This is the ninth interview in an ongoing series called “At Attention, At Peace”; a conversation among teachers, students, and officials about the role of Yoga and meditation in addressing PTSD in the military. Click here to read others. To subscribe to this series, email ‘subscribe’ to [email protected] to stay updated on new interviews.
Chris Eder, a 23-year Air Force veteran, teacher of Military Broadcast Journalism and certified Vinyasa and Hatha Yoga Instructor, discovered yoga in ’99 after suffering from a pinched sciatic nerve and a diagnosis of Adult ADD. On the search for alternatives to medication, Chris tried yoga for the first time and says of that first class “I was hooked.”
During a 2007 deployment to Baghdad Iraq, Chris began teaching a morning sunrise yoga class five days a week. Upon returning to Italy for his follow-on assignment, Chris attended Yoga Fit training and later went on to receive his 200 teacher training from Frog Lotus Yoga, specializing in Vinyasa and Hatha Interdisciplinary classes.
Throughout his yoga practice, Chris has found both healing and empowerment through sharing the gift of Yoga with other veterans, teaching yoga to Wounded Warriors returning from combat and offering free classes to veterans once a week. Chris currently volunteers with several organizations such as the Veterans Yoga Project, Give Back Yoga Foundation and War Retreat, serving as a liaison and a spokesperson in the ongoing effort to de-stigmatize both yoga and PTSD and make whole-body wellness solutions more accessible to military personnel. When Chris is not teaching yoga, he is weaving beautiful, customized Mala Beads for his non-profit organization, MalaforVets, which donates its’ funds to Veterans yoga resources.
In this interview, Chris talks about the macho culture of the military, the power of resisting labels, how yoga isn’t just for women and why, on some days, acceptance is the most useful tool he owns.
Lilly: The phrase “Whole Body Wellness” comes up a lot in talking about alternative forms of healthcare. What does the phrase “whole body” mean to you in the context of providing healing for veterans?
Chris: It means that it has to be a whole-bodied solution and there’s not one singular method that’s going to help our nation’s wounded and ill. There just isn’t. There’s no one-size fits all.
Lilly: What brought you to this work?
Chris: Before I did my first teacher training, I knew that I wanted to connect with a veteran outreach program. I knew that was my niche. It didn’t start out as an interest in working with PTSD, but just about making it accessible to the military, sort of as a pre-emptive strike.
Lilly: I heard you say recently at a training, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a disorder, but a natural, human response to disordered events.” Can you say a little bit more about what you meant by that?
Chris: I think of PTSD as a pervasive chaos, caused by your safety response, your fight or flight response, which is supposed to happen. What’s not a good thing is that safety response continues after the danger has passed. That’s when the madness starts.
Lilly: At the risk of oversimplification, if you think of this state of alertness in the system as a light switch that gets left on, what keeps it this way, in your opinion?Chris Eder, Air Force
Chris: For me, I never knew I had PTSD, it did not come on the radar for a long time. I had a lot of exposure to horrific things during my 2003 deployment to Iraq, then I went back in 2007 and tripled that exposure, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I considered something was going on other than my ADD or sleep apnea or what I thought was early onset Alzheimer’s.
Lilly: Can you give me some examples of how those symptoms started to appear?
Chris: I used to think I’d never met a stranger, because I was such an extravert, I would talk to anyone. These days, it’s hard to get out of the house. If in the line of my official duties, I come across you, I will be friendly. Otherwise, I’d rather stay home.
Also, I used to love playing sports. And now I just have no desire. I don’t like the group sport aspect of it, I fear being injured, I have no interest. You can say very little to me that will excite me to the point where I’m thrilled.
The only thing that really gives me joy is doing yoga. Honestly my yoga practice is what keeps me from ending all of this. Not to trivialize suicide, because who knows what’s going on in the mind of someone who decides to go that route.
Lilly: This is one view of suicide: that it is a way for men and women to end a war that is still occurring inside them.
