Guest blog written by Aida Johnson-Rapp, Veteran
I am a veteran from the first Gulf War better known as Operation Desert Storm. I joined the Army later in life at the age of 34. Of course, my friends thought this was insanity when I told them. But while on active duty I discovered a world of committed, dedicated and selfless individuals. During most of my years on active duty service, we were involved in the cold war and then later the Middle East unrest began. However, even in peacetimes, there is a lingering realization that at any moment cultures and countries can clash and the world can explode into chaos, suffering, and sorrow. All of our training and preparation was designed to be ready for events that could be violent and life-changing.
Meditation for Soldiers
In basic training, you learn how to shoot an M-16 high powered rifle, march through rough terrain, meet rigorous fitness standards and throw a live grenade. We even had overnight Bivouacs to learn how to use field sanitation techniques and survive on MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat). I remember during one of these Bivouac session, a combat unit was asked to ambush us in the dark of night. I knew this was pretend but my heart still raced and my vest alarm went off when I was hit by the imaginary laser bullets. Which meant in a real situation I would have died in combat.
Knowing how terrified I was in practice scenarios makes me realize how active duty and veterans who may or may not suffer from PTSD can benefit by practicing mindfulness meditation. Scientific research studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness allows a person to be more accepting of life’s challenges with less stress and reduced emotional reactivity.
Starting Meditation & Yoga as a Veteran
I began my meditation practice during my 200 hours yoga teacher training. I have been a fitness instructor for over 40 years and a professional dancer during some of those years. I did not use the mobility and recovery techniques that are used today during my early movement years. I taught, rehearsed and danced on some of the most unforgiving surfaces imaginable and my naturally stiff body became more immobile with time. While on active duty we marched and ran all of the time. I really enjoyed running so I joined the Army Cross Country team and ran several half marathons. By the time I began by yoga teacher training at the age of 59, I realized that I needed to try to unlock my body and move towards greater mobility and I chose yoga to help me get there. Yoga encouraged me and the biggest benefit was how my mind felt after our teaching training module on meditation and pranayama (breath). And Savasana – the final posture of every yoga class, was always my favorite part.
The Power of Meditation
I then discovered a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training and later I began leading guided mindfulness meditation sessions at my fitness club in both group and private sessions. Mindfulness meditation according to John Kabat-Zinn “means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, as if your life depended on it.” And I know that practicing meditation in this mindfulness manner has a spillover effect and continues well past my focused 20 minutes morning sessions and continues in moments throughout my daily life. I can use this practice when I’m walking down the street in a rush and catch myself entirely in my head… I’ll slow down and pay attention to my surroundings – the trees, the houses, the people. My practice also spills over into my day when I’m listening to someone else speak. I’ll catch myself thinking about what I want to say and then stop to re-focus and fully listen to what the other person is saying. Learning to be in the moment, through breath, awareness and meditation has given me a sense of mental freedom and physical comfort that I had not experienced prior to beginning my practice.
Meditation for PTSD
There's growing interest in meditation in the United States. Meditation has been found to work as well as traditional therapy for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder in a small experiment sponsored by the Department of Defense. A government survey last year found 14 percent of adults said they had recently meditated, up from 4 percent from a similar survey five years earlier. These statistics and findings have created an openness to exploring the benefits of mind/body practices for veterans, police, firefighters and others who have experienced severe trauma as part of their healing and coping mechanisms. These studies and findings also help to remove the stigma of being involved in “woo woo” unconventional beliefs relating to spirituality, mysticism, or alternative medicine. Additionally through my studies I have learned that meditation can take many forms, a sound, a simple movement and a commonality that is the use of a single point of mental focus to still the mind and to connect more harmoniously with the world around us.
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