Alameda nonprofit provides yoga for veterans with PTSD

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As we've been discussing this week in several of our stories related to suicide, mental health issues do not discriminate. Veterans fight for our country and often are plagued with mental health issues when they return home. 

The Veterans Administration reports 22 veterans commit suicide daily. In a photojournalist segment, KTVU's Ann Onate shows us how Alameda-based 'Veterans Yoga Project' coordinates yoga and meditation classes across the country. For veterans and their families, the nonprofit is working to change those statistics one veteran at a time, one breath at a time.

The nonprofit works in concert with the VA to offer yoga and mindful resilience training as a pathway to healing.

Founded by Dr. Daniel J. Libby, a former VA clinical psychologist, Veterans Yoga Project has 21 yoga classes  being taught by VYP-trained teachers at Vet Centers around the country in addition to 50 more at VA and military treatment facilities.

Part of the program uses breath control and mindful movement to help reprogram the nervous system to alleviate trigger symptoms and everyday life stressors. 

Yoga and mindful resilience training is moving into mainstream mental health treatment programs at the Veteran's Administration. The VA is rolling out a national 'whole health' program for veterans, offering them acupuncture, tai chi, yoga and other alternative mental health therapies.

Gabe Iturbe, an Iraq War Veteran, describes a time when he was driving with his ex-wife in the passenger seat and his kids in the back. They came to a four-way intersection. 

“I stopped and my wife tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re looking for. I don’t know if you’re looking for snipers, I don’t know if you’re looking for bombs. I don’t know if you’re looking for people, but there’s nothing out there.’”

Iturbe said he knew there was no threat, but that was just the way he operated. He was constantly scanning the area. 

“War is not a pretty picture and there are a lot of men and women who are dealing with horrific symptoms and not being able to sleep and not being able to feel comfortable in their own body, not being able to control their own mind and thoughts,” said Dr. Libby. "Post traumatic stress is a dis-empowering disorder." 

"I wouldn't call it sissy. I just didn't see how that was a stress relief," Iturbe said. "I didn't see how that would help me physically or emotionally." 

“During my 2011-2012 deployment, I was actually sexually assaulted during the last month we were deployed” said Aubrey Cubilo, an electronic warfare officer and Iraq War veteran. “So that threw me off. I hid it. I thought, ‘Hey, if I can push through, get through, finish my qualifications, I’ll be fine.  When the straw that broke the camel’s back— I can’t describe it any other way, I ended up going to the hospital with an anxiety attack.” 

Sean Silvera is a Veteran Yoga Studio owner. At first he was resistant. The kind of stress relief he was accustomed to was whisky and his background was in guns. It was his wife who convinced him to go. He even had a few beers before his first session thinking it would limber him up since he thought it was “group stretching.” 

“Yoga can be weird for guys from middle America. It was literally the hardest thing mentally and physically I had done since Marine Corp boot camp,” Silvera said. 

“These are tools to help us recover from our symptoms and to get stronger. It’s not about yoga. It’s about my mind and body and how I become a master in my own life,” said Dr. Libby. “The VA has seen that these practices are effective. They’re hearing it from the veterans that they want these kinds of treatments available and now they’re making them more available.”

Dr. Libby says most of the people he works with don’t want to be on meds. “Nobody I know wants to take a pill to fall asleep, to feel better.”

“Yoga as a tool is saving lives,” Silvera said. “And I’ve got countless stories of veterans that were at their last edge, like literally pistol to mouth and they reached out beforehand and got help, went to a yoga class, went to a meditation class and it’s working.”  

If you need help or know of someone in need, the National Suicide Hotline is there for you: 800-273-8255 or suicide and crisis hotline (855) 278-4204.

And for more information on Veterans Yoga Project click here