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Veterans Yoga Project®: Interview with Dr. Dan Libby

Originally posted November 19, 2018.

Veterans Yoga Project Yoga for Emotional Healing PTSD

Veterans Yoga Project (VYP) is a nonprofit organization that specializes in helping veterans gain access to the healing benefits of yoga with a program called Mindful Resilience. Thanks to the efforts of VYP, the Mindful Resilience yoga program is being used to help veterans and active-duty military personnel heal from the emotional, physical and psychological aspects of war trauma in mental health and addiction treatment programs in the United States and Canada.

The mental health of our veterans is a serious and tragic issue. 30% of returning veterans are categorized with some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

40% of veterans suffer from drug or alcohol abuse, with reports of severity that this interferes with performance in school or at work. The tragic rate of suicide rate for veterans is over 20%, which averages to 20 deaths by suicide daily.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating, life altering condition with a broad constellation of invasive emotional, psychological and somatic symptoms that seriously impact a person’s ability to function. Somatic symptoms include a lack of connection between the self and body, disassociation from emotional and physical experiences, and wandering aches and pains.

Because trauma actually physically alters the brain and nervous system, it’s resistant to treatment using only traditional talk therapy and current medications which work on balancing neurotransmitters, not neural networks. Because of current understanding of how the brain forms memories in neuronal networks, it’s now believed that solely using talk therapy to repetitively re-hash traumatic events can actually be re-traumatizing. Talk therapy actually may be reinforcing the existing neural networks, rather than therapeutically restructuring and resolving the memories. As our understanding of neurophysiology has expanded, the treatment of trauma has also expanded. Current evidence-based trauma therapies, such as EMDR and SE®, are both a sophisticated synthesis of cognitive and somatic work.

Due to its integrative and calming effects on the physiology and emotions, yoga is emerging as an important part of an integrative approach to healing PTSD or trauma.

Yoga naturally links body and mind by incorporating yoga movement and posture, with mindfulness and breathing techniques.

What’s promising is that initial research studies provide evidence that yoga relieves PTSD symptoms. Working with traumatized individuals requires a sensitivity to their particular needs. There are several organizations that are working to enhance yoga teacher trainings with trauma-informed trainings for yoga teachers and mental health professionals.

Veterans Yoga Project (VYP) is the brainchild of Daniel Libby, Ph.D, who’s its Founder and Executive Director. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Dan Libby and also Deb Jeannette, E-RYT-500, who is the President of the VYP Board of Directors. Below is the interview with Dr. Libby and Ms. Jeannette’s interview will be featured in another blog post.

Dr. Libby is one of the growing number of mental health professionals who are academically trained in professional psychology and research and also inhabits the experiential world of somatic modalities. This emergent field of integrative study is variously called Somatic Psychology, MindBody Psychology, Integrative Psychology, etc.

I caught up to with Dr. Libby after the organization’s successful fundraiser on the Intrepid in June of 2018 for an interview.

Q: How did you become interested in the mindbody connection in trauma?

My holistic approach to mental health and healing was influenced heavily by the time the time I spent at Feathered Pipe Ranch, where I worked as a professional bodyworker. There, I was witness to many different approaches to healing. I always knew there was more to mental health and wellness than the cognitive approach, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). And I got to witness this over and over again in my work at Feathered Pipe. Everyone should try a retreat at this healing place. VYP has held several retreats there. It’s a special personal place for me. I go back there to recalibrate.

After working at Feathered Pipe, I eventually enrolled in a rigorous doctoral program in psychology. My doctoral program was great in that I learned to understand and decipher research results and its relationship to the truth about the effects of different modalities on psychophysiological functioning. On the other hand, the program got me away from the body as the focus of healing…It was a very psychodynamic and CBT oriented program. In that way, the program felt restrictive.

However, I developed my specialization there, which is the mindful integration of evidence-based psychotherapies and complementary and alternative medicine practices for the treatment of PTS(D) and other psychological and emotional distress in active-duty military and veterans.

I did my research based in psychophysiology, my dissertation was about Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is an indicator of psychological and emotional health. Yoga has been found to measurably influence HRV, which in turn, influences well being.

Q: How was Veterans Yoga Project born?

I eventually became the clinical director of a 30 bed treatment center for the military. I was lucky, I loved it. It was a phenomenal, integrative program inclusive of traditional and mindbody therapies. We offered different things….to help the veterans on different levels…. phys ed programs, talk therapy, group therapy and EMDR were all included in the curriculum. EMDR was an effective part of the program, with 25% saying EMDR was the most effective part of program.

