Finding Your Seat • The Journey of a Veteran and Yogi with PTSD

Chris Eder is a certified Vinyasa/Hatha Interdisciplinary Yoga Instructor. His yoga journey began in 1999 after he encountered the joys of a pinched sciatic nerve and a diagnosis of Adult ADD. A friend introduced him to yoga as an alternative to pain pills and other meds. When not teaching yoga, he is working on his seva project, MalaforVets.

Chris is also the Director of Communications for Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans.

In this article for VAntage Point, he shares his journey and his thoughts on going forward.

Chris Eder, Director of Communications, Mindful Yoga Therapy for VeteransI have a hard time remembering things. I’m easily startled by my actions. I believe my doctor is either the world’s worst doctor or the most brilliant doctor. I sweat and sweat and sweat, and sleep with a mouthpiece, which I hate.

I’m a 23-year Air Force Veteran, a combat correspondent/broadcast journalist. My list of ailments reads like a novel: Attention Deficit Disorder, PTSD, sleep apnea, anxiety and general depression. Add my memory problems to this list. If that weren’t enough, the doctors have found a growth on my brain. (The good news is it is NOT cancer.) I absolutely hate taking medications because my body has a tough time with them. With that said, I firmly understand there is a time and place for meds and currently, I’m taking several.

Did I mention I’m also a yoga instructor?

I began practicing yoga back in 1999 and got hooked! I’ve studied and trained with experts in areas like trauma sensitive yoga, Veterans yoga, yoga for Vets with PTSD, mindfulness and meditation. In 2007, I began teaching yoga while deployed to Baghdad. Then I transferred to Vicenza, Italy, where I taught yoga twice a week. I was able to stop taking ADD meds for several years because of my practice.

The problem is I got so wrapped up in being a care provider that I neglected to notice “I” needed some of the “medicine” I was sharing with others. To make matters worse, I was no longer comfortable in my own “seat,” with who I was. In other words, when I lead a yoga or meditation practice, everything is great. But when alone with my thoughts, it is often a nightmare.

I struggle every day with so many different questions. How could I have PTSD? I’m not an infantryman! Why is my meditation not as good as it used to be? Why can’t I sit? I know how to, but I can’t meditate. I know the benefits of food, movement, mindfulness and meditation. So why can’t I practice aparigraha – non-possessiveness – and just let go, and use my military and yoga discipline and do what I know needs to be done?

The answer is much simpler than the solution: Santosha, or acceptance, contentment. I can’t find my seat because I’m still looking for my old seat … and it turns out, that’s not mine anymore. Clearly, I’m not the same person I once was; simple logic concludes that my seat isn’t the same either.

The problem is my wounds and injuries are all invisible. When I look at myself in the mirror – minus the wrinkles, hair loss, etc. – I still see a very able person who rightly should be able to do anything, to include being the same “me” I once was. But I can’t, so my challenge is how can I accept and be content with who I am now.

I found my answer in two different locations.

My friend JT is a wildly successful military photojournalist. I heard him talking to a class of brand-new photojournalists about a mistake he made as a young photojournalist. Turns out, he was constantly in friendly competition with another photojournalist who aspired to be just like Joe McNally, an established photographer. But after JT saw the work of another military photojournalist whose work he admired, he realized he needed to stop worrying about what others were doing and find what made himself special. Once JT found his “seat” in photography, he began to take some incredible images. Today, he is the reigning Military Photojournalist of the Year, an award he has won an unprecedented seven times.

The second place that I found my answer was within me. As a yoga instructor, I find myself spending a lot of time doing three things.

First, I’m always looking for new ways to say the same thing in as many different ways as possible, as it’s important that I can relate to my students who have different points of reference. Second, I make sure everyone knows that everybody’s body is different. Don’t worry about what the yogi to your left or right looks like in pose or what others can do that looks better than you – focus on your body and your pose, and commit to giving yourself your best.

Finally, I’m always encouraging my students to be the best they can be for themselves.

What I’ve come to realize is that I need to do those things, too. I need to focus on who I am now and become comfortable with that person. When I start to feel good, I know I have to keep consistent focus on myself to make sure I keep that good feeling going, because yoga and meditation are cumulative.

Most importantly, my body is not your body. Heck, my body is no longer the body I had before. There is no need for me – or you – to beat ourselves up to be someone, or something we no longer are. Just be the best you you can be. If that “you” changes, that’s okay – adjust and find your new “seat.”

Veterans' Day Fundraisers

Mindful Yoga Therapy Veterans FundraiserOver the past year, we’ve distributed 8,000 MYT Toolkits to Veterans, helping them to find peace of mind and relief from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. We have done this with help from the Give Back Yoga Foundation. We have a new goal to share free yoga, education, and Mindful Yoga Therapy Practice Guides with 30,000 Veterans by 2015. We need your help! This is a call to action to everyone who wants to support ‘Our Troops’. Our work is vital because every day, about 22 returning Veterans take their own lives. That's a low estimate. To be clear…today at least 22 families lost a loved one who had returned to them after serving our country in combat. Help us to help them!

Veteran Suicides - GraphCombat Veterans for OIF and OEF are committing suicide every single day -- this is a fact, and it is becoming a dangerous epidemic.

Did you know more veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have died from suicide than from injuries sustained in combat?

Please do something to help us turn these numbers around.

This Veterans' Day, November 11, hold a fundraiser on behalf of Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans. Maybe a donation based yoga class or be creative.

Honor the heroes who have made incredible sacrifices and who now need our help.

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Google Hangout • 9/19/13

Our first Google Hangout was on September 19.

Here, Give Back Yoga Foundation Executive Director Rob Schware and Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans founder and Director Suzanne Manafort were joined by four Veterans. A mix of experienced and aspiring yoga teachers, the group of graduates of the Mindful Yoga Therapy program engage in a lively discussion of the benefits of the program from several perspectives.

In the video, you'll meet (shown across the bottom of the video, from left to right)  Chris Eder, Ellen Magnifico, Emily McFaul, Michael Riley, Rob Schware and Suzanne Manafort.

Some notes and highlights:

  • In 2010, in response to statistics showing over 800,000 men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with some trauma, the Give Back Yoga Foundation began looking for ways to help. This resulted in the production of a toolkit, which was provided free to over 8000 Veterans and 40 hospitals.
  • At next year's Sedona Yoga Festival, a two-day pre-festival intensive will expand the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans program to hundreds of yoga teachers
  • Mindful Yoga Therapy started with asana, and evolved as breath, Yoga Nidra and meditation were added to round out what became the "toolbox." Veterans helped fine tune the program.

And some quotes:

"Mindful Yoga Therapy...struck a chord in my heart and I knew it was where I needed to be." ~Ellen

"...I'd love to take this to other vets to see if I can help them find the kind of peace that I've found in the last year and a half since I've been practicing." ~Michael

"...I figured yoga was a woman in a leotard in the background while somebody tried to sell yogurt...yoga is the single thing that helps me mitigate my symptoms more than anything else." ~Paul

"What sets Mindful Yoga Therapy apart is is number of Veterans associated with the program." ~Chris

 

A Veteran's Story

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans

I recently had the opportunity to attend a series of classes at my local VA Hospital titled Mindful Yoga Therapy that was presented by Suzanne Manafort.  I'd like to take a minute to describe my experience.

The class met twice a week for twelve weeks and was attend by both men and women of various ages with military service dating from Viet Nam to present day conflicts.  One thing we all had in common is that we are all under treatment for and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and needed a doctor's referral to attend.

The vast majority of people who were in the class I attend had zero experience with both yoga and meditation, but all were willing to try something new to relieve some of the symptoms they were suffering from which the drugs/therapy currently available don't help with.  While I describe my own experience in a minute I just wanted to mention what I observed and heard from the others in the class.

One big thing that I noticed from the first class to the last was how much more flexible everyone was during the last class compared to the first.  In general they were probably not as physically fit as they could have been at the start, but there was a definite improvement by the end of the twelve weeks.  The other thing, probably far more important to them getting into shape, was there mental state from beginning to end.  I don't know how many time I heard someone mention in class that they were sleeping much better (a serious problem with PTSD) and one or more of their other symptoms were far less troubling.  That to me was the whole reason behind the class, to show people there is a drug free way to make them feel better, something they could do in the comfort of their own home and with a regular class for guidance and motivation.  So to me, from what I saw and heard, the class was a great success.

As for myself, I spent a couple of years in Viet Nam and got out with a case of PTSD, but didn't realize it until years later.  I had serious alcohol and drug problems, went from one relationship and job to another, barely got by financially, and watched helplessly as my life rapidly spiraled downward.  Then one day at yet another job in another town and in a rare lucid state I ran across a paperback book, bought it, and my life changed forever.  The book was a twenty-eight day progressive yoga/meditation routine (similar to Mindful Yoga Therapy).  By the time I was through with the book, meditation had become a daily habit for me, one that has lasted for close to forty years.  The drug and alcohol use had completely stopped, I became what people used to describe as a "health nut", gulping down vitamins, eating health food, becoming a vegetarian, and exercising daily.  My entire life changed for the better with that book and continues to this day.  I went from someone who was a drug abusing, broke, depressed, and often homeless person to someone who has had many amazing adventures and a very interesting and productive life.  I retired in my fifties, am financially secure, and continue to improve myself and try to help others in the process, recently becoming an EMT and soon attending advanced Paramedic training.  I can't honestly say the yoga and meditation cured me of PTSD completely, I still see a therapist and I've hit a few rough spots along the way but I CAN say without a doubt that if I hadn't started meditating years ago, I could pretty much guarantee you that I'd be dead or in prison by now.  And I did it all without a single prescribed medication, solely with yoga and meditation.  Lastly I wanted to mention that even with all the previous experience I had with meditation, even I notice a definite improvement in my mental state while and after taking this class.

Mindful Meditation (and similar practices) are a great way to treat the symptoms of PTSD.  I know it works, I'm living proof of that and I'm certain there are other stories such as mine out there.  I urge you to not only continue this program, but to expand it throughout the VA system.  Military personnel are putting their lives on the line every day for this country and I think the least the government can do in return is to do everything possible to heal us once we come home.  This program is a cheap, side effect free, safe, and effective way to do just that.

           ~Joseph

Veteran serving veterans

Good Afternoon, I am a Iraq war Veteran who works at the Providence, RI VAMC as a Peer Support Specialist. Also, I suffer from PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks and I have a mild TBI. Before working here in December 2012, I found your website and received the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering from Trauma book w/CDs. That book helped me deal with my symptoms and I found out that I like to do yoga and meditation, two things I never thought I would do.

Now that I work here at the VA, I’m trying to help my fellow Veterans gain the same relief and peace that I felt from this program. I am able to run groups here and one of them is a stress/anxiety management group. Is there a way that I can get the book in bulk for the program? I think it would be a great tool for the veterans to have to take home with them.

Thank you for this program, it helped give me life again.

~Melanie Peer Support Specialist Iraq War Veteran

Savasana...

It had been a tough day. Next on my agenda was my seventh class in a 24 class Mindful Yoga Therapy  12 week series with Veterans in treatment for Post Traumatic Stress, a group who were very agitated overall. Relaxation had been next to impossible for them, and I had come to expect that. We moved through the practice, and when we came to Savasana, I looked around the room. Tears came to my eyes as I saw everyone in complete rest for the first time.

~Suzanne

I’ve been teaching Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans...

I’ve been teaching Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans in a PTSD Residential Treatment Program for the past five years. This 12-week residential program provides comprehensive treatment to men and women veterans who are having significant difficulty functioning in their lives. Towards the end of the 12-week residential treatment program, the veterans are often encouraged to spend their weekends at home in preparation for their graduation from treatment. At the beginning of a meditation practice, I asked the veterans about their home practice.

One veteran in particular, who had been struggling with severe anger-control issues, and who had gone home for the weekend, told me, “I want you to know that I didn’t get arrested this weekend, because of you.”   When I asked him why, he told me that an incident over the weekend had gotten him very upset and “it was going to be a bad one--I would have ended up getting arrested. But when I felt myself getting out of control, I started using the breathing practices you taught me. I was able to stay in control and not get myself into trouble.” He was so proud of the results of his yoga practice, he said that he might even get the word “Namaste” tattooed on the back of his neck.

This is just one story of many that have inspired us at Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans to do what we can to bring these simple but powerful practices to as many veterans as possible.

~Suzanne Manafort, founder, Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans

Words from Paul, Vietnam War Veteran

I was introduced to yoga during my time at the PTSD Rehabilitation Residential Program in Newington, CT. Mindful Yoga Therapy has been incredibly helpful to me in coping with my PTSD.

Yoga is like a gyro that brings me back into equilibrium when dealing with the effects of my disorder. The more I practice, the more my symptoms are mitigated.

Yoga has helped to reduce my anxiety and has improved my ability to focus. I like the challenge of doing something that tests my abilities and rewards me with observable progress, which keeps me motivated.

I think of Yoga as survival training for the veteran’s mind, body, and soul.

~Paul, Vietnam War Veteran

A powerful tool to promote tranquility and healing...

In the preface to the Mindful Yoga Therapy Practice Guide, Dulia Mora-Turner, RYT500 Yoga Teacher and Captain, United States Air Force, gives her perspective on Mindful Yoga Therapy. Meet Dui, a member of our faculty, in our team section.

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans is a powerful tool to promote tranquility and healing for the body. In this succinct manual, my dear friend Suzanne Manafort introduces the practice of Yoga to our heroes. The wisdom contained in this book is now a significant part of my personal and professional life.

Throughout the years, I have combined my military career with a fulfilling yoga practice. My warrior quests have taken me all over the world. I have served in two major armed conflicts and worked at the largest center for military strategy, the Pentagon. Despite my triumphs and adventures, I have also experienced a few downfalls. Due to the high demands of my military service, I too, have found myself depressed and stressed for periods of time. Additionally, I have seen the reality of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) up close and personally: in friends, co-workers, and my brothers and sisters in uniform. It is not easy when someone you love falls into a dark place of isolation, anxiety, and despair.

As a yoga teacher and a military veteran, I wanted to connect the dots and develop my own conclusions for what I believe to be an effective, accepted, and comfortable yoga approach to support our veterans and their families. While working on my advanced yoga certification, I decided to write my final thesis on “Yoga for Veterans Coping with PTS.” As I embarked on this journey, I met wonderful teachers, and learned and experienced different methods. I have no doubt that Mindful Yoga Therapy is by far the soundest approach available to the veteran community. The combination of intentional practices of breathing, asana, yoga nidra, meditation, and gratitude offer a wide range of possibilities to teachers and veteran practitioners. Moreover, I admire Suzanne’s efforts to promote the program at minimal or no cost to veterans. Her love for our heroes, dedication, and hard work in partnership with the Give Back Yoga Foundation has made the program widely accessible to our community.

I am happy to say that I have successfully included Mindful Yoga Therapy principles in the yoga classes I teach at the Pentagon Athletic Center and at various workshops and Wounded Warrior Camps. For a teacher, there is nothing more rewarding than completing a hero’s yoga practice and feeling the joy and tranquility permeating the space. As a veteran practicing yoga, the feeling of connection to other warriors, and the sense of being safe and grounded while nurturing rest and healing, are priceless. Mindful Yoga Therapy focuses on supporting veterans, but I truly believe this approach also serves as a physical and mental resilience-building tool for people from all walks of life. By applying Suzanne’s “toolbox” while cultivating a steady yoga practice, you will experience a wonderful and positive transformation for living well and better! It is my honor to present it to you.

Dui Mora, Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans faculty

Dulia Mora-Turner RYT500 Yoga Teacher Captain, United States Air Force