Gentle Soldiers? Yoga and Meditation in the Military

Yoga for Soldiers. Photo courtesy of
Yoga for Soldiers. Photo courtesy of

WASHINGTON DC – I live down the road from the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which served more than 150,000 active and retired personnel from all branches of the military before moving to its new location in Bethesda, MD.

In 2006, yoga teacher Robin Carnes began teaching yoga at Walter Reed to returning soldiers suffering from severe cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It’s cleansing — I really feel refreshed,” Marine Sgt. Senio Martz said after finishing a recent yoga session.

“Once dismissed as mere acrobatics with incense, yoga has been found to help ease the pain, stiffness, anger, night terrors, memory lapses, anxiety and depression that often afflict wounded warriors,” notes Huffington Post blogger David Wood.

Alarmingly high suicide rates among veterans, as well as domestic violence, substance abuse and unemployment, suggested to some military doctors, combat commanders and researchers that conventional treatments, such as mind-numbing drugs, aren’t always enough.

Yoga and meditative practices are now gaining wide acceptance within hard-core military circles.

When she started at Walter Reed, Robin Carnes said, she was working with eight wounded troops with physical and mental health injuries. Some hadn’t slept for more than two hours at a time, for years, she said. “They were immediately like, ‘I can’t do this, it won’t work, you have no idea what’s going on in my brain.’ I’d say, ‘Just try it, it’s helped others.’ And probably because they were desperate — nothing else had worked, including drugs — they did try it. And I saw, sometimes within the first day, they started to relax. Snoring! They’d tell me, ‘I don’t know what happened, but I feel better.'”

One of her patients was struggling with outbursts of violent anger, a common effect of PTSD, and had gotten into raging arguments with his wife. Several weeks into regular yoga classes, Wood reports, he went home one day “and his wife lit into him and he could feel a confrontation coming on,” Carnes said. “He told me that he’d taken a deep breath and told his wife he was going upstairs to meditate. And that was the first time he’d been able to do that.”

“I knew anecdotally that yoga helped — and now we have clinical proof of its impact on the brain, and on the heart,” said retired Rear Adm. Tom Steffens, a decorated Navy SEAL commander and yoga convert. Within the military services and the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said, “I see it growing all the time.”

In his HuffPo piece, Wood makes a historical connection:

“the military’s embrace of yoga shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, yoga — a Sanskrit word meaning to “join” or “unite” — dates back to 3,000 B.C., and its basic techniques were used in the 12th century when Samurai warriors prepared for battle with Zen meditation. Still, some old-timers are shocked to find combat Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and amputees at James A. Haley VA Medical Center practicing their deep breathing techniques.”

No Time For Silence

Now yoga and meditation are being utilized by the military not just for returning veterans, but on the front end: in training.

And not everyone is happy about it.

At the beginning of a regular radio address in January, the Family Research Council head, Tony Perkins, declared: “In the military, it’s out with God–and in with the goofy!”

What does he think is goofy?

Yoga classes being offered to military members.

“I just don’t get it.”

Andrew Kirell at Media-ite reported that Perkins noted the “goofy” style of exercise has been used as a “wacky” substitute for a “personal relationship with God,” effectively driving religion out of the military.

“As part some new training, Marines are being asked to join weekly yoga and meditation classes,” he explained. “Sergeant Nathan Hampton said the idea took some getting used to. ‘Why are we sitting around a classroom doing weird meditating stuff?’ he wondered.”

Perkins neglected to mention that in the very same Washington Times article [where he got the quote], Sgt. Hampton continued on to explain that he warmed up to yoga and now enjoys the practice: “Over time, I felt more relaxed. I slept better. Physically, I noticed that I wasn’t tense all the time. It helps you think more clearly and decisively in stressful situations. There was a benefit,” he’s quoted as saying.

Nevertheless, Kirell reports that Perkins continued on:

“Former Army Captain Elizabeth Stanley says it’s to relieve stress. She’s the one behind M-Fit, or Mind Fitness Training. She insists the New Age approach ‘creates a sense of calmness, reduces drug and alcohol use, increases productivity, and improves working relationships.’

“What a coincidence–so does faith! Unfortunately, the military seems intent on driving religion out and replacing it with wacky substitutes,” he continued. “They’ve added atheist chaplains, Wiccan worship centers, and now, meditation classes. But none of them are as effective or as constructive as a personal relationship with God. Unfortunately, though, it’s mind over what matters–and that’s faith.”

Ugh. I scarcely know where to begin.

I’m glad to hear that some veterans are getting some treatment that is at least helping to some degree.