Chris: That’s exactly it. I think something that also added to my symptoms was that I moved two times in the course of my deployments, so there was no time to process all that happened. There was no home base.
I was diagnosed with ADD in ‘99, so at first I assumed that some of the things I was experiencing were related to that: lack of focus, inability to complete tasks. Then I slowly started to withdraw, friends became fewer and fewer. I mean I have 1,300 friends on Facebook but there’s only about five of those people that I actually call.MalaforVets, Ganesh Mala
Then my sleeping patterns got worse, and I started calling out in my sleep. And then my memory started to get really bad. I went to my doctor and said “I think I have Alzheimer’s” and he told me that I couldn’t remember things because I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I finally got tested for sleep apnea and was diagnosed with that. But in the past year my sleep problems have gotten about four times worse.
I came out to Feathered Pipe Ranch last winter to do this training with the Veterans Yoga Project, and I found myself putting checks and circling things and putting stars everywhere. So on one of the breaks I pulled Dr. Dan Libby aside and just asked “do you think I could have this thing?” And he said “you need to see a therapist.”
It was about two months after that before I went in and got screened, and the dude’s like “where have you been?” It was just check, check, check, check.
Lilly: So at this point, as your going through all these tests to see if you’ve got this thing – did you have resistance to the label of PTSD?
Chris: I was diagnosed with PTSD, general anxiety disorder and depression right off the bat. But I don’t have resistance to the label and I’ll tell you why: my son has autism and so when we introduce him, we don’t say “here’s my autistic child.” I say “this is my son Ollie, he’s an amazing person.”
So labels don’t define a person, but the labels are your ticket to treatment and services. For the purposes of treatment and services, I have PTSD. But the label means nothing to me. I can check all those boxes for PTSD, but i’m still an individual.
I think of PTSD as a pervasive chaos, caused by your safety response, your fight or flight response, which is supposed to happen. What’s not good is when that safety response continues, after the danger has passed. That’s when the madness starts.
Lilly: How would you describe the stigma associated with PTSD in the military?
Chris: It’s singular: it’s the fact that if you have PTSD, you can’t be a warrior. You can’t re-deploy. It’s just that simple. Having PTSD means you’re weak. Your job is to kill, you’re not supposed to be weak. End of story.
Lilly: Do you think that more assistance in the return home from deployments, or pre-deployment, could help prevent PTSD before people are medically discharged?
Chris: I’m not smart enough to say that. A lof of military bases and organizations are adding resiliency components. The Army has the Army Resiliency Program, the Department of Defense has Total Force Fitness, which has a five tiered approach to health: physical, mental, spiritual, social and family.
Lilly: So if you witness something terrifying, and you don’t have the ability to emotionally engage with it at the time, do you think that that gap, between a traumatic event and processing it, is how PTSD develops?
Chris: So the traumatic event happens, and you go into hyper-arousal in response, because you’re trying to protect yourself. And that’s good. But then, in war, if you come down, you might just be spiked up again. And again. And again. You don’t really ever know. And so you don’t ever really come down.
I can’t tell you that I saw something and immediately had PTSD. And some people could see the same thing that I did and never struggle with it. And others could think they weren’t bothered and then all of a sudden it comes back to them. And there’s a large group as well that comes home and recognize that they’re struggling and get help right away.
Lilly: Did nightmares or flashbacks start to crop up for you, long after you experienced the traumatic events?
Labels don’t define a person, but the labels are your ticket to treatment and services. For the purposes of treatment and services, I have PTSD. But the label means nothing to me.
Chris: Yes. I have several reoccurring nightmares. I have flashbacks of events, with such clarity of mind that I experience smells and sounds. And here’s the crazy part: I can’t remember anything, but I can sit here and tell you with pinpoint accuracy all the things that happened in Iraq.
Lilly: What do you experience in your body when you are having a flashback?
