A study at Nova Southeastern University is set to examine whether yoga can help a hard-to-reach group: military veterans who have suffered from war's traumas.
Twenty veterans, who have served in battles from Vietnam to Iraq, will take two yoga classes a week for 10 weeks, with the expectation that they will also practice at home. Investigators will measure the effects of yoga's breathing and stretching techniques on practitioners' flexibility and stress levels.
Several studies have explored the effects of yoga on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. But Debra Stern, a Nova physical therapy professor, said this study is the first to check whether the ancient practice can affect both stress management and physical function.
"The more stressed someone is, the more reluctant they may be to move about in general," said Stern, who will monitor the veterans with Nova professor Lisa Fuller and a medical team. "We are hoping to determine if there are physical changes that take place" through the yoga postures.
Long after their combat days, many veterans struggle with nightmares, edginess, anger and depression. Although many seek help from doctors and support groups, others are finding alternative methods such as yoga have proven equally constructive.
About three years after he returned from Afghanistan, Mike Siers, director of a nutritional supplement company in Boca Raton, said he felt angry, confused and anxious, like "a ticking time bomb ready to explode."
"The triggers could be something as simple as driving down the road and feeling boxed in by having a car in front of me and a car to the side of me," said Siers, 32, who served in the Florida National Guard. "In those times, all I could think was to get away. I would break driving laws without thinking twice just to feel safe again."
He began taking classes in Boca Raton with Connected Warriors, which offers free yoga to veterans. He said he felt warmly welcomed by other vets and instructors who understood war's psychological and physical wounds.
Vietnam veteran Brian Wooldridge said he laughed when a friend suggested Connected Warriors. But he said yoga has helped him control his anger after the loss of part of his skull and part of his leg at 19.
"I did anger easily, and I still do," said Wooldridge, 65, of Boca Raton. "But one thing they stress a lot is breathing. If you concentrate on breathing, it calms you down."
Judy Weaver, of Lighthouse Point, a founder of Connected Warriors, said she has seen the benefits of yoga for the hundreds of veterans who have taken the organization's free classes in 40 locations throughout the country. Sessions consist of meditation, seated and standing poses, simple backbends and guided visualizations.
Weaver said many of the vets were hyper-alert and nervous when they started, but began to lower their blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rates as classes proceeded.
The study is expected to finish in September, with results scheduled for December, Stern said.