How Our Military Use Yoga — And How It Can Help You
Yoga offers a unique form of exercise, providing a toolbox for not only physical but also mental fitness. With science supporting its many benefits, yoga is now even being embraced by those within our nation’s military.
The Army, Navy, and Marines encompass some of America’s highest-stress, most demanding professions. While yoga has long been used to treat PTSD and help with pain management among veterans for some time, it’s seeing increased acceptance as part of military training as well.
How Yoga Benefits Soldiers
According to a 2011 review of studies, yoga has been found to enhance strength and flexibility; improve respiratory and cardiovascular function; reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain; improve sleep; and enhance overall well-being.
With such far-reaching benefits, yoga’s a natural fit with military training. According to Claire Diab, former military yoga instructor and founder of the American Yoga Academy, “Yoga doesn’t make you mushy; you aren’t going to grow a beard and become a vegetarian. People are realizing that yoga can give you more power, clarity, focus, and strength.”
The rigorous physical requirements of training to become a member of the armed forces lean heavily on strength and athletic skill. But after teaching yoga to Navy SEALs and Marines at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, California, Diab realized one of the biggest physical benefits of yoga for them was improved flexibility — essential for maintaining mobility and reducing the risk of injury.
“Strong, physical people like military personnel are muscular, but they often need more flexibility,” she says. “All of that movement, such as holding a pose, is unique because it provides not only strength, but flexibility and balance.”
While the physical benefits of yoga can be applied to other strenuously physical lines of work (e.g., pro athlete, construction worker), it’s the mental and emotional side that makes the practice one ideally suited to active military personnel. According to a study on active duty military deployed in Iraq, sensory-enhanced yoga (which included a combination of physical yoga, breathing, meditation, and relaxation) reduced anxiety, improved sleep, and helped participants feel calm.
How to Practice Like a Military Yogi
Opting to forgo the obvious route, Diab didn’t teach the warrior pose series at the Naval Training Center. Instead, she highly recommends the following postures and breathing techniques to stay strong, sharp, and focused.
This very powerful flow promotes balance, length, and strength in both the right and left sides of the body. The following series matches each of its movements to breath.
- Stand with your big toes touching and heels slightly apart. Your arms should hang at your sides, palms facing forward.
- Draw your shoulder blades back and down, and feel your weight balanced evenly on your feet. Engage your core. Your chest should be lifted, your head neutral.
2. Upward salute
- On an inhale: Sweep your arms straight up overhead, adding external shoulder rotation so your triceps face forward. Your gaze follows your hands.
- On an exhale: Hinge at your hips, and bring your palms or fingertips toward the floor in line with your toes. You can keep your knees slightly bent.
4. High lunge
- On an inhale: Step your right foot back three to four feet, keeping your right leg straight as you bend your left knee 90 degrees directly over the ankle.
Optional addition to pose: Sweep both arms upward and alongside your ears to complete warrior 1 pose.
- On an exhale: Place your hands on the floor on either side of your left foot, and step your left foot back beside the right. Tuck your toes, press into your hands, and lift your hips up and back. Your body should form an upside-down “V,” with your arms straight (not locked) and externally rotated.
- On an inhale: Shift your body forward into high plank.
- On an exhale: Slowly lower your torso to within a few inches of the floor. Your elbows should be close to your body, forming 90-degree angles, and your shoulders should still be drawing back. Be careful not to roll them forward.
- On an inhale: Keeping your legs straight, push your body up and forward into straightened arms, untucking your toes and pressing the tops of your feet into the floor as you lift your chest.
Optional: Modify by taking cobra pose (bhujangasana) out of chaturanga dandasana instead.
- On an exhale: Tuck your toes, press into your hands, and lift your hips up and back, as in step 5.
9. Standing forward bend (uttanasana)
- On an inhale: Step or lightly jump your feet forward between your hands.
- On an exhale: Hinge at your hips, and bring your palms or fingertips to the floor, as in step 3.
10. Upward salute
- On an inhale: Sweep your arms straight up overhead, as in step 2, and release your hands to your sides to return to mountain pose.
Repeat the entire sequence leading with opposite leg in high-lunge pose.
Knee down twist
Benefits include: increased mobility in the spine, flexibility of back muscles.
- Lie down on the mat with your legs fully extended, and bring your right knee toward your chest.
- Bring your right knee over toward the floor on your left side, keeping both shoulders on the mat.
- Slowly untwist, and return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
Benefits include: increased mobility in the spine, and stretches the core, back, and chest.
- Get down on all fours in “tabletop” position, making sure your hands are below your shoulders and your knees are below your hips.
- Inhale into cow pose, lifting your tailbone and chest while allowing your belly to sink toward the floor.
- Exhale into cat pose, rounding your spine toward the ceiling and curling your chin toward your chest.
- Flow between both poses in time with your breath.
Sounding breath (ujjayi breathing)
- Using a slow and steady breath, inhale through your nose, creating a soft and audible hissing sound in the back of your throat. (To learn this sound, practice whispering “haaa” with your mouth open.)
- Feel the sensation on the back of your throat, then exhale out through your nostrils, maintaining the sound breath.
- Lengthen your breath and focus on the sound. Repeat for 5 to 10 minutes.
Deep belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing)
- With eyes softly closed, begin to slowly inhale through your nose, filling your belly with air (your abdomen should expand, like filling a balloon).
- Exhale through your nose (or mouth) slowly releasing the air (think of a slow wave) from your belly. Your abdomen will contract, or deflate as if letting air out of a balloon.
- This breathing technique can be performed sitting, standing, or lying down.