Two programs that incorporate yoga at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, demonstrate the ability of the ancient practice to help heal the mind and body.
“The word ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit means to yoke together, and the idea is to bind together our mind, body, and spirit, and not just to bind, but to create a balance among the three aspects,” explained Dr. Bhagwan Bahroo, a psychiatrist in the Psychiatry Continuity Service program at Walter Reed. “Having personally realized the significance of yoga, I wish to share the many benefits with our service members.”
Bahroo grew up practicing yoga in India and re-connected with it 10 years ago when asked to integrate the practice into Walter Reed’s behavioral health program. Today he teaches a one-hour class for up to 12 participants once a week using basic poses and various breathing techniques, finishing each session with Laughter Yoga, an ancient practice now seeing a resurgence worldwide, according to Bahroo. “A good yoga session not only improves muscle tone, adds strength, and improves flexibility of the joints, but also helps bring peace of mind, reduces anxiety, and improves mood,” he explained, noting that laughter is contagious and lightens the heart and mind.
Given the nature of yoga, not all patients are willing participants. “You wouldn’t believe the excuses I get from patients,” Bahroo chuckled. Over the years, he has adapted his approach, now inviting patients to observe and then to join as they feel ready. “Eight out of 10 come to the mat eventually. If they have any type of pain, I’m able to show them how to modify poses for maximum benefit.”
Bahroo described one patient who began adamantly opposed to joining his yoga class, and reluctantly joined after wary observation. “Upon finishing his 5-week program he said, ‘I wish I had known about yoga earlier in my life.’ This is why I teach yoga and why I’d love to bring it to a wider population in our hospital if I could.”
Another patient population benefiting from yoga practice includes service members undergoing treatment for traumatic brain injury at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, also in Bethesda next to Walter Reed. The center’s integrative approach includes tailored treatment plans that focus on mind, body, and spirit. Allison Winters, wellness coordinator, is a certified yoga instructor and dance/movement therapist who invites patients to participate at their own comfort level. Feedback after completion of the program has been positive.
“‘More yoga’ is what I’ve been hearing, so now we offer yoga as part of the structured intensive-outpatient and outpatient programs,” she said. “We have added three optional classes each week, all of which are always well-attended.”
Winters focuses on gentle and restorative postures. She teaches a maximum of six patients per class and is able to tune in to their individual issues. “I love being able to teach yoga here. With our patients, my teaching is much more individualized and I am able to connect better with them.”
Winters is convinced that yoga provides a critical mind-body connection for her patients. She believes that part of their healing is a discovery process as they experience the rhythmic and repetitive practice of yoga, incorporated with breathing. They gain flexibility as they tune in to their breath.
“I want their yoga practice to be a tool to use post-rehabilitation to manage stress and transitions when they return to work and home, and also to provide a means of working toward performance goals and returning to readiness,” Winters said, adding that she likes to teach a classic sun salutation sequence because it provides a familiar basis for future practice, and includes an adaptable set of poses that anyone can do anywhere.
“With its focus on breath and movement, the sun salutation can be modified for any level of practitioner,” said Winters, who acknowledges that yoga practice isn’t the only means of making a mind-body connection. She teaches her patients how they can incorporate moving intentionally with their breath in any activity they enjoy. While yoga is commonly associated with relaxation, Winters said different types of yoga can offer an array of benefits.
“Yoga has been around for over 5,000 years,” she said. “There is wisdom to the practice of bringing mindful attention to our breath and bodies, and anyone, regardless of age or physical fitness, can do it in its many forms, whether retiring from service or preparing for the next deployment.”