It’s frustrating, but probably unsurprising, that folks like Perkins would be offended and scared about people actually slowing down and pausing for some silence and paying attention to their minds, hearts, and bodies, rather than ignoring them.

I’ve found that meditative and contemplative practices give me space and clarity and patience, something all of us need. Not to mention that these practices can create space in which to connect deeply with God.

Why Perkins pits contemplation and yoga against faith is beyond me. Contemplative practice has been a huge part of faith, including the Christian faith, for centuries. I suppose, as a good evangelical, he keeps thinking that Christianity really only began with Dwight Moody, Billy Graham, and the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century.  (Never mind that yoga practices are a fair bit older than Christianity.)

A few comments in reaction to this story:

“If the answer to everything is faith, why do they even have guns? I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t run around sporting a camo uniform over body armor and toting an assault rifle and hand grenades.”

“I assume then that [Tony Perkins] doesn’t practice yoga, leaving [him] inflexible in both body and mind.”

“The ancients evolved yoga as the means to getting control of consciousness; calming down in the process, thereby benefiting health– physical, mental, and also more subtly, the spiritual within us. The simple act of sitting and concentrating on one thing (meditation) offers all sorts of rewards, such as the ability to lessen reactions to emotional content that comes up (which directly helps those who’ve seen combat). Not to pretend them away, no, but to acknowledge and honor those difficult emotions, but not yielding any longer to them in a passive way. A spaciousness that is healing comes from the practice. It’s the difference between drifting and steering.”

“We need to grow up and realize that we, the Americans, aren’t the be all and end all of civilization(s) past, present and future. We should look for the best from all cultures, religions, beliefs and try to emulate those in our lives; not worry and complain because something that conflicts with our own religious beliefs is being used to great success.
We should listen instead to those who preach inclusion. Our planet is small, we are many; it’s obvious to all forward thinking peoples that we will have to one day learn to live peaceably with each other. Our daily lives are filled with bombs, constant aggressive war, and ever-expansive military budgets to kill, maim and torture, but we hear nothing from Mr. Perkins, the Christian, on those subjects.”

“What’s goofy is having a “Family Research Council”. Especially one that doesn’t do any actual research.”

“Well, God forbid military personnel engage in practices that improve their physical health, mental health, and general well-being. I mean, what do soldiers need strength and flexibility for?! And stress relief for soldiers is just silly! I mean, it’s not like they have a stressful job that can result in PTSD, depression, or mental health issues that could lead to suicide or homicide, right? We just hand them a Bible instead. After all, wasn’t Jesus doing such a good job exercising and meditating with them before?”

“Freedom of religion for our troops? Now that’s just un-American!”

“Hopefully he soon realises that meditation is not a religious activity unless you want it to be, and that there is something called Christian meditation which allows for a deeper understanding and contemplation of God and [can] strengthen the bonds between the believer and the Christian Church.”

My favorite comment, though, comes from Wipf & Stock editor Charlie Collier:

Tony Perkins is confused. Yoga, in the “mind fitness” or “stress relief” form being explored by the military, is probably not incompatible with Christian faith and practice. However, the sacrificial cult at the heart of American civil religion—whereby our freedom is allegedly purchased by the blood of “our” soldiers (never “theirs”!)—constantly threatens to overwhelm the Christian understanding of the finality and universality of the cross of Christ. Adding a personal relationship with Jesus, as Perkins wants, would only add insult to the primary injury—replacing the sacrifice of Christ with the sacrifice of soldiers (not to mention all the others sacrificed in war, including many innocent women and children). If Perkins wants to combat idolatry in the American military, he’s going to need to get more root and branch about matters.

What do you think? Are yoga and meditation a threat or a complement to Christian faith?  (Or general well being, for that matter).

Story credits to David Wood at the Huffington Post, and Andrew Kirell at Media-ite.

bryan-2Bryan Berghoef writes and tweets from the nation’s capital. He has written for the Huffington Post and Sojourners, serves as technical assistant at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and facilitates a new faith community: Roots DC. His book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God invites you to engage in deep conversations over a good beer.


5 thoughts on “Gentle Soldiers? Yoga and Meditation in the Military

  1. Have come across a few military personnel who have tried yoga and transformed their lives completely . Its wholistic and has nothing to do with religion. Its like saying E=MC2 is Jewish . Its a science and a great tool for living a complete life for people in all walks of life .


  2. I love the idea of utilizing yoga/meditation in the military as a medical alternative to pain killers, anti-depressants, etc. Great blog!


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