After returning from deployment in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Yusra Kauppila would wake up in night sweats, having dreamt of being under attack. The former U.S. Marine dismissed the incidents, pushing herself at work and partying hard to distract herself. She started meditating and going to yoga as a way to give herself a break from her busy life, and, 10 years after her return to civilian life, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“When you’re a Marine, you’re supposed to be tough. My mentality was to not slow down, to not pay attention to my body,” Kauppila, 33, told FoxNews.com.
A child of two Marine Corps vets— including a father who served in Vietnam and likely had untreated PTSD— the mentality of “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” was deeply ingrained in her psyche.
“Now, as a yogi, pain is your body or mind’s way of telling you something needs to be addressed. That’s what my shift has been, a positive shift,” said Kauppila, who lives on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California with her husband, Dan, an active duty master sergeant in the Marines.
Kauppila is now a certified yoga teacher and a paralegal for a military law attorney. She volunteers as operations manager for Warriors for Healing, a foundation dedicated to bringing awareness to the benefits of yoga and to serve veterans with PTSD.
PTSD is a mental health condition that can occur after an individual experiences a traumatic event. Between 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year, according to the VA’s National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
Finding a new mission
Warriors for Healing (W4H) was founded in 2015 by Bhava Ram, a former war correspondent for NBC News, where he was known by his birth name, Brad Willis. He was on the frontlines of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as refugee crises, revolutions and civil unrest in Central and South America, and Africa.
“I know the horrors of war, the darkness that comes with being completely broken because I’ve experienced it,” Ram told FoxNews.com.
A broken back and failed surgery ended his career. His anger caused him to become depressed, and develop a dependence on pharmaceuticals and alcohol. In 1997, he was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer.
Two years later, he went cold turkey after his then 2-year-old son, Morgan, begged him, “Get up, daddy.” He was invited to join an experimental clinic where he was introduced to mind-body medicine and yoga. After two years of intense yoga practice, meditation, and diet changes, he was free of cancer and pain.
“When you’re a former type-A male, you don’t want to admit that you’re depressed, that anything’s wrong, which is one reason you medicate more to get away from the reality of your circumstance,” he said. “You certainly don’t want to show any weakness— that’s one of the obstacles to healing, the inability to really face who you are and what happened.”
The foremost mission of W4H is the awareness campaign: teaching veterans that they can give themselves psychological permission to step into something new, Ram said. W4H currently offers classes in San Diego and Coronado, Calif., but is focused on creating online programs, with the long-term goal of training students to teach in their own communities.
Ram believes veterans must find a new “mission” in their lives to move forward.
“You can find a new mission and ultimately serve others, as well, based on the experience you have [with yoga]— accountability and self-empowerment are so important on a healing journey,” he said.
W4H is also partnered with the Give Back Yoga Foundation, which brings yoga and mindfulness to underserved segments of the country, doing trainings and classes, as well as providing yoga therapy kits to veterans organizations nationwide.
How the body holds trauma
Research published in the June 2014 Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that yoga had a more positive impact on PTSD patients than any medication that had been previously studied. At the end of the study, 52 percent of participants (16 of 31) in the yoga group no longer met the criteria for PTSD, compared to 21 percent (6 of 29) in the control group.
“[Yoga allows] getting in touch with the body and beginning to own your body’s sensations,” study author Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who has studied posttraumatic stress since the 1970s, told FoxNews.com. “When you allow people to begin to inhabit and notice, without trying to run away, they start feeling calmer and safe.”
According to van der Kolk, trauma is stored in bodily sensations— that the issue is not the memories, but that a person continues to be frazzled, upset and anxious, because of feelings churning in the body.
“The issue with trauma is people don’t want to remember because it’s so horrible to remember,” he said. “Yoga is one thing that makes it safer for people to say, ‘Yes, this happened to me and I can tolerate that this happened to me.’”
“[PTSD] really comes out in your body,” Melanie A. Greenberg, a licensed clinical and health psychologist based in Mill Valley, Calif., told FoxNews.com. “Symptoms can just be physical, like shaking, pain, weird feelings in your chest, panic. It’s really good to have these therapies that really take advantage of the mind-body connection and teach them that they can heal in a holistic way.”
Veterans are taught to be tough and feel like bad people when they have those normal feelings after being traumatized, noted van der Kolk, the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass.
“Research shows by going into the body and doing so in a structured way, we can actually learn to own and befriend internal sensation and not have to run away and suppress with alcohol, drugs. It’s a very powerful treatment,” he said.
While most people view PTSD in the context of veterans as a diagnosis for those who witnessed or experienced something really horrible and are now stuck with a disorder, it’s more about a complete loss of identity, Ram said. Some PTSD patients, like Kauppila, minimize their experiences, thinking other people have it worse and they therefore are not entitled to be so upset, Greenberg added.
“They were American heroes, part of a tribe, having peak moments in their lives when all of a sudden it’s all gone. There’s no way to move forward in life,” Ram said.
Putting yourself in charge
When Kauppila finally went to see a therapist after years of unknowingly suffering from PTSD symptoms— including ducking for cover when she heard fireworks— she was told that her yoga and meditation practices likely had inadvertently helped her handle her trauma.
When she first tried yoga, she felt like “a baby elephant who couldn’t bear weight.” Now, Kauppila teaches veterans and sees her own experience of learning to focus on her body and mind reflected in them.
“It’s absolutely amazing to watch people transform through a yoga practice,” she said. “In addition to being given a skill and learning a skill while helping yourself, you can also help others— it’s what veterans and service members need; their personality is such where [they] need to be in service to somebody or something in order to feel fulfilled.”
Western culture teaches people they can regulate their own physiology with medications, where China and India’s cultures suggest people can do things to make themselves feel better, van der Kolk noted.
“The whole issue with yoga is you can actually be in charge of how upset you are, depending on how you move, your breath and how you hold your body,” he said. “It’s a major cultural shift. You can be in charge of yourself.”
For veterans and those with PTSD, Warriors for Healing and other organizations strive toward active healing.
“The science of yoga saved my life, and I’ve seen it save many other lives,” Ram said. “No matter how dark and hopeless it might feel for someone, there is a pathway forward towards stability and empowerment … toward creating a new and more meaningful identity and mission in life.”