Veterans Find Yoga Eases Chronic Pain

May 2, 2017

Veterans are two times more likely than the civilian population to develop an addiction to opioids. The Veterans Health Administration, or VA, released a new set of guidelines in 2013 called The Opioid Safety Initiative, which concluded that opioids are not the best treatment for most types of chronic pain. Instead, VA doctors are encouraged to first advise their patients to try alternative therapies, like yoga, physical therapy, and chiropractic care.

Inside Appalachia's Roxy Todd spent some time at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center to learn more about the Mindful Yoga class— one of the alternative therapies they offer veterans who are suffering with chronic pain. 


"The military attracts certain people, athletically inclined. Or very active people. Over time, you know, most people that get out of the service they're gonna be hurting."- veteran Adam Smith.

In a large gym at the Martinsburg VA Air Force Veteran Darren Yowell leads 14 veterans in a yoga class.

“One person tried to describe my yoga class as yoga without the granola. Because I’m not going to talk about wheat-fields and things like this. It’s gonna be an instructional yoga class,” Yowell said.

Most of the people in the class are men, and all are veterans who are dealing with some type of pain. One of Yowell’s students is Army Veteran Adam Smith, a veteran who served multiple combat tours in Iraq.

“The military attracts certain people, athletically inclined. Or very active people. Over time, you know, most people that get out of the service they’re gonna be hurting.”

Smith said he’s in pain most mornings. He takes some pain medication, but yoga has improved his mobility more than any other medical treatment.

“I’m so happy that the VA has embraced yoga. I’d like to see them embrace it more,” he said. “Without a pill, you can feel better. I mean, that’s pretty powerful. And you can calm yourself down and feel so much better without taking a pill, without relying on someone else doing someone else. You’re moving your own body.” 

Building that sense of independence is important for healing, Yowell said. 

"When you first tell a veteran, most veterans anyway, 'maybe you should try some yoga', they're probably gonna mock you or laugh at you." - Mike McAleer.

“To me, the best way to help people is not to baby people. It’s to challenge them. We all want to be challenged,” he said. Yowell said he struggled to find a purpose when he left the military in 1991. When he got out, he’d planned on becoming a school teacher, but that didn’t work out. He became addicted to alcohol, then to harder drugs, like pain pills. 

“And then went up and down on a roller coaster for the next 20 years not really using the VA. Not wanting anything to do with it actually for multiple reasons,” Yowell said. “But in 2010 I was in Danville, Virginia, and I was in pretty bad shape. A friend of mine got me at the community-based outpatient clinic down there, basically just dropped me off at the door and said ya’ll gotta help him. I believe I just needed somebody to help me.” 

"When I came here as a patient, I felt like a forgotten person,"- Darren Yowell

Yowell eventually came to the Martinsburg VA and stayed there for nine months in in-patient psychiatric care, to manage his addiction.

“When I came here as a patient, I felt like a forgotten person,” he said.

He’s been sober since 2010. 

A few months into his treatment, Yowell heard about a job with the VA as a recreation specialist. This was something he was good at, so he applied for the job, and got it.

“They were building this gym, and when I got hired I was shown this gym and something just clicked. There were things before drugs and alcohol that I loved that the drugs and alcohol took from me,” he said. “But once I got clean I took them back. And now I’m gonna give my gifts that I was given to try to help others.”

Yowell can be found here, teaching a yoga class, every Monday morning, and another class in the afternoon. Students go through a 12-week course that’s designed to teach veterans how to stay active and cope with mental stress, like post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"In a year, it's sad to say, but in a year my goal is just to be alive. And healthier. That's my goal. My son's 7. I have to do what I have to do to be there for him. And this is part of it."- veteran Staci Sage

There are veterans of all ages in the class. Some actually set down their canes and walkers while they do yoga. Yowell helps them modify the moves, but he shows them they can do more than they thought they could.

“So even though it’s a group class, it has to be done different than a yoga class on the outside. I try to be very instructional, I still do around 1 on 1, have to recognize everybody’s limits and what they can and can’t do.”

When the Martinsburg VA began offering yoga a few years ago, it didn’t seem as though many veterans were interested. But that changed. Veterans asked for more yoga classes, and Yowell’s session continues to fill up, said Mike McAleer, the public relations officer at this VA.

“When you first tell a veteran most veterans anyway, ‘maybe you should try some yoga’, they’re probably gonna mock you or laugh at you,” McAleer said.

“But once they get in there and they realize that, as you noticed, not everybody’s the same level. And it’s OK, because you don’t all have to be experts in what you’re doing,” he said. “As long as your body is starting to move and you’re starting to feel a little bit better. So I think once you cross the threshold and you give it a try, you’re gonna be in there for life.”

This yoga class isn’t only for veterans who were injured in battle. It also teaches breathing, and mindfulness, or being aware of your body and the way your mind affects health. This is especially important to yoga student Staci Sage, a Navy veteran who is battling breast cancer. Yoga has become a way for her to focus her thoughts on healing her body.

“Cause I am on my fourth regimen of chemo. And I need to do something to keep my mind off of what’s going on internally,” she said. 

"To me, the best way to help people is not to baby people. It's to challenge them. We all want to be challenged." -Darren Yowell

Sage said her first yoga class gave her enough energy to go home and do yard work all afternoon.

Sage has had breast cancer since August of 2015. The cancer has metastasized, which means it has spread to other parts of her body. 

“In a year, it’s sad to say, but in a year my goal is just to be alive. And healthier. That’s my goal. With metastatic cancer it’s one day at a time. Everyone says I have the best attitude when it comes to cancer,” she said.

“But my son’s 7. I have to do what I have to do to be there for him. And this is part of it.”

This interview done back in January. We checked back in with Sage to find out how she’s doing. She said on top of the breast cancer, she was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, too, and her health has deteriorated in the last few months. So she had to stop going to yoga class, at least for now. But she said she still wakes up each morning to do breathing exercises and meditation that she learned in yoga class.