Hugo Patrocinio, 29, served 8 years as a Marine and did two tours of duty in Iraq. Here, he practices yoga at Red Pearl Studio in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He is among some of the veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, many suffering from PTSD, who are embracing yoga as a way to heal from war's psychological wounds. - MCT

A break in the 'fog'

MIAMI — One week into his second tour of duty, U.S. Marines Sgt. Hugo Patrocinio was wounded by a suicide bomber who drove a dump truck stocked with 1,000 pounds of explosives into a house in Anbar, on the outskirts of Fallujah. He had been attacked before, hurt before, but this time Patrocinio was just 20 feet from the explosion.

He would eventually recover from the wounds — the shrapnel in his foot and leg, the severe concussion — but the psychological injuries lingered. His nights were soon crowded with re-runs of the bombing that injured 10 other platoon members. Often, he didn't sleep at all, tormented by searing memories of friends killed in the war. He was angry, prone to headaches and mood swings, one of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the 18 months of Patrocinio's spiral, he eventually turned to yoga after learning about it during group therapy as a way to quiet the inner noise. He found the discipline, the poses, the breathing — and especially, the stillness — worked to restore what had been taken that July in 2006.

"I didn't understand yoga, but I knew it was helping somehow. I was in a horrible place, a fog," says Patrocinio, 29, who was awarded a Purple Heart for his military service. "There is no magic pill that can erase your past or what you have seen but the practice helps me to cope. Now I am not afraid to go to sleep."

Patrocinio is part of a wave of returning veterans who are embracing yoga as a calming therapy. For many, it is a companion medical treatment to ease the symptoms of post-traumatic stress on the mind and body. For others, it is simply a way to relieve the stress of reintegrating. Some are turning to the poses and deep breathing of yoga. Others to the quiet of meditation.

"Through yoga or tai chi or some other discipline, the vet can create a space of calm. And that is a place that the brain can return to when faced with a trigger," said David Frankel, executive director of Connected Warriors, a nonprofit offering free weekly yoga sessions to veterans and their families in South Florida. "More than anything, the vet returning from a trauma needs a sense of peace."

Faced with a growing national health crisis, military officials and the medical community are exploring other methods to help treat psychologically wounded soldiers. Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense conducted a narrow feasibility study at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the effectiveness of Yoga Nidra, an ancient meditative practice, on soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD symptoms. After eight weeks, all the participants' symptoms were reduced. Buoyed by the results, research was expanded to several VA hospitals and centers, including the Miami VA where a study of meditation was conducted on veterans. The local study has been completed but not yet published. The program used in the study, eventually renamed Integrative Restoration or iRest, was added to the weekly treatment for soldiers at dozens of centers across the nation.

"The program provides them body relaxation and breathing exercises that are tools for managing the emotions, the memories, the cognitive thoughts that come with war," said Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist who served as a consultant and advisor to the DOD study. "It helps to build a deep inner resource that they can call back on for stability."

At the Red Pearl Yoga studio in Fort Lauderdale, veterans — including Patrocinio — who served in wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan spend an hour on Thursdays lying on green yoga mats staring towards the ceiling. The walls are deep red, and the air is warm and still, the afternoon sun shielded by bamboo blinds.

Frankel, a Broward County prosecutor for 22 years before becoming a yoga instructor, leads the Hatha yoga class. He encourages these veterans to surrender to the quiet, so the body relaxes, the senses soften and the mind eventually settles. For returning soldiers, whether diagnosed with PTSD or not, one of the great challenges is to slow a mind racing with troubling and obsessive thoughts and to disconnect from the whirlwind of combat. Frankel has them breathe and exhale deeply as they move through a series of poses: downward-facing dog, standing forward bend, full forward bend. During each pose and stretch, they are told to concentrate on their cores. Later in the session, Frankel plays soft music, the lyrics of one song promising, "no one will lose their soul."

It is all meant to help the vets reconcile war experiences with civilian life. It is another path to healing.

Three months after Army Capt. Jonathan Freeman returned from Kabul, his third tour, he began yoga at Red Pearl. He had learned Transcendental Meditation from his father as a child and practiced it occasionally while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. But by the time he returned in November after the intensity of combat environment — Freeman and his unit were among the first soldiers on the clean-up scene after an Iraqi family of 14 was killed in 2005 — he needed something more to help with the transition back. So he started running and in February, he added yoga as part of the Connected Warriors program.

"The yoga is really beneficial on the bad days when I am having negative thought after negative thought and can't get outside my head," said Freeman, 36, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and is part of the Virginia National Guard. "The breathing helps me center myself and settle down."

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