For Marine veteran Logan Stark, physical activity was a key part of recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the very start. But a chance to participate in a preliminary study of yoga to help relieve PTSD symptoms helped take his recovery to the next level.
“Immediately, I could tell a difference,” Stark said.
Stark participated in a one-man case study of the effect of yoga practice on brain function and PTSD symptoms at Michigan State University (MSU) in 2014. Over eight weeks, the study documented dramatic improvements in Stark’s anxiety levels, PTSD symptoms, ability to focus, and multitasking skills.
“In this brief period, he made gains that far exceeded our expectations,” said Jason Moser, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at MSU.
The idea for the study came from yoga instructor Kintla Ernst, of Kintla Yoga in East Lansing, Michigan. Ernst specializes in working with individuals who have experienced trauma. She had been talking with Dr. Moser, who is interested in alternative treatments for PTSD, about the possibility of collaborating on a study.
Ernst heard about Stark through his writing and a documentary he created about the experience of serving in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. Twenty-five men in Stark’s unit, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, were killed. In the documentary, Stark and three comrades describe how they felt during and after their deployment.
At the time, Stark said he felt that his recovery was going well. He was feeling less angry and frustrated than early in recovery. He agreed to participate because he was open to the idea of using yoga to further his progress. Immediately, Stark said he felt more at ease after practicing yoga and more aware of his thought processes.
“I realized there is no cap to how good you can feel and how much better your recovery process can be,” he said.
As Stark began feeling better, he also began performing better on the two-hour battery of cognitive tests Dr. Moser used each week to document changes in his brain function over the course of the study. Stark began the study with mild PTSD symptoms, but his symptom score dropped from 15 to 4 over the course of the study. His score on a test of how distractible he was dropped from about 80 to 0. His working memory, an ability that facilitates multitasking, score doubled.
“That is unheard of,” said Dr. Moser. Stark has maintained many of these gains at a three-month follow-up assessment Dr. Moser just completed.
Based on these promising results, Dr. Moser and Ernst are preparing to conduct a larger study. They are preparing a standard protocol and taking other steps that will let them test whether a larger group of people experiencing PTSD will show similar gains.
Stark encouraged other veterans to keep an open mind about the possible benefits of yoga. He explained that combat veterans learn to disconnect from their emotions and unpleasant physical sensations. But his yoga practice helped him reconnect with his body and replace some of the negative emotions and physical sensations of being in combat with more positive physical experiences.
“Everything you do in the service is to serve a larger purpose,” he said. “You do not get to focus on yourself. Yoga allows you to focus on yourself and get into a positive state.”