By Anna Pointer 09 Mar 2015
The wounded Armed Forces veterans healed by yoga
Yoga is helping wounded veterans rebuild strength, combat pain and PTSD and is even helping them sleep
A simple thigh stretch can be a complex move when you have no lower limbs. Just ask ex-soldier Josh Boggi. He stepped on an improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb, in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve 2010, losing both legs and his right arm.
But like many of the amputees at the Help for Heroes-run recovery centre Tedworth House in Wiltshire, his gradual rehabilitation has been boosted, surprisingly, by yoga. “I was very cynical at first,” says the former Corporal. “Why would a soldier do yoga?”
Josh has been taught by Suzie Jennings, a leading yoga expert and the first to be employed by the Ministry of Defence two years ago to develop classes for wounded veterans. While her sessions are designed partly to rebuild strength, they also aim to alleviate post-combat symptoms such as insomnia, depression, phantom pain and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although the top brass were initially sceptical, the army Surgeon General Paul Evans last year declared yoga to be a fundamental part of military rehabilitation. That yoga helps PTSD is also now supported by scientific evidence, says Suzie: a study published last October 2014 that compared war vets who did regular yoga with those who did not, found the former had fewer PTSD symptoms such as anxiety.
The day Josh, 28, a father of one who lives with girlfriend Anna in Binfield, Berks, was injured, he was on a routine patrol in Helmand Province. “I tried to stand up and it wasn’t until the lads put tourniquets on my legs that I realised I’d been hit,” he says. Seven days later, he woke up in Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital pumped with morphine. After six weeks, he was moved to Headley Court Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Surrey, where he quickly mastered prosthetic limbs.
But sleepless nights and a “racing mind” continued to plague him – until he tried Suzie’s yoga classes. “I began sleeping much better,” he says. “I feel great after the yoga, and at night when I can’t switch off, Suzie’s breathing techniques calm me down.” Josh feels so energised he now aims to cycle in the Rio Paralympics next year.
With 45 years’ yoga experience, East Sussex-based Suzie has developed a unique programme called Heroes at Ease, which has been adopted by all Help for Heroes recovery centres, as well as by rehab facilities in America. She adapts 25 basic yoga postures to suit each individual’s mobility, using straps and bolsters to support them. “Simple moves like lifting their legs work because holding the pelvis higher than the heart calms the mind,” she explains. Meditation, massage and deep breathing are incorporated, with results that have astounded her. “The guys sleep better and have less pain, anxiety and grief,” she says. “I’ve seen such big changes.”
BBC South East Special report
Suzie Jennings talks to Renée van der Vloodt about the yoga programme Heroes at Ease, which she developed for former soldiers recovering from PTSD, related to mental or physical injuries.
Adaptive Yoga for wounded military © Anna Pointer, The Independent
A sheen of sweat glistens on the young man’s forehead as he stretches into a yoga position. But this is not any ordinary workout class. Josh Campbell, a former soldier, has to work harder than most because he has no legs. Campbell was blown up when he drove over a bomb while on a routine patrol in Afghanistan. He was lucky to survive the blast but it shattered his lower legs, resulting in a double amputation. His rehabilitation has been long and painful, but it is yoga that has turned his life around.
He and fellow wounded ex-servicemen at the Help for Heroes-run recovery centre, Tedworth House in Wiltshire, say yoga is aiding their recovery from the appalling physical injuries sustained in Afghanistan, and even more importantly is helping them to come to terms with profound mental anguish.
Campbell, 23, says: “With prosthetic legs, I wasn’t sure about doing yoga at first. But it has opened up a whole new kind of recovery to me. I just feel so much better for it.”
Only 19 years old while on his first tour in Babaji, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province in September 2009, Campbell was on patrol with the 23 Pioneer Regiment when an IED device exploded under their vehicle, flipping it over. He took the brunt of the blast and recalls: “I was screaming in agony. One of the lads wrapped a tourniquet around my legs to stem the bleeding, which saved my life.”
Stretchered back to camp, Campbell, of Pewsey, Wiltshire, was put into an induced coma and then flown to hospital in Selly Oak, Birmingham. “Apparently, I died four times. My left leg went into toxic shock on the plane, so they turned back to Afghanistan, and a surgeon took it off.” On reaching the UK, medics were forced to amputate the other leg. “When I came round, I asked mum if I still had them and she said, ‘No, they’ve both gone’. I think she found it harder to accept than me. But then, I am her little boy.”
