I just returned to a U.S base after being out with my team on a four-day mission that most definitely had us on our toes, heightened vigilance for the majority of the time. However, there was a beautiful moment of reprieve this morning as I awoke in the dirt, behind a rock wall… — Sergeant David Thomas Welker, assistant team leader in Scout platoon, 2/12 Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division
As a country, we’re in an internal battle amidst a nine-year war in Iraq and continuing occupation in the Middle East. Stay or go? While our country and political factions remain in a tug of war, the impact on our soldiers’ health reverberates throughout America. The emotional and physical embedding of stress is undisputed fact. The shame, suicides, and stress-triggered homicides are giving rise to a national outcry regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD affecting an estimated one in five of the 2.6 million service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, there are heightening efforts to dissolve the social stigma around PTSD.
It led me to ask, “How can we support the strength and healing of our service members?” This question draws me back to an emphatic statement from my yoga teacher Krishnamacharya: “There is only one illness, stress that manifests as all symptoms.” Beginning at the age of 20, I had the privilege of studying with Professor T. Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern yoga. Krishnamacharya’s insight on stress is now confirmed by modern science. Harvard reports that stress may “contribute to or exacerbate various health problems.”
Stress is undeniably linked to mind and body, and there must be a mind and body practice to respond to this illness. We can be grateful for pain, which he called, “the unavoidable motive of practice.” It is the first sign of a healing process at work. From here we begin yoga and move from pain to pleasure, passion and peace.
I was touched to receive a personal account from Sgt. David Welker, who began practicing breath-based yoga as given in my book The Promise. David reported after practicing The Promise yoga for eight months:
I awoke in the dirt, behind a rock wall, and I just laid there for a few minutes, observing and allowing my breath to continue moving just as it had while I was asleep (I presume). I was somewhat amazed at the relaxed state of my body, and I so thoroughly enjoyed the conscious moment of ease, especially throughout my chest and torso, as my ribs expanded as effortlessly as I’ve ever known. Didn’t forget where I was either. So, a nice little moment amidst the madness. How does one make sense of someone that blows themselves up in attempt to kill other? Its senseless and absolutely tragic.
I believe David experienced the true power and nurturing force of nature in the midst of war and anxiety. He felt his breath moving in his body with the tangible pleasure of embodiment. This act of breathing helps reduces stress in the nervous system, mental tension drops and peace permeates, creating an awareness that returned David to this most basic state of being. Yogis would call this experience of sensitivity “being at one with” the natural state, and there is biological explanation for how this occurs. Boston Universitypublished a study on the effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system and PTSD. Through study of the vagus nerve, which is responsible for communicating the state of most organs to the central nervous system, they discovered yoga increases vagal tone. Increased vagal tone directly corresponds to the body’s capacity to process stress effectively, lowering heart rate, aiding digestion, and connecting to theparasympathetic nervous response (feed and breed response). Vagal tone is now known to increase through intentional breathing practices. As you connect with your breath, you experience the parasympathetic nervous system kick in, maximizing the function of your internal organs. From here, we relax into what ancient yogis called the natural state that is stress-free. Through this process, David embodies the human potential, experiencing peace within his body in the midst of war.
I wanted to know more about David’s yogic experience. I asked him about the impact of his practices, and he described:
My yoga practice has grown even more dear to me throughout. Several months ago, I remember describing to Jessica [Jessica gifted David The Promise] the experiences of graciousness with myself and safety within my practice — safety to allow whatever thought or feeling to comfortably arise that I would otherwise resist. She replied with a word that suitably encompasses these experiences: sanctuary.
As you can imagine, finding real sanctuary while operating in a 360-degree, 24/7 hostile zone is beyond rare. My buddies in my eight-man recon team are well aware that I derive something meaningful from my yoga. They ask me about it, and I enjoy their interest. After all, there is really no such thing as privacy, as we have spent the last seven months rarely outside of a stone’s throw of each other. Not much is capable of being kept privately. This group of guys are increasingly comfortable with the idea of yoga as something that men do too… I am happy with the thought that they now know the tools exist and are available whenever they realize a need for it.
We equip our troops with sophisticated weapons; we need to add this stress-relieving practice to their arsenal of tools. With the contemporary American adaptations of yoga into goal-oriented physical gymnastics, it’s challenging to cognize yoga’s true healing power. Without using breathing principles of the wisdom traditions, we are losing vital healing components of the practice. The Promise practice is based on the work of Krishnamacharya’s scholarship. There is now science behind these ancient rules that explain the importance of breath-based yoga. Yoga must be adapted to individual needs according to body type age, health and cultural background. There is an easy practice for everyone that is their direct intimacy with the nurturing force of life. Let’s make a promise to practice building “the sanctuary” within. Let’s use these ancient secrets that are now upheld by leading Western science!