Brain Injuries, The Army, and Yoga

This past Wednesday evening, being early for my 6pm class, I sat in my car listening to NPR, totally engulfed in a story about soldiers with brain injuries being left behind: With Traumatic Brain Injuries, Soldiers Face Battle For Care.

Traumatic brain injury is considered the “signature injury” of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. An NPR and ProPublica investigation has uncovered the military’s failure to diagnose, treat and document brain injuries. Evidence suggests tens of thousands of soldiers are falling through the cracks.

“The system here has no mercy,” said Sgt. Victor Medina, a decorated combat veteran who fought to receive treatment at Fort Bliss after suffering a brain injury during a roadside blast in Iraq last June. Since the explosion, Medina has had trouble reading, comprehending and doing simple tasks. “It’s struggle after struggle.”

Previously, NPR and ProPublica reported that the military has failed to diagnose brain injuries in troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mild traumatic brain injuries, which doctors also call concussions, do not leave visible scars but can cause lasting mental and physical problems.

At Fort Bliss, we found that even soldiers who are diagnosed with such injuries often do not receive the treatment they need.

As I sat on the side road of 14th NE, outside of the Old Crown Hill Elementary School, drops of tears and mixed emotions came up, faded away, and came up again. I don’t much care for wars, to say the least. My dad was a prisoner of war, spending 4 years in a Communist concentration camp after the Vietnam War. His younger brother, my uncle, was driving home on New Year’s Eve to celebrate Vietnamese New Year with his family when a roadside bomb blew him to pieces. Bertrand Russell said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left”. The ones who are left are left with a lot of scars.

Looking into it some more, I found that NPR has done a series of investigations, titled, Brain Wars, How The Military is Failing its Wounded. The Military, in response, has started issuing “talking points” in defense. Regardless of who should take the blame, this story has got me wondering, What can we do? What can *I* do?

Naturally, I thought of yoga, but I am well aware that I’m thinking of yoga because it’s my one hammer, and this is looking awfully like a nail. Treating everything as a nail just because you have a hammer is totally inappropriate. But really, who will step up when the soldiers of the largest and most powerful military are suffering with no end in sight? If we really did want to support the troops, how would we do that?

I’m now reminded of the first session in my 500-hour training, when we talked about the five koshas and  Yoga Teacher Gary Kraftsow’s experience with a tumor in his brain.

The cornerstone of Kraftsow’s practice is pancha maya, a model of the human system referenced in ancient Indian texts. According to this model, also known as the kosha model, we are comprised of five dimensions or layers: the physical body (annamaya), the breath or life force (pranamaya), the intellect (manomaya), the personality (vijnanamaya), and the heart, which is the seat of bliss (anandamaya). In the days leading up to surgery, Kraftsow plumbed every dimension of his being.

Using this model, we could look at how a soldier is affected by this whole experience through the five layers:

  • Annamaya kosha (physical body): “But in the weeks and months that followed, his mind began to fail him. He slurred his words, then started stuttering. An avid reader, he struggled to get through a single page. A punctilious soldier, he began showing up late for missions.”
  • Pranamaya kosha (energy body): Displaced energy. “He was fighting to get better, fighting to remain in the Army. He said he felt was being labeled a liar.”
  • Manomaya kosha (psycho-emotional body): “You have all these values that you live for and fight for. And you go to the medical side and you don’t see those values,” Medina said. “I can understand being injured by insurgents. But I can’t understand being injured by my own people.”
  • Vijnanamaya kosha (wisdom body): “When their efforts proved futile, they felt abandoned. Nobody paid attention, they said, to a soldier with an injury that nobody could see.”
  • Anandamaya kosha (spirit body): Separation from a sense of purpose of empowerment: “The way our philosophy is in this hospital … we took away their belief that they truly have something,” said the doctor, who did not want his name used for fear of retaliation from commanders. “I don’t think we gave them the opportunity to heal and that’s what I find really disgusting.”

Can Gary Kraftsow’s experience and teaching work for these forgotten soldiers? I don’t know. I’m not even really sure of where I’m going with this. I admit I don’t even know what to do or what could be done. I just… feel this mixture of empathy, frustration, motivation, burning responsibility to help turn things around, but not sure what, when, and how.

What do you guys think? Do you know of any effort out there? Any study? Anything? I know that the military has forayed into using yoga and qigong as a way to treat PTSD, but to what extent?

I should add that I’m not advocating for the style of yoga often seen in glossy magazine ads, as Gary Krafsow said:

The notion that yoga is an exercise regimen has become so entrenched in the West that nonpractitioners commonly shrug it off with: “I can’t do yoga. I’m not flexible.” Not only has yoga been reduced to asana, but asana has been reduced to stretching and what Kraftsow calls “self-chiropractic,” a fervid pursuit of textbook alignment. What he will tell you—and presently show you—is that yoga isn’t about getting to know the postures. It’s about getting to know yourself.

"War is over. If you want it."

"War is over. If you want it."