With the number of veterans entering higher education rising, universities are exploring ways to cater to the needs of this growing constituency. Accessible fitness equipment and intramural sports teams are important components, but Rebecca Smith, a fitness instructor at the Hawley Armory Fitness Center at the University of Connecticut (UConn) believes that programming for student-veterans should go beyond serving those with physical disabilities.
A student-veteran herself, Smith began teaching a free yoga class at the veterans’ house on the university’s Storrs, CT, campus after a Vietnam veteran in one of the regular yoga classes she teaches told her how practicing yoga had helped him.
“I thought that it had to be useful for the next generation of veterans, too,” Smith says. “So I started to do some research. It’s already widely known that yoga can help with anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a form of anxiety disorder.”
Although formal studies of yoga’s benefits for PTSD sufferers are limited, preliminary research is promising. One study, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and conducted through Harvard Medical School, found that veterans diagnosed with PTSD showed marked improvement in their symptoms after just 10 weeks of yoga classes.
Some of PTSD’s most common symptoms are re-experiencing traumas (when memories are so vivid they make the sufferer feel that he or she is actually living through the ordeal again and trigger physical responses), feeling distant from others and being on-edge.
“Yoga helps with living in the moment,” Smith says. “It really creates a connection between the mind and the body.”
Another benefit of yoga, Smith says, is that it helps the practitioner adapt to change and new challenges—something that certainly applies to all returning veterans.
Smith worked with UConn’s veteran services coordinator, Paul Gaines Jr., to purchase yoga equipment specifically for the campus veterans’ house class. She says that offering the class at the house allows greater flexibility in scheduling, and it offers a more controlled environment than the rec center does.
The house also is a familiar space where students won’t feel trapped or feel that they are being watched, something that is important for those with PTSD. Practicing yoga in a comfortable environment makes it easier for any student to participate fully and mentally, Smith adds.
“Most of my students don’t have PTSD, but some of the soldiers that come do,” Smith says.”There are particular things about teaching a yoga class for people with an anxiety disorder that you want to account for without making them feel like you’re accounting for it or making them feel like they stick out.”
Smith graduates from UConn this month and plans to open her own fitness studio. She says she wants to continue her yoga instruction for veterans on and off campus.
“These are my brothers and sisters,” she says. “I want to do what I can to help.”