Warriors at Ease

The healing power of trauma-sensitive yoga helps ease the pain of invisible wounds

“I feel like I have found my true calling, <a href=

disinfection ” says Yvette Menard, more about practicing in her custom-built studio near Seal Bay. Menard offers a yoga experience that is safe, supportive, and effective for people who’ve undergone trauma in their lives. Photo by Boomer Jerritt” src=”×401.jpg” width=”602″ height=”401″ /> “I feel like I have found my true calling,” says Yvette Menard, practicing in her custom-built studio near Seal Bay. Menard offers a yoga experience that is safe, supportive, and effective for people who’ve undergone trauma in their lives. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

In Yvette Menard’s hand-built studio in Seal Bay, she is using yoga to heal the invisible wounds of war. This is where Mike (not his real name), a Canadian Armed Forces electronics technician stationed at the Comox base, comes with his wife once a week to find relief from the debilitating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition he’s lived with since returning from active service in Afghanistan six years ago.

Yvette, a former Medical Assistant and Dental Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), is the first Canadian graduate of a program called Warriors at Ease, which trains yoga teachers in the theory and techniques of trauma-sensitive yoga, an approach that shapes the yoga experience to be safe, supportive, and effective for people who’ve undergone trauma in their lives.

While yoga doesn’t “cure” PTSD, it has proven to be a powerful tool to ease its symptoms and help sufferers return to a fuller, healthier, more connected life. In fact, its effectiveness as a therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression and other related disorders is backed up by dozens of scientific research projects.

But Mike doesn’t need studies to know that yoga has helped him. “There is no cure for PTSD. You won’t ever be like everyone else. But you can learn some ways to cope, to make it easier. Without yoga, I was disabled. With yoga, I can change. I can write my story differently,” he says.

I meet Mike and his wife Elizabeth one sunny afternoon at Yvette’s studio. In this tranquil space where they have experienced much-needed relaxation and comfort, the couple share their story: “I joined the forces when I was really, really young; I was still 17,” says Mike. “I wanted to do something with my life, to make a difference.

“My original intent was to join for three years, but I ended up loving it. I loved the lifestyle; I loved the sense of family. I loved being a modern Canadian superhero. You’re a peacekeeper, a wall of security. I took a lot of pride in that. I got a lot of qualifications quite fast and I ended up going overseas in 2007 for seven months to Afghanistan.”

Mike didn’t falter while serving in Afghanistan. He was exposed to numerous combat situations that included everything a soldier expects while in a war zone. He suffered physical injuries that were treated immediately. What he didn’t realize was that there were invisible psychological injuries that would take years to manifest.

In retrospect, and with a perspective informed by his yoga experience, Mike is able to identify, with heart wrenching clarity, the source of these injuries.

“It’s a hard job being a soldier,” he says. “You have certain things you have to do to ensure the safety of everyone around you. They train you for that. But the thing they don’t prepare you for are the after-effects. Yeah, I had to call in the artillery. That was my job. It was an accurate and correct decision. But no one told me I’d have to watch 20 devastated families walk away. No one tells you that when you lose a friend overseas there won’t be a moment to mourn. It’s just on to the next mission.”

Mike’s eyes fill and he pauses. The studio is silent except for the sound of his breath, controlled and slow. Elizabeth sits very still, her eyes on his face, and slowly reaches out to touch his shoulder. A few more breaths and he continues.

“People think PTSD means you wake up screaming and seeing dead people. But I don’t see images of dead people, I see the faces of children. I see the faces of mothers, and the faces of lost soldiers… Sometimes you’re asked to do things no one should have to do.”

Mike’s natural toughness and his military training kept him functioning. It wasn’t until he’d been home for about six months that he began having symptoms.

“I started having trouble breathing, heart pains, and bloating,” he says. “I had a chest X-ray, I wore a heart monitor for 24 hours, and other tests, but they all came back clean. I was really confused.”

Mike had no clue that these physical symptoms could be caused by a mental health condition. He did see a military counsellor once—after he’d answered positive to a question about anxiety in a questionnaire—but never followed up.

“I had a lot of pride and didn’t want to accept anything was wrong. My attitude was ‘I’m fine and if not I’ll fix it myself, thank you very much.’ But that was the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life!”

For the next four years he stuffed his feelings down and ignored his symptoms. Then one day he crashed.

“I watched a TV documentary called Hell’s Highway Afghanistan and everything caught up with me. I lost 47 pounds in two months. I went down into massive depression. I couldn’t sleep because my body was so sore. I was so exhausted. I would be sitting on the couch for four days solid with a heating pad,” he says.

“I wouldn’t in 100 years have thought your mind can go into your body in that way.”

Yoga practitioners call this phenomenon the mind-body connection and have been talking about it for millennia. More recently, medical doctors have also begun to recognize its power, both in the genesis of illness, and in its healing. Increasingly, experts agree that trauma’s effects live in the body, as unresolved “issues in our tissues.”

Luckily, communication between mind and body is a two-way street—the mind, if injured, can wreak havoc with the body, but working skilfully with the body can calm and heal the mind.

Mike had tried exposure therapy, talk therapy, group therapy, and medication, some of which helped, but not enough. He was still in pain daily, still vulnerable to triggers that would plunge him into panic attacks or downward spirals of depression.

One day Mike heard, through an email from the base, about Yvette and her offering of yoga. He decided to give it a try, even though he’d never thought of himself as a yoga type.

Elizabeth was also hesitant. “I was pretty nervous coming here. I’d never done yoga, in fact I’d never even gone to the gym. I thought I’d be weirded out. But it’s been amazing.”

The Warriors at Ease approach is designed not to weird anyone out—this is a key element of trauma-sensitive yoga. Yvette doesn’t use any Sanskrit terminology, doesn’t play music, and steers clear of overt spiritual or religious themes. Her studio has no doors and windows on the back wall, so that students know their back is safe. She does not touch students unless she knows they feel ready. She includes a lot of repetition within a class and between classes so that the work feels predictable.

If a student is lying down and Yvette needs to walk around them, she will tell them exactly where she is moving. And she avoids language such as “surrender” or images such as “you are sinking into the sand” which in a mainstream yoga class might solicit relaxation, but for a veteran who’s served in Afghanistan can signal failure, danger or death.
Because of these elements, both Mike and Elizabeth found their yoga experience welcoming, right from the beginning. As well, they appreciate the intimacy of the private sessions.

“You’re on a sensitive line here if you’re going to open up and show emotion. It’s hard to do that in a group,” says Mike. Being able to allow feelings to flow, without disassociating or feeling overwhelmed, is part of the therapeutic process, and trauma-sensitive yoga is designed to provide a safe and constructive way for this to happen.

“Thanks to yoga I can deal with things in my own time, and if I’m uncomfortable I can change where my mind is at,” says Mike. “I can release tension from my body and sleep better at night. Yoga really works. We practice at home now daily. Between this and my therapy dog, things are getting better.”

Yvette, along with Warriors at Ease and other similar organizations, is working on bringing this type of support to more members of the military. There’s no doubting the need—statistics from the Canadian Department of National Defence tell us that 20 per cent of Canadian service personnel deployed to Afghanistan were diagnosed with a mental health disorder attributable to their military service, and a Statistics Canada study that looked at a longer time-span concluded that 30 per cent of military personnel involved in combat operations risk suffering from PTSD or major depression during their lifetime.

This is the need that drives Warriors at Ease. Although it might surprise people who think of yoga as either a new workout and fashion trend, or a mysterious, incense-scented esoteric practice, this ancient discipline is increasingly being recognized as a healing art and science.

Over the past 20 years or so in the multi-faceted yoga world, there’s been a burgeoning of training programs, professional associations, publications, research projects and conferences on therapeutic yoga. “Yoga Therapy” is now appearing as a program at colleges, and mainstream medical institutions (even some insurance companies) are starting to recognize yoga therapy as a valid discipline.

Warriors at Ease was founded in 2008 by three yoga teachers and researchers who were already immersed in work with military personnel, and since then has trained more than 220 yoga and meditation teachers to serve in military communities.

Yvette Menard.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Yvette Menard. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Yvette’s journey to becoming a Warriors at Ease teacher encompassed a military career, a medical career, yoga, and a first-hand experience with post-traumatic stress. She first put on a uniform at the age of 13, when she joined the Sea Cadets, and then transitioned to the Naval Reserves at 19.

Taking a pause from the military in order to concentrate on her children and education, Yvette put herself through dental school, and then ran her own dental practice for seven years before joining the Armed Forces, successfully completing Basic Officer Training at the age of 47.

“I loved it. I loved being in uniform. I loved the culture and the community,” Yvette says. While waiting for pre-deployment training for Afghanistan, Yvette transferred from Esquimalt to Comox.

“Within a few days I realized my boss apparently hated me,” she says. Thus began seven months of daily harassment and abuse. Yvette’s experience follows a course that, sadly, is much like that of other women who encounter abuse in patriarchal, hierarchical organizations.

“At first I made excuses for him. It was hard to wrap my head around it because it wasn’t the enemy I’d been trained to expect. It was someone wearing the same uniform as me.” Once she realized she needed to act, things just got harder.

“When I went through the chain of command, there was almost denial. I learned he had a history of bullying. It took a year to get agreement to do a harassment investigation and several more months for it to begin.

“As a result, I wasn’t sleeping, I was on four different medications, and I almost had a car accident. The doctor told me, ‘I can’t keep putting you on medication so you can go to work.’ I submitted to Veteran Affairs for an injury sustained due to the military, but it was denied at first, and only accepted later once the harassment investigation came back in my favor.”

The result of all this—a conclusion of sorts—is that ‘‘corrective and remedial actions’ were taken against her superior, and Yvette was released from the CAF with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder for a mental health injury (it’s important, she notes, to differentiate between an illness, which comes from within, and an injury, which is caused by external forces).

Another result—not a conclusion, but rather a beginning—was Yvette’s decision to commit to becoming a Warriors at Ease teacher.

“Through this difficult experience, I found the true power of a dedicated yoga practice. I feel like I have found my true calling,” she says. She got the training she needed, built a studio on her property, and started teaching.

The next big step for Yvette involves getting the CAF to recognize yoga as a complementary alternative therapy for PTSD and included in the array of treatments officially offered. This has already happened in the United States, and Yvette is confident that at some point (hopefully sooner rather than later) it will happen in Canada.

“I’ve succeeded in getting some support—the Integrated Personnel Support Centre has included information about what I offer in a mass email. But in terms of going further, Veteran Affairs is being cautious for now,” she says.

Yvette currently offers classes free of charge, volunteering her time, but can only commit to this until the end of 2014. She is hopeful—indeed, determined—to see Canada follow the US example, not just so that she can follow her calling, but so military personnel and veterans all over Canada can have access to the healing power of trauma-sensitive yoga, to help them ease the pain of their invisible wounds.

For more information call 250-650-5518 or visit

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