offered outside of traditional mental health clinics or by civilian practitioners not involved in military health care, allowing military members to sidestep the stigma associated with mental health care.

Men welcome

While military bases are clamoring to get YogaFit for Warriors, Molendyke still has one more group of folks to convince — military men.

While both men and women in Eastern cultures embrace yoga, women are the primary teachers and practitioners in the West.

“I am a big proponent that men do better coming in the door to yoga, and are better suited to being successful because they’re strong,” she said. “They can hold poses properly for a longer time.”

Molendyke said military men in particular would likely find success in yoga because they tend to have core and upper body strength, and good body awareness from lifting weights. Flexibility is something that can be worked on.

Her dream would be to get physical training leaders and personnel at health and wellness centers trained because they’re in a good position to work with troops struggling with PTSD.

The program also is aimed at getting military spouses certified in the YogaFit for Warriors techniques, which not only would benefit the warrior in their home, but give them a portable skill.

“After seeing rates of suicide climb so dramatically in the military, something just had to be done,” Molendyke said. “I knew my YogaFit family could help heal my military family.”■

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