Home' Australian Yoga Life : sample issue Contents From War to Peace
condition by re-igniting memories and
feelings, without providing tools to give
immunity to their intensity.
Terry's journey from war to peace
finally found direction when he joined
the yoga group, which he did at its
inception. Recalling his first experience
of yogic breathing and ujjayi pranayama
(a tranquilising breath), Terry says, "I
could feel calmness in my mind, and also
in my body and in my heart. Just from
that breathing practice. It felt good."
The breakthrough practice for Terry,
however, was trataka, an open-eye
meditation taught during one of the
yoga classes with Swami Hari.
Flashback in a candle flame
Sitting in a darkened room, gazing
steadily into the centre of a candle flame
without blinking or moving his eyes,
Terry suddenly felt his mind letting go of
all its props and boundaries. In place of
the flame, there is a war movie. Scene
after scene rolls by, faster than life --
Vietnam 1968, almost 25 years ago.
Gripped by the fear and insanity both of
that time and of the years that have
passed, he looks away, interrupting the
process. As far as Terry is concerned,
this type of flashback is a no-go zone.
Terry's first experience of this
meditation technique was a dramatic
one. He didn't at first realise that he had
found a key to recovery from the PTSD
that had dominated his life for so long.
Encouraged by Hari, Terry learned the
mind management skills needed to
handle this upsurge of unwanted
baggage -- the ability to witness with
detachment, to observe without
involvement, and to accept something as
part of himself while letting go of
identification with it. By bringing the
necessary state of mind to his meditation,
trataka became Terry's great liberator
from the devastating, trapped world of
PTSD. Supported and strengthened by a
balanced selection of other yoga
practices, he worked through the out-of-
control anxiety that characterises PTSD
and within five years of his first yoga
class, trained as a yoga teacher. At peace
with himself and the world, his final
transition from "crazy Vietnam veteran"
to Swami Atmadhyanam came with his
initiation into sannyasa by his guru,
Swami Niranjanananda, in 2004.
The yoga techniques that healed
Terry's PTSD in specific ways were:
• Trataka -- allowed him to witness
painful memories in a detached state,
so that they lost their emotional charge.
• Full yogic breathing and ujjayi
pranayama -- for anger management;
literally creating a 'breathing space'.
• Yoga Nidra -- a solution to chronic
insomnia. Instead of pacing the floor
with coffee and cigarettes much of the
night, Terry played a recording of yoga
nidra repeatedly whenever he woke.
After about three months, he had
retrained his sleep patterns and didn't
need it any more.
• Sankalpa -- a bit like an affirmation,
made at the beginning and end of yoga
nidra. The resolve gave Terry a
positive vision of who he could be and
placed that vision deep in his mind.
The power of mooladhara chakra
John, a more recent yoga group member
who was also a National Serviceman
returned from Vietnam, resumed his
career as a mining engineer and married
Denise. It was only after an operation
for prostate cancer a few years ago that
he was suddenly hit by the symptoms of
PTSD, including horrific nightmares
and flashbacks. Like Terry, he found
little solace in mainstream treatments; it
was only after joining the yoga group
and practising regularly at home that his
condition began to subside.
Earlier this year, John and Denise
travelled to Mangrove Mountain ashram
in NSW for a war veterans' retreat. It
was here, following sessions by retired
psychiatrist Dr Rishi Vivekananda, that
the catalyst for the explosion of PTSD
after so many years became clear. "After
the prostate operation, I was doing
pelvic floor exercises several times a day.
On the retreat, we learned moolabandha
(contraction of the perineum), and were
told that it is a practice that can activate
repressed experiences at the level of
mooladhara chakra (an energy centre in
the perineal region). It was a eureka
moment, as I realised that this was
exactly what had happened to me by
doing the pelvic floor exercises, which
resemble moolabandha. Mooladhara is
all about our most basic instinct for
survival and security, the very things that
are threatened in war."
Like Terry, John found the
breathing practices and yoga nidra
essential to recovery. "I had a short,
PTSD, classified as an anxiety disorder
and regarded by mainstream medicine
as difficult to treat, includes a range of
long-term symptoms which may not
arise until years after the trauma. The
occurrence of symptoms is often
unpredictable and erratic, undermining a
person's knowledge of themselves, their
identity, and their own trust in their ability
to function reliably at work, in
relationships, and in society in general.
The symptoms of PTSD are categorised
into three groupings:
1. Re-experiencing the trauma:
flashbacks, nightmares, recurrent
thoughts and emotions about the
trauma; panic attacks.
2. Avoiding situations/feelings that
might trigger the memory: self-
protection by emotional
numbing/flatness/reduced range of
feeling, repressed memory, social
isolation, distancing from those who
are close, sense of hopelessness
[What is PTSD?]
about the future; resulting in
depression and an inability to act.
3. Constant state of high arousal:
always on alert, hyper-vigilant,
irritable, jumpy, prone to over-reaction
and sudden intense anger, difficulty
concentrating, overly suspicious,
guarded, chronic insomnia.
Added to these debilitating, out-of-
control reactions, there is often painful
guilt about both past actions and
continuing dysfunction in the present.
This state is especially prevalent in war
veterans. Self-medication through abuse
of prescription medication, alcohol, and
illegal drugs, excessive caffeine and
tobacco intake, and addictive gambling,
brings another layer of complexity and
tragic consequences to the lives of
sufferers and those around them.
Suicide, whether through the conscious
taking of one's own life, or through
ongoing self-destructive behaviour, may
feel like the only path to relief.
australian yoga life • december-february 2010
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