And that’s where VYP was born. I brought in a yoga teacher from the community who had no background in trauma. It was effective in helping the attendees manage their symptoms. I started teaching classes, I wasn’t yet a yoga teacher.

By just the fourth class I taught a vet came in and said “I stopped taking my pain medications..” “I meditate to get to sleep.” And then another person reported to me, “My pain is less..”

So, I was getting alot of this feedback. I took a 200 hour yoga teacher training, taught some more and eventually developed a training for yoga teachers about trauma.

This positive feedback form the veterans happened so many times over the years. It’s just happened so many times over the years …Plus, yoga is helpful for compassion and burnout fatigue….Yoga has made a difference in my own life.

We keep patient report statistics to track program outcome. Today, across the country we do 1500 – 2000 veteran visits a month with reports of 40% average pain reduction.

I want to add that, as I am trained in research, what the research finds is that the most powerful healing is in the placebo effect ….Thus, I believe in letting individuals find whatever tool or tools the need that works for them personally and letting them heal from within, individually.

Q: What do you see in the future for Veterans Yoga Project?

I have alot of experience working with people and bodies and minds and I am very good at those skills. Now I find running a business much bigger challenge. Running VYP has been a really amazing learning experience. For the the past year I haven’t been with the VA or doing clinical work, I’ve been working full-time as the Director of VYP.

I’ve been able to assemble a team of individuals who have a passion for this work. I’m very fortunate to be around amazing people every day.

Veterans are amazing to work with. They have a skill set to organize and just get.shit.done. They are wonderful, full of integrity and work hard to develop processes and procedures. They are brilliant to work with.

And the yoga community is amazing as well. They really want to help and the yoga community really does help. Their healing work is amazing.

Deb Jeannette is the mama bear of the organization. She is a force to be reckoned with. She is very strong and very supportive and she is one of the big reasons this organization is succeeding.

But it is mostly staffed with volunteers. This year I am working on fundraising and expanding the programs offered so that we can hire some full time staff. VYP is at a point in growth where we need to hire paid staff. VYP offers the Mindful Resilience training and we are developing an online compassion fatigue seminar which we hope to offer for CE credits for mental health professionals.

Q: Tell me about your yoga training called Mindful Resilience Training. It sounds wonderful.

I call my yoga training Mindful Resilience training. There is no operational definition for yoga, so it means different things to different people…it brings up stereotypes and different ideas. Some people might believe yoga is for sissies and others think of yoga as meditation or stretching. But I believe VYP is about resilience.

The Mindful Resilience training is about learning 5 tools to help others be a better version of themselves, how to create the space to share and teach the tools. We teach breathing, the daily practice of yoga, tools to help get to sleep and to get back to sleep, and tools to use in the moment when things are getting escalated, like how to calm down during an argument with the spouse or when dealing with impulse control.

Veterans Yoga Project directly tracks the impact of the Mindful Resilience yoga programs on veterans’ lives. We have found participation in a Mindful Resilience program results in reduction of subjective pain and stress and in improvement of quality of life indicators. The program really makes a difference.

Our Mindful Resilience program accounts for about 50% of our revenue and the other 50% is from grants and donations.

Q: Tell us about Veteran’s Gratitude Week, the Attitude of Gratitude for our Veterans.

We are focused on Veteran’s Gratitude Week, which annually takes place the week of Veterans Day Nov 2 – Nov 12.

Veterans Gratitude Week is hosted in yoga studios across the country. In 2018, we actually had classes sponsored in all 50 states.

In the Attitude of Gratitude for our Veterans, we ask corporate sponsors and yoga studios to commit to teaching one community based donation class where community has an opportunity to donate their fee to the veterans.

We have corporate sponsors across America, such as Allstate, LuLuLemon in Pacific NW and Northwell Health in NY State who has supported our work. We welcome other partnerships and corporate sponsors as well.

Veterans Yoga Project is committed to transparency and we have an Accountability Report available on our website for the 84 programs that report back to us. 50 programs are at VAs.

Q: Anything else coming down the pike?

I’ve co-authored a book chapter with Dana Moore, Yoga For Trauma, for inclusion in the book Yoga for Mental Health Conditions: For Yoga Teachers, Therapists and Mental Health Professionals edited by Kelly Birch and Heather Mason.

If you are interested in supporting the mission of Veterans Yoga Project, please consider learning more about the organization and donating to their mission. VYP is committed to accountability to its donors. You can read more about how you are directly supporting the well-being of veterans on the Accountability page of their website.

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