Veterans Find Contemporary Relief in Ancient Discipline
Veterans stretch and strengthen their core muscles to ease lower-back pain. Left to right: Camilla Sinclair, Lisa Thompkins, Clifford Parver, Robert Carter. Photo courtesy VASDHS.
Lewis Leithner never thought he'd try a yoga class. Push-ups, running, and similar physical training activities were Lewis's style of exercise, having been in the Navy for 31 years.
But when old age crept up and Leithner's chronic back pain set in, he was ready to try anything his doctor recommended to ease his ailing back.
"Before, I'd think of yoga as some old Japanese gentlemen in meditation, " Lewis recalls. "It's not like that - it's more like an exercise that teaches you how to breathe, and here I am and I'm enjoying it."
Yoga is often an excellent rehabilitation technique, and various yoga therapy programs have sprung up in VA facilities across the country in response to its effectiveness. Research has shown that yoga helps decrease pain and depression, and improves energy and mental health.
Leithner is taking a yoga class at the VA's San Diego Medical Center that caters specifically to Veterans who suffer from chronic lower-back pain. The class was started in 2003 by Dr. Sunita Baxi, who has conducted extensive research on the topic.
Baxi explains that yoga is a form of therapy that alleviates pain over time. "You cannot expect to get instant gratification from these classes, " she said. "This particular class is a form of 'gentle yoga, ' which focuses on postures and the lower back."
After three weeks of yoga, Leithner believes he has seen improvement because, "My wife says I don't complain as much, so I guess it helps."
Robert Carter, who is in the same class as Leithner, is also taking yoga for the first time. He hurt his back in an accident two years ago and his injury had not healed the way his physician had hoped, so he was referred to the yoga therapy class. From that point, he was screened by Dr. Baxi to verify that her specific class was right for him.
Now Carter is reaping the benefits of the holistic treatment. "I'm seeing some results already. My stress level is down, my blood pressure is down, and I've been taking fewer anti-inflammatories with yoga, " Carter observed. He is grateful to have improvements to his back problems without undergoing surgery.
"Yoga is not one size fits all."
In Viera, Florida, the VA's Outpatient Clinic has recently started yoga and iRest (integrative restoration) classes as part of its Women Veterans Program. The classes are designed for a mixture of conditions including sleep problems, anxiety, fatigue, chronic pain, military sexual trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Yoga is not one size fits all. We see who is in the class and design a sequence of patterns based on the group, " said Emily Hain, a yoga therapist at the Viera clinic.