Chris: My heart starts pounding, my breath is shortened. I cry at night. And I don’t know when it’s going to happen. I can go to bed extremely happy and it doesn’t make a difference.
Lilly: I’ve been revisiting the Yoga Sutras with PTSD in mind. And this idea that the goal of yoga is about seeing clearly- without the traps of our conditioning hindering us- has struck me in terms of thinking about recovery from PTSD as gaining awareness about and freedom from your past.
Chris: I can’t control my flashbacks or my delusions, and sometimes, even in meditation, I just have to sit with them. And that’s life, right? Sometimes stuff comes up that’s unwanted and we can’t control. PTSD is a pretty intense level of unwanted experience, but I think Santosha—acceptance—is really important.
Sometimes when I’m by myself it’s easy to control. And at other times, especially when i’m in large groups, it’s really hard. I had to sit with my wife for three hours in the DMV the other day and it was horrible. There were probably 300 people in that room. I looked at my wife and said “I’m really not comfortable here.” And she said “does that mean we can’t be anywhere with a lot of people?” and I said “no, it just means I don’t want to be somewhere where someone could potentially have a gun.”
Lilly: What were you experiencing?
Chris: I was on high-alert, checking everybody out, looking at all the coming and going, trying to anticipate any sudden moves. I was in a state of trying to prepare for the worst possible scenario. For three hours.
Lilly: A lot of that alertness and preparedness is, as you mentioned, natural and useful in an unsafe situation. But when it goes too far, it wipes out the other perceptions so that you feel unsafe more or less all the time.
Chris: It seems like there’s a tipping point for me. And sometimes the tipping point is gradual, and sometimes it’s instantaneous.
If I’m driving on the freeway and I get cut off, or I see something that is suspicious, it will hit me immediately and I will just go ballistic. The gradual onset is more interpersonal—where there’s a tension around a miscommunication. I will get sweaty and my heart will start racing and I will know that I have to stop and use my words. I will say “we have to stop because we are not at a point where we are listening to each other anymore.”
I’ve learned if I push it past that point, then I snap, and I won’t stop until I’m satisfied. And as soon as it starts, I almost immediately start to feel guilty but I can’t stop it until I’ve seen it through, to the point where I’ve really harmed someone.
Lilly: I think that speaks to the way that we at first try to defend ourselves with words, and then we get to a more raw, exposed, perhaps more primal place, we attack.
Chris: And that’s a natural reaction. But the inability to control that is the unhealthy part.
Lilly: I think that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about balancing the two parts of the nervous system– the alert readiness that allows us to defend ourselves, but also the ability to step back, take a breath, and consider whether or not we’re actually in danger.
Chris: I can track the days that go by that I don’t meditate and there’s a direct correlation between that number of days and how bad I feel. I got sick recently and I didn’t practice for almost two weeks and I found myself getting into more disagreements with everyone around me. So there’s a marked difference.
Lilly: After you’ve blown up in anger, how do you get back on track without being too hard on yourself about it?
Chris: Last June 27th, which was national PTSD awareness day, I came out to the world. I put a picture of myself up on this site, which showed me in my military outfit making a crazy face. And the caption was “i’m not okay, and that’s okay.”
I can’t control my flashbacks or my delusions, and sometimes, even in meditation, I just have to sit with them. And that’s life, right? PTSD is a pretty intense level of unwanted experience, but I think Santosha—acceptance—is really important.
And I was just trying to raise more awareness about how it’s okay to be wounded and it doesn’t have to be mean anything about your value and whether or not you’re a warrior.
Lilly: What are some of the challenges of being a veteran who has an invisible rather than a visible injury?
Chris: I think it’s easier to identify and have compassion for visible injury, for obvious reasons. If you try to consider how you would be responding to an angry vet with PTSD if they were a triple amputee, it can shift things.
But PTSD does not define me. It’s something that I have, and because I have it I need to get help. And I get help so that it doesn’t become all that I am. Sometimes though, it does become me.
