Find Healing in Yoga
By Tresca Weinstein
J.L. Pizarro wears a silver bracelet with the engraving “Doc, Thank You.” It was given to him by several of the countless soldiers whose lives he saved during his deployment as a combat medic during the Vietnam War, and it is sacred to him.
“The words are so simple, but I know what they mean,” he says. “It’s a symbol of the power of the human spirit, the power of love and the circle of life. It’s a physical reminder of their appreciation and of my having done something of value for the country and for human beings.”
But Pizarro has other reminders of his service, which began in 1969 when he was drafted at age 19, and ended with his honorable discharge in 1973. There’s his Combat Medic Badge, for one—the highest honor for a medic awarded on the eve of his 20th birthday. And then there are the less visible and more insidious things he carries: traumatic brain injury caused by exposure to heavy artillery; a history of depression and anxiety that led to three suicide attempts and cost him two marriages, several jobs (including one with a Fortune 100 company); and, for a time, his relationship with his son. At one point, he became homeless as a result of his PTSD symptoms—despite holding two master’s degrees.
By then, Pizarro could not have been further from the future he had envisioned growing up in a middle-class suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico. He had wanted to be a doctor, fulfilling his parents’ dream, but he had never imagined the horror that a healer could encounter on the battlefield. He recalls an ambush in a minefield, and losing count of the number of amputations he had to do in order to keep soldiers alive after their limbs were severed by mines. He can still hear the screams of “Medic!” as the men called for him as they fell, and remember the “deep trance” he entered to block out the terror and take care of them.
“The trauma of trying to save someone in this situation, while the enemy is trying to kill you, is indescribable,” he says.
The memories locked in his body and mind were slowly killing him. And then, he found yoga and meditation.
Pizarro took his first yoga classes at a VA hospital, soon after his PTSD diagnosis in 2010. He began to feel the benefits immediately—particularly the benefits of yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, a technique that gradually and systematically relaxes the body and nervous system.
“After four years of chronic insomnia, yoga nidra allowed me to fall asleep without medication,” Pizarro recalls. “I remember lying in Savasana [relaxation pose] at the end of my second or third class, and feeling a sense of belonging and connection that I had never felt before in my adult life. The teacher said something magical: ‘This is your place on earth. No one can take that away from you. You can claim this space.’ I realized then that this place of belonging had been there all the time.”
Today, Pizarro’s mission is to share with others the methodology that has been so powerful for him. He attended Kripalu Yoga teacher training in 2014, with the help of a Kripalu scholarship, completed additional certifications in trauma-sensitive yoga, with the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, and in mindful resilience for trauma recovery, with the Veterans Yoga Project. Since his training, he has taught ongoing mindful yoga classes at the Hartford (Conn.) Vet Center near his home in Ellington, where he lives with his wife, Dawn. He does not charge for these classes.
“My calling is to teach yoga to combat veterans, to help them restore their body, mind and spirit to its peaceful, natural state,” he says. “The trust they gave to me in combat is the same trust that enables me to help them today.” He also consults with yoga studios and nonprofits across the country, supporting their work with veterans.
Pizarro chose Kripalu Yoga for his 200-hour teacher training, he says, because of its focus on compassion and honoring your own intuition and wisdom. Kripalu Yoga, he says, “invited me to reflect on what I was feeling, and begin reconnecting mind and body,” which often dissociate in the face of trauma as a survival mechanism.
According to Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and medical director of the Trauma Center, trauma is a somatic issue, which makes body-based modalities like yoga particularly effective (in combination with traditional therapeutic approaches). Van der Kolk says that, along with other positive biological signifiers, yoga has been shown to increase heart rate variability, which decreases stress.
“In the studies we did involving neuroimaging of the brain before and after regular yoga practice, we were able to show that the areas of the brain involving self-awareness get activated by doing yoga, and those are the areas that get locked out by trauma and that are needed in order to heal it,” says van der Kolk. “Yoga opens you up to feeling every aspect of your body’s sensations. It’s a gentle, safe way for people to befriend their bodies, where the trauma of the past is stored.”
In a study done by his team, participants in a 10-week yoga program experienced significantly reduced PTSD symptoms: 52 percent of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD, compared to 21 percent of the control group. The yoga group also reported a non-statistical decrease in dissociative symptoms
But Pizarro says it’s important to remember that if yoga is not taught with a sensitivity to and understanding of trauma, the mat can be a metaphorical minefield. Drawing from his experience and extensive training, he has created Compassionate Warrior: Yoga for Combat Veterans, a yoga protocol specifically designed for this population. It takes into account what he describes as the four factors in all traumatic events: unpredictability, loss of personal safety, loss of control and the failure of existing safeguards around the situation. His guidelines address how to avoid postures and teaching approaches that might create vulnerability or triggers for people who have experienced trauma—not only military veterans, but also those who have a history of sexual or domestic abuse; bullying; workplace harassment; or any other type of trauma.
“I want to offer them postures that they can do just as they are, with whatever physical or psychological limitations or injuries they have, so their yoga experience isn’t just one more thing that supports the feeling they have of being broken,” Pizarro says. “When you allow the person to be safe enough to explore their connection to the body, and when you empower them to do a posture the way they want to do it, you’re rewiring the brain.”
Along with relief from physical and mental PTSD symptoms, Pizarro has found spiritual and emotional healing in yoga, particularly in embracing the yogic values of ahimsa (nonviolence) and santosha (acceptance), as laid out in the ancient yoga texts. These tenets, he says, have helped him to accept the gratitude of the soldiers he saved, and to forgive himself for those he was unable to help. Along with his silver bracelet, he wears a strand of beads around his wrist made from purple fluorite and green jasper—stones that represent balance and alignment.
“Yoga has made a life-changing difference for me,” he says. “Without yoga, the gains I’ve made would be reversed. My goal now is to help other combat veterans reach a similar turning point. After 40-plus years of rejecting the field of medicine, I have come back to the role of a healer.”