It was during his lengthy rehabilitation that Campbell first met Suzie Jennings, the 64-year-old yoga teacher who came to his rescue. “I was having some pretty dark days, but she was like this breath of fresh air,” he says. “Suzie has tailored the moves to suit my limited mobility. The pelvic exercises and breathing techniques work best for me.”
With 44 years of experience, Jennings has developed a unique programme that she calls “Heroes at Ease”, which combines yoga with mindful meditation and relaxation. “I use about 26 of the basic yoga postures and adapt them to whatever they can do,” she says. “Just simple things like lifting their legs in the air is great, because when the pelvis is higher than the heart it calms the mind. The dense muscle around the pelvic area is key because, when they are blown up, it holds all of the trauma.”
Working at both Tedworth House and Headley Court, the military rehabilitation centre in Surrey, she says the results have been breathtaking: “The guys now sleep better and have far less pain, as well as fewer anxiety issues and flashbacks. They can control their anger and grief, and they feel better inside because we’re working on their vital organs.”
Jennings, of East Sussex, is also set to begin teaching her programme to wounded war vets in the US, and adds: “With Josh and other amputees, we’ll do a pose like the Tree, but do it lying down. We also do the Bridge, using bolsters and blocks to help. Meditation is another big part of it, and alternative-nostril breathing, known as Nadi Shodhana, really helps them. Research at Harvard University has shown it balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain.”
Campbell, whose fiancée, Louise, will give birth to their second child in weeks, backs her theory. “Since getting injured, I’ve struggled with awful insomnia, but alternate-nostril breathing gets me to sleep easily and calms me down.”
Jennings’ techniques have also helped Campbell counter “phantom” pain in his legs. “Many of the amputees say they feel like their feet are being held over a fire,” she says. “There are still nerve endings where the leg is cut off, so they still get the sensations. But the meditation and breathing methods help them alleviate those feelings.”
Veteran Michael Day is another of Jennings’ converts at Tedworth House, especially in his struggle to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I said ‘no way’ and laughed at the idea of it all initially,” he says. “But I’ve found that meditation is better than any medication.”
Michael, 30, of Salisbury, was a sniper for the Royal Green Jackets when an enemy grenade exploded a metre from his feet in Afghanistan’s Nad-e Ali district in late 2009. He was thrown head first into a roadside ditch and says: “I felt numb below my hips and above that, excruciating pain. I tried to stand up and fell flat on my face. I knew straight away I was going home. Weirdly, earlier that day I’d packed all my stuff into a box, like I’d had a sense something was going to happen.”
Michael had 56 fragments of shrapnel in his legs and buttocks and one large piece had shot under his helmet and embedded in his temple. After being flown back to Selly Oak, he endured a series of operations, while a fracture in his lower back was pinned with four screws.
But Michael, who is married and has three children, says the flashbacks and nightmares have proved every bit as challenging as the physical wounds. “If I go into a shop blasting out heat above the door, I can’t bear it. It takes me right back. But when I see Suzie, I feel relaxed for a few days afterwards. The yoga and meditation have helped me find peace within myself. I can deal with the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] in a way that I just couldn’t before.
“The yoga moves aren’t complicated, and my back still restricts me, but after spending a year on a walking stick, they have improved my strength and flexibility.”
Michael is now beginning a career as a youth worker and says: “I’m finally feeling positive about the future. I never thought four years ago when I was in Afghanistan popping the Taliban off that I’d turn out to be some spiritualist yoga dude with a beard. But I guess life can be funny like that.”
Wounded in action
* Between 1 January 2006 and 30 June this year, 2,139 UK military personnel serving in Afghanistan were “wounded in action”, with 301 “seriously injured”.
* Forty-six UK service people had limbs amputated between April 2011 and March 2012. The numbers peaked at 75 between 2010 and 2011.
* Between 2011 and 2012, there were 273 new cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosed in veterans.
* Along with what is commonly known as “phantom-limb pain”, limb amputation can cause serious mental health problems, including PTSD, depression and anxiety. PTSD is found to be more common in amputees following combat or an accidental injury, while another study suggests that 55-85 per cent of amputees experience phantom-limb pain.
* While physical rehabilitation is important, psychological support is a key factor in the rehabilitation of amputee veterans in particular. Techniques include “mirror box” treatment, which involves creating an optical illusion that the missing limb is still there, massage therapy, to encourage relaxation and reduce stress, and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Stats by Tilly Miller, The Independent