During the thick of the Vietnam War, Brian Darren witnessed death up close from 9,000 miles away. The former Army E-4 prepared Pentagon casualty reports, which required him to watch death scenes on battlefield film.
For decades after, he grappled with nightmares, anger and depression — emotions that damaged some of his relationships and eventually had him taking sleep and anti-anxiety drugs.
But the Greenlawn retiree, who at 67 also battles aches in his back, hips and legs, says he has cut his pill consumption and has been more at peace in the 15 months since the federal Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Northport began offering regular yoga sessions to help veterans cope with physical and psychological troubles.
“With yoga, I totally relax and my stress is gone,” said Darren, who has taken so strongly to the program that he has two hourlong sessions on Mondays and another on Wednesdays. “It leaves me so serene.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs increasingly is offering non-pharmacological interventions — including yoga and meditation — in an effort to provide relief from post-traumatic stress disorders that trouble hundreds of thousands of veterans. VA doctors are also hopeful alternative therapies can reduce the amount of sleep medication, opioid painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs that veterans take.
VA therapists say yoga trains patients to focus on their immediate present by using body discipline and mindful breathing to ease away distractions. They say yoga helps patients master negative thoughts and create an inner zone of psychological safety.
“Yoga is one of the ways they can get to a sense of control over runaway feelings,” said Deb Jeannette, a volunteer yoga instructor at Northport.
Yoga got a boost at Northport in 2011, when the medical center received a $485,000 federal grant to hire an instructor and train staff.
Nontraditional therapies gained credibility among therapists when the Warrior Resilience Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, opened in 2007 to handle some of the roughly 1 million soldiers who have returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therapists there began trying yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy, reiki, tai chi and even qigong, a 3,000-year-old Chinese practice that combines breathing, movement and meditation to focus “chi” energy in the body.
In Kentucky, a VA center has partnered with a local stable to use horseback riding to help veterans cope with the effects of PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
VA officials are particularly hopeful that alternative therapies can reduce the need for powerful prescription drugs.
After prescriptions for opioid painkillers increased by 400 percent at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center between 1999 and 2010, the center in 2011 began stressing yoga and other nondrug pain therapies. Over the next two years, high-dose opioid prescriptions were cut by more than half, according to the VA. Prescription figures for Northport were not immediately available.
The VA itself, though, has voiced some reservations regarding the effectiveness of “complementary and alternative medicine,” or CAM.
A fact sheet published by the VA’s National Center for PTSD states: “There is only limited evidence about the effectiveness of CAM as a treatment for PTSD; however, the evidence suggests that some CAM approaches have modest beneficial effects as a treatment for PTSD.”
But beyond the walls of the Northport VA, enthusiasm for yoga as a way to calm minds and heal broken bodies continues to build in the veterans community.
Allan Matthews, 53, attends weekly yoga sessions offered by Project 9 Line, a local veterans group. On a recent Monday evening, Matthews held a yoga pose in a quiet room on the campus of Liberty Village, a veterans housing project in Amityville.
Matthews said he has suffered from anxiety since a fellow soldier was killed during a mid-1980s convoy bound for Fort Drum. The soldier was driving a heavy truck when its clutch failed explosively, riddling him with shrapnel. He bled to death before anyone could save him.
“If you’re suffering from PTSD, it’s like you’re sinking in quicksand, and by the time you realize it, you’re up to your neck,” Matthews said. “Programs like this teach you to focus and keep your mind clear.”
Darren said yoga’s mental discipline has taught him how to calm himself.
“Once you know how to change things back to positive, it’s so great,” he said.