United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Tackling Injuries with Meditation, Not Medication
Veteran Tanya Boldt manages her pain with yoga moves she learns at the Memphis VA.
Veteran Tanya Boldt manages her pain with yoga moves she learns at the Memphis VA.

Veteran Tanya Boldt struggled with service-connected injuries for years. She used to associate the VA with pain and nurses drawing blood. All that changed when she started attending all-women's yoga therapy classes at the Memphis VA to treat her health problems.

"Yoga helped me to feel different about the VA," she said. "I go into a room with low lighting and peaceful music. I stretch through the pain and relax. Now whenever I think of the VA, I think of a soft, quiet place instead." The VA has become Boldt's haven away from pain.

Yoga is one of the newest forms of therapy at the hospital. Three specialized yoga courses are offered: a women's class, a seniors' class, and a mixed-gender class.

Though the stress-relieving program has only been in place for a few weeks, it's already very popular with the Veterans who try it. When asked if they plan to continue the yoga program, every Veteran answered the same way: "Definitely!"

Volunteer Joyce Smith leads the classes. In one of her training courses, the longtime yoga instructor heard that the military used yoga to treat PTSD, so she signed up to volunteer.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about yoga — that it has to be intense to work, that it's only for certain people. I thought it would be beneficial for Veterans' injuries and peace of mind. Usually when people try it, they keep coming back," she said.

Smith adapts her classes to the Veterans' injuries. Chair yoga, for example, has been a huge success. "Class participants engage in deep stretching and breathing exercises, while a bit of cardio still gets their heart rate up," said Smith. "Gentle yoga works just as well as hardcore yoga sessions," she added.

Smith thought the Veterans would love yoga — and she was right.

Her class participants have undergone internal and external changes. "I've seen decreased anxiety when talking to these patients," said Women Veterans Program Manager Kay Borgognoni. "They're feeling better, both mentally and physically."

Borgognoni was inspired to take up yoga for her own chronic back pain. "It's the one thing that helped me more than anything, including medication. Yoga makes you slow down and take your time. You begin to look at the world differently," she said.

"Decreasing stress means lower blood pressure," she added, "So yoga could play a small role in reducing fatalities of the leading cause of death in American women: heart disease."

Volunteer Joyce Smith leads yoga classes at the Memphis VA. Here, she shows a yoga pose to Veteran Mildred Raef.
Volunteer Joyce Smith leads yoga classes at the Memphis VA. Here, she shows a yoga pose to Veteran Mildred Raef.

"It's a Slice of Heaven"

Veteran Chevelle Hess enrolled in the class to ease the pain in her back, knees, and neck. "I'm learning to move a little slower with my injuries," she said. "I'm in a lot of pain, so I try to stretch as much as I can."

Smith gave Hess a meditation tape and Hess listened to it for a week straight. "I love the music," she said. "I was breathing in time to what I was listening to." Practicing yoga was so relaxing for Hess that she even stopped gritting her teeth at night.

"Between breathing and the yoga movements, a lot of physical and emotional healing can take place," said Smith. "Learning to move with your breath and deep breathing can relieve stress. Yoga helps Veterans focus on themselves and their bodies."

Boldt, with her service-connected injuries, found the yoga class through her doctor. She needed to find a way to relax, she told him.

Just her luck — Smith and her yoga mats had just arrived at the VA. Boldt tried it and immediately became a fan.

"This was something out of the traditional way of looking at things," said Boldt. "Yoga has helped me learn to stop, breathe, relax, and become more aware of where my body's hurting. I can escape out of that pain through deep breathing."

Boldt said practicing yoga is the most effective way of managing her pain — even better than her pain medication since she doesn't feel woozy like she does when taking pills.

"I will definitely continue yoga," Boldt said. "It's a slice of heaven."

By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer