United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Veterans Find Contemporary Relief in Ancient Discipline
Patients and therapist performing standing yoga stretches.
Veterans stretch and strengthen their core muscles to ease lower-back pain. Left to right: Camilla Sinclair, Lisa Thompkins, Clifford Parver, Robert Carter. Photo courtesy VASDHS.

Lewis Leithner never thought he'd try a yoga class. Push-ups, running, and similar physical training activities were Lewis's style of exercise, having been in the Navy for 31 years.

But when old age crept up and Leithner's chronic back pain set in, he was ready to try anything his doctor recommended to ease his ailing back.

"Before, I'd think of yoga as some old Japanese gentlemen in meditation," Lewis recalls. "It's not like that - it's more like an exercise that teaches you how to breathe, and here I am and I'm enjoying it."

Yoga is often an excellent rehabilitation technique, and various yoga therapy programs have sprung up in VA facilities across the country in response to its effectiveness. Research has shown that yoga helps decrease pain and depression, and improves energy and mental health.

Leithner is taking a yoga class at the VA's San Diego Medical Center that caters specifically to Veterans who suffer from chronic lower-back pain. The class was started in 2003 by Dr. Sunita Baxi, who has conducted extensive research on the topic.

Baxi explains that yoga is a form of therapy that alleviates pain over time. "You cannot expect to get instant gratification from these classes," she said. "This particular class is a form of 'gentle yoga,' which focuses on postures and the lower back."

After three weeks of yoga, Leithner believes he has seen improvement because, "My wife says I don't complain as much, so I guess it helps."

Robert Carter, who is in the same class as Leithner, is also taking yoga for the first time. He hurt his back in an accident two years ago and his injury had not healed the way his physician had hoped, so he was referred to the yoga therapy class. From that point, he was screened by Dr. Baxi to verify that her specific class was right for him.

Now Carter is reaping the benefits of the holistic treatment. "I'm seeing some results already. My stress level is down, my blood pressure is down, and I've been taking fewer anti-inflammatories with yoga," Carter observed. He is grateful to have improvements to his back problems without undergoing surgery.

"Yoga is not one size fits all."

In Viera, Florida, the VA's Outpatient Clinic has recently started yoga and iRest (integrative restoration) classes as part of its Women Veterans Program. The classes are designed for a mixture of conditions including sleep problems, anxiety, fatigue, chronic pain, military sexual trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Yoga is not one size fits all. We see who is in the class and design a sequence of patterns based on the group," said Emily Hain, a yoga therapist at the Viera clinic.

Many women have participated in both the yoga and iRest classes. iRest is an expansion of yoga and is based on guided relaxation that leads to a form of meditation. "It focuses on finding strengths instead of anxiety or depression," explained Hain.

"We have women looking for coping skills with everyday life, and they are learning skills that impact their quality of life," said Diane Harness-DiGloria, Women's Health Coordinator at the clinic.

Those in the yoga and iRest classes have reported noticeable changes in their well-being. "The women still have pain and stressors, but they can cope better and deal with it," said Harness-DiGloria.

A participant from the last class session was able to wean herself from pain medications, and others noticed improvements in their quality of nightly sleep.

"It was a great experience and a good time to unwind and take time for ourselves," raved Sheila Teele, a Veteran participant of the class.

An added benefit of the women-only format was the ability to open up about women's problems, turning the class into an ad hoc support group.

Two therapists lead and assist with stretching exercises while sitting.
Each yoga class at the VA in San Diego has two instructors - one to lead the class, and the other to ensure the positions are properly achieved. Photo courtesy VASDHS.

Yoga Programs at VA Facilities

As research progresses, and as Veterans reap the benefits of yoga therapy, the idea of practicing yoga for both men and women of all ages has escalated.

"Yoga is a way to equip people with the tools to help themselves calm down, help them with sleep, and help them with pain," said Hain.

If you are interested in trying yoga for rehabilitative purposes, please consult your doctor to make sure it's right for you.

For more information about yoga and iRest programs at the VA, contact your local VA Medical Center.

Veterans not near a VA facility with a yoga program can receive four free yoga classes through www.yogaforvets.org.

By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer