Compassionate Warriors: Trauma-Informed Yoga For Military Veterans
Deep breathing, gentle stretches, mindfulness — not necessarily the first things you might think about when it comes to war veterans. But this Veterans Day, we wanted to learn more about a practice called “trauma-informed yoga.” It’s a type of yoga developed specifically for people with PTSD and complex trauma, and it can help veterans cope with emotional, cognitive and physical injuries that are common in the veteran community.
Vlad Vasquez is a war veteran in Colorado Springs. He is also a trauma-informed yoga instructor with Comeback Yoga, a group that brings yoga to the military and veteran community. He joined Colorado Edition to guide us through the practice.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Henry Zimmerman: You are a war veteran yourself. Can you tell us briefly about your experience in the army and how you got to where you are today through the military?
Vlad Vasquez: I joined the service back in 2001, after 9/11. We were deployed to Iraq for the invasion in 2003. After a whole year of war experience, coming back to the United States and trying to adjust to everyday, normal life was pretty hard for me. I went through a lot of struggles, depression,
Were you able to find a veteran community when you came back? You mentioned having gone through depression and things like that — is that something that you found your peers were also going through?
I think everybody went through the same things. We were trained to just focus on the mission, and not really look at anything besides that. When you are in the service, you don't really have time to process emotions or process trauma in the pace of life. The training is very intense.
Soldiers don't really have the opportunity to go check in with the mind or the emotional self. And I could tell you, from my own experience, in 2008, I tried to commit suicide. So, I went to the VA, they did a few tests, and they found out that I had a traumatic brain injury, and severe PTSD from combat. I did a lot of treatment with the VA. But it wasn't until I found yoga and the practice of meditation that I found peace and a way to cope with my injuries at the time.
When you talk to other veterans, what do they think about yoga and mindfulness? Are they as willing to accept it as maybe you are?
The only thing that helps me is that I'm a veteran, myself. When I talk to them, it’s coming from somebody that served, somebody that has injuries, somebody that has assimilated the pain. I don't really go too much into the spiritual or religious dogma. I concentrate more on the practice itself, meditation, deep breathing, somatic movements.
Yoga has obviously been around for thousands of years and has been practiced all over the world. But the way you're using it is very particular — it's helping people who unfortunately have trauma to deal with. How is trauma-informed yoga different than the regular yoga I might do when I wake up in the morning?
It’s about putting together a specific class for veterans suffering from PTSD, or traumatic brain injuries, or even physical injuries. Sometimes their movement is restricted, and they can’t do a lot of the asanas that you usually see in the yoga practice. So instead of doing those asanas, we focus on a more restorative type of yoga that is slow and gentle.
Most] of the time we’re sitting down or laying down on the mat. Some of the participants might have missing limbs. But we do things so that they can follow along easily and so they don’t have to stress about holding their bodies up or doing things that they are they're not capable of doing.
I have seen amazing results working with soldiers at Fort Carson and at the VA hospital. They come back and tell me, “Hey, we love what you do. Thank you so much for sharing the practice.”
Do you think the U.S. military could benefit from incorporating something like yoga or the kind of emotional training you're describing?
I have been serving the Fort Carson community, especially the Special Forces of our country. Yoga can help them to be better people, better human beings and better soldiers. It can help them elevate their game to a level where they are compassionate warriors. So, they can do what they have to do, but at the same time, they are conscious about who they are and what they are bringing to the game and to the job that they do.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Nov. 11. You can find the full episode here.