Yoga helping veterans with PTSD

Deb Causey, a 23-year veteran of the Wyoming Air National Guard, begins a yoga class at Mount Sinai Synagouge on Sunday in Cheyenne. Blaine McCartney/staff

CHEYENNE — Right feet at the front of their mats, knees bent, leaning forward, they stand with their arms in the air in a warrior pose.

It is a fitting movement toward the end of this Warriors at Ease yoga class.

The class is designed to help those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly veterans, find relief from their symptoms. Those include hyper arousal, anxiety, hyper vigilance, depression, insomnia, social avoidance and nightmares.

The class is held three times a week at Mt. Sinai Congregation, 2610 Pioneer Ave. It is free for military personnel; civilians are asked to make a $7 donation.

For Deb Causey, who spent 23 years in the Wyoming Air National Guard, yoga has taught her to be more aware.

“(It) gives you an awareness of your body,” she says.

That awareness, and the control that goes with it, are two reasons the class aids those with post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD.

The class was started here by clinical psychologist Sherry Gardner and Natalie Vernon, a certified yoga teacher.

In the last few years, professional literature has begun to show that yoga practice is good at relieving symptoms of PTSD, Gardner says.

“Researchers have been able to demonstrate that many of the (PTSD) symptoms result not from the horrible story but from the residue of the trauma,” she adds.

Rather than the memory triggering symptoms, it’s the effect the trauma had on the limbic system in the brain that triggers them, she explains.

The limbic system is the part of the brain that helps react to danger. It’s an auto response, and for some it’s as if the limbric always is on high alert.

The control that goes with yoga can teach the system that it “does not have to be on red alert all the time,” Gardner says.

Yoga is used in addition to other, more traditional forms of therapy, not in place of it, she adds.

Gardner’s practice largely consists of veterans who are being treated for PTSD. She was looking for a yoga instructor who could lead a class aimed at those with the disorder when she met Vernon.

Vernon attended training through Warriors at Ease, which developed a method of teaching yoga in a way that benefits those with PTSD.

Says Gardner, “The focus here is on relaxation and learning that people can be in charge of their bodies’ reactions.”

Many who attend the classes wouldn’t notice a difference from a traditional yoga, Vernon says. But some changes are made to help bridge the gap to a group that might not normally attend yoga.

Participants are given choices, and Vernon is aware of avoiding potential triggers.

For instance, the class is oriented so her back is to the door, and she avoids the use of Sanskrit words. In some cases, she doesn’t even mention the names of the poses, and she is mindful of the verbs she uses.

She doesn’t say what the class is doing when it moves into a “corpse” pose. And poses that put people into vulnerable positions, like “happy baby,” are avoided.

“(This) can really help people get back to themselves,” she says.

Most of the people at this Friday afternoon class are not veterans; there is no requirement that someone be a veteran or suffer from PTSD to attend.

Though Causey was a chaplain at the time she retired from the Wyoming Guard, she was trained for combat as a cargo loader. She also spent more than 20 years in law enforcement, working in auxiliary positions like dispatch and animal control. She is now a massage therapist.

“This class particularly would be a great one for a veteran,” she says.

She says she understands that people in the military, those who are taught to be “hard and brave and tough,” might not be attracted to yoga. But she says she met people as a chaplain who could have benefited from it.

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