Lilly: How would you describe the role of yoga in your current life?
Chris: I think most importantly it’s paying it forward, by giving back the gift i’ve been given. I really feel that my role as a yogi is so connected to my role as a teacher. If I can offer something to others so that they can be at ease and develop the tools to take care of themselves, then that’s huge.
Lilly: At first glance, the yoga community and the military community are two opposing cultures. What in your mind is the common ground that exists between them?
Chris: I think a lot of the resistance to yoga in the military comes from a masculine standpoint. The ladies in the military who are practicing yoga are all about it. But the men look at the fact that all the ladies are going to yoga and assume it must be for ladies. And some of us just stop there. We assume we know what yoga is.
But one by one, what i’ve witnessed is that men are becoming more open to it. Sometimes i’ll be talking to someone at work and they’ll be talking about how wussy yoga is, and then i’ll take my boots off and drop into a pose, and then ask them to do it. And when they can’t, i’ll get my friend Jennifer to come over and she’ll drop into the pose no problem. So while these guys might be talking about how yoga is for girls, they can’t do what the girls are doing. And that’s how I get them in.
I have a friend in the Air Force who used to give me shit about doing yoga and say that I must like it because i’m around all these girls. And i’m like “what’s wrong with that?.” I gave him a free pass to one of my classes and he came and checked it out. Now this guy is a soldier’s solider. And we’re just getting started, just minor movement, and he was just torked. We go to side plank and he just can’t hold it, and there’s a 50 year old lady next to him with her leg in the air.
Now he comes regularly to my free Sunday class for vets and does yoga 2 or 3 times a week.
Lilly: I think it really is a cultural merging that’s happening, between yoga and the military, but also a merging that’s going on between what we think of as stereotypically masculine and feminine.
Chris: If you think about it, 6,000 years ago, who practiced yoga?
Lilly: Dudes in loin clothes.
Chris: Right. And the elite class. Tell me if you think there’s anything more elite than the military. Because remember the statistic: less than 3 percent of the population is actually fit enough to qualify to serve. And of that 3 percent, less than 1 percent actually do. This is the first year ever that all the people running for president and vice president, no one has served in the military.
PTSD does not define me. It’s something that I have, and because I have it I need to get help. And I get help so that it doesn’t become all that I am.
Lilly: What are some of your visions for yoga in the military, in the next 20 years?
Chris: PTSD has a stigma and Yoga has a stigma. I don’t want yoga to be thought of as an afterthought. I want it to be part of the treatment plan. I believe that there’s a time and a place for medication. I mean I’m on meds and I hate taking meds, but I’m on them right now because I need to be. So I want yoga to be considered part of the standard treatment plan.
What if someone with PTSD was told they were going to meet with a psychiatrist once a week, someone who could give them medication just to make their initial transition easier, but they were also told they were going to see a yoga instructor once a week, who was trained to work with veterans, focusing on mindfulness?
And eventually, as that team worked together, what if the amount of visits to the psychiatrist slowly decreased as the amount of times you did yoga increased, and also the amount of pills slowly decreased? I want to see psychiatry working in tandem with these holistic modalities so that it is an overall part of the treatment plan.
Lilly: Say you meet a vet with PTSD and you have two minutes to say something to him about yoga. What would you say?
Chris: I would tell him yoga is a way for him to help regulate and normalize what’s going on inside. And then he’ll probably say something about how it’s for women and I’ll drop a pose right there in the elevator and ask him if he can do it. And then say “it will challenge you.”
I don’t want yoga to be thought of as an afterthought. I want it to be part of the treatment plan.
But I don’t honestly care why someone decides to come to yoga, or what they explore in a class. As long as we can get the warrior on the mat, over time he or she will become hooked. I’m amazed by people who come just for physical fitness and then eventually they’ll turn to me and say “so what’s the deal with these chakras?”MalaforVets, Manipura Chakra Mala
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta