Using Yoga as PTSD Therapy: An Interview with Renee Champagne

Elephant Journal, March 12, 2014

Kula for Karma - Yoga & PTSD

This is the 10th interview in the series “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 part nine and here to read others.

For the past 12 years, Renee Champagne has been working with military organizations to offer alternative forms of healing and overall fitness to military members and their families.

Her work has been mentioned in magazines and articles since 2007 and she has served as the host of the Healthy Living series on Armed Forces Network. She is currently the Outreach Director for Team Red White and Blue Richmond, A Peer Mentor for Wounded Warrior Project and an iRest and adaptive yoga teacher at the Warrior Transition Unit on Ft. Eustis and in Williamsburg, VA.

Due to her own extensive military experience and her marriage to an active duty service member, Renee has a personal passion and continued interest in health in the military. She is currently a graduate student at the Counseling program at William and Mary, studying to combine her education and personal journey to build a model that will empower those recovering from trauma.

In this article, Renee shares her journey through trauma and recovery, how her own healing is some of the hardest work she’s ever done, and why the work of helping ourselves can become the ultimate service to those we love.

Renee’s Story

I grew up in Great Falls, VA in a loving family with three sisters. I had a normal childhood until the age of eight, when I was sexually assaulted by a teenage boy in my neighborhood. At age 11, I was molested again by my babysitter.

Looking back, I can see that these traumatic experiences were part of what drew me to do service work. I didn’t want anyone to feel as unsafe as those experiences had made me feel. Even at a young age, I had an instinct to protect others from the kind of danger I had experienced. My mother encouraged me to start volunteering locally and by the time I was in 10th grade, I had received an award from the congressman called the Congressional award, for all my work in the community.

After high school, I attended NOVA community college, where I pursued Outdoor Education for a semester. Following this semester, I left NOVA and went to the local recruiting station and told them I wanted to be a cop.

Shortly after, off I went. I loved my training and the unit I was in. I loved that I had an opportunity to serve my country. However, in July 1997 I was drugged and raped by a member of my unit. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this is when my symptoms of PTSD began.

It was at this point in my life that I left my military training and attempted to put away the traumatic experience. I tried to leave the feelings of the event by leaving the environment where it occurred. I thought I could outrun it and I tried for a long time.

I graduated from Prescott College, obtained several certifications in both yoga and fitness, and began various lines of work, all of which encouraged others to live a healthy lifestyle. Since my husband and I are both involved in the military, we moved a lot as a family. But with each move, I worked to organize physical fitness programs, both for those in active duty and their family members. Eventually I got certified to teach yoga to kids.

I was also taking some yoga classes but I wasn’t as present as I was when I was teaching. It was difficult for me to be still. It was hard for me to trust anyone, but especially in an environment that included hugging, words like ‘namaste’, talk about honoring the light inside me, and loud, weird breathing exercises. Eventually, I found Core Power Yoga and I loved it because it felt like a workout. However, the fact that I could never calm my mind was becoming increasingly scary to me. I had even considered the idea that I had adult ADD, which now I know isn’t true. I have severe PTSD.

But it was really working with children that inspired me and influenced how I felt about yoga. Because I had to be calm and present for the children, they started teaching me how to be present, and that’s how my practice started to evolve.

I tried to leave the feelings of the traumatic event by leaving the environment where it occurred. I thought I could outrun it. I tried for a long time.

It was after my experience working with children that I applied for a scholarship to get certified through Core Power Yoga. Through this process, it was tough to realize how much I had been trying to control everything and keep up appearances and how much I had been trying to make everything perfect. But what Yoga started showing me, the more I gave in to it, is that letting go is sometimes a part of getting better.

For the majority of my life I have been lead by the desire to serve others, but what I now realize is that this path is incomplete if I am not also working to take care of myself. I am so grateful to have realized this, because what I now feel that I have to offer others is a truly sustainable gift.

Disconnect

In the years following the rape, I tried to master the art of avoiding what I was feeling. I did race after race until I collapsed, worked on huge projects to the point of exhaustion, traveled, got certification after certification and went back to back to school for a masters. I would do anything not to stop and think.

This continued until I was assaulted two years ago, again in a work environment. Although the circumstances were different, this incident triggered me and caused me to start experiencing flashbacks of the rape that I had experienced during my military training, in July of ‘98. Suddenly I was having physical memories of an event that I couldn’t intellectually understand. Because I had spent so much time trying to suppress it, I had no idea how to address what was happening to me.

What I now know, through studying trauma and the body, is that the body remembers things that the mind “forgets.” A traumatic event can be stored in our nervous system, ready for the next attack, like a fire alarm that is permanently left on.

At the time, I didn’t know any of this and it felt as if my body was sending me messages that my mind couldn’t read. It was hard to ask for help, or even know where to begin, because I didn’t know what was happening to me.

Then I started having breakdowns, often in response to incidents where I felt that I had been betrayed. Although all of this was an invitation to deal with something I was running from, I simply wasn’t ready. I was just doing the best I could. And finally, I did my best to escape it by trying to shut down all feeling. I stopped practicing yoga. I was still teaching at the time, but I was completely numb.

For the majority of my life I have been lead by the desire to serve others, but what I now realize is that this path is incomplete if I am not also working to take care of myself. I am so grateful to have realized this, because what I now feel that I have to offer others is a truly sustainable gift.

The Painful Task of Asking for Help

Eventually, the fear and disorientation became so deep that I took Ativan, Valium and drank a bottle of wine ended up in Landstuhl hospital. This, in one light, was my attempt to make all my mental and physical pain go away but it did the exact opposite and nearly killed me and scared my friends and family. When I overdosed, I was forced to realize that the way I was running from the pain could also, potentially, end my life.

This experience is what made me willing to find a therapist I could work with and to be honest with her about what was happening.

All these years I’d been helping everyone else, so I was in shock not only because of the intensity of the pain that I was experiencing, but because I had to admit that I needed help. With all my military training, which stresses strength and self-sufficiency, this was incredibly difficult for me.

Around this time, the therapist that I respected encouraged me to attend an iRest training with Richard Miller, who offers a style of yoga and meditation that is specific to trauma recovery. After much debate and much encouragement from friends and family,

I was extremely uncomfortable at first, but eventually the iRest training started to feel like a therapeutic place for me. When I hit a very difficult point mid-week, Richard Miller just said “Renee, it works” so I picked the one person in the room that I felt safest with, and made a lot of progress from that point. I had to trust the process, which meant not running away.

It was difficult for me to be still. It was hard for me to trust anyone, but especially in an environment that included hugging, words like ‘namaste’, talk about honoring the light inside me, and loud, weird breathing exercises.

Still, sometimes to this day, I don’t feel like I have a right to have this issue because I never actually went to war. In 2002, I was released with an Honorable Discharge. Yet through owning my story and asking for help, I’ve had people come up to me and thank me for sharing and tell me that they’ve experienced the same thing. I had this enormous man come up to me at a Project Odyssey and tell me that he had experienced a similar traumatic event in the military.

And here we were, connecting through Yoga. And that’s what yoga does: it teaches us to be soft, to allow our emotions, and then through that allowing, we are able to make discoveries and connections. We are able to stay calm, to breathe into our pain, until eventually, it changes.

The Practice of Daily Life

I’m going through Prolonged Exposure Therapy right now and I’m practicing yoga three or four days a week. I also sit and meditate by just being still for a few minutes each day, which is something I never would have done before taking the iRest training. Anytime I feel my heart rate go up, or I feel uneasy after the therapy, I find a yoga class. For me, it doesn’t matter what kind of yoga class it is. I try to be open minded, however I need to feel safe. Practicing yoga with my kids and husband has been healing and wonderful to see how they have embraced it.

I say that yoga is my medicine because for a while I was being prescribed so many other medications: Ativan, Prozac, Valium, Trazodone, and a few others—and I became so weak so I couldn’t run and mentally I was a basket case. As soon as I took myself off those medications and started to really focus on yoga, I started to feel clearer, stronger and ready to face my trauma.

I was never one to need or want to take prescription medication. It’s hard for me to understand why we are so quickly prescribed them without ever trying alternative methods. I think all the medication just helped me get further away from the root issue and prolonged the process of getting real help.

Willingness is the Key

So when you are ready, willing and open, you can use the practice in your daily life. At this point, a yoga class is a number one go-to resource. It is a safe place for me because I know what to expect, and it helps me deal with things that are unexpected outside of class.

My husband and I are Catholic, and he asked me the other day “why is yoga so spiritual to you?” and it was a really hard question for me to answer. I finally said “God was never there to protect me. I can’t see it, and if I can’t see it or touch it, it’s really hard for me to connect.” I felt guilty about that for a while, but then I realized that there are many spiritual paths. Although I believe in God, I feel most connected when I am doing Yoga. It is simply one of many spiritual paths that works in my life.

What Yoga started showing me, the more I gave in to it, is that letting go is sometimes a part of getting better.

Even my children know about my yoga at this point, and when I get upset they will say to me “yoga breathing mommy, yoga breathing.” My practice has also changed the way that I teach. I am not just leading people through poses, but encouraging them to be aware of what is going on inside their bodies in the hopes that they will take this awareness back into their life.

Yoga Has Saved My Life

It’s been a long road, and I am finally, at age 42, at the acceptance stage where I don’t worry if people know that I have PTSD and am in therapy. I am taking care of myself. I refuse pain and nerve medication because I actually want to feel in my body. Because such a huge part of PTSD for me is disassociation, it actually feels healthier for me to use yoga to feel my body and work with it, instead of numbing.

I’ve numbed myself enough.

So honestly, yoga has saved my life. It has become my first go-to resource and what has allowed me to face, and work through, my trauma. My therapists and my doctors all tell me that without yoga, I wouldn’t be this

Through owning my story and asking for help, I’ve had people come up to me and thank me for sharing and tell me that they’ve experienced the same thing.

But it’s an ongoing practice and it’s humbling to have to continuously remind myself that at forty two years old, I have Severe PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. I am in the process of trying to re-wire my brain. And I truly believe that if I had yoga when I went into the military and experienced those traumas, then I probably wouldn’t be forty two and dealing with it.

Beyond those recovering from PTSD, I believe Yoga has lots of tools that can benefit anyone who is involved in the military. Being okay with not being okay, showing emotion, slowing down, letting go of the ego: these are all tools of yoga which can teach us to be calm in stressful situations, and when and how to surrender control.

An Invisible War

Those of us who have been traumatized in the military are fighting our own war. It’s an invisible war, but it is real. I was in the middle of an exercise  when I was raped. I have a friend who went downrange and said “I was more worried about being raped then I was of being hit by an IED.”

With the help of yoga, I’ve really worked hard to move on from my own trauma. So I’m at the point now where I want to help others with their own recovery. And I think that if both men and women had a class and were exposed to yoga as part of their Physical Training before they went downrange, it might help us see each other as humans. You are far less likely to sexually assault someone if you recognize their humanity.

A few months ago, I confronted the person that assaulted me when I was 11 and found out that this person has served in the Army for 27 years now. It was one of the hardest things to confront them and I had no idea what to expect.  It took everything out of me to listen to them ask for forgiveness and talk about their abuse they went through as a child. I had to take deep breaths to get through the conversation and if I was still where I was a year ago, I probably would have numbed. It is only because I was introduced to yoga that I had the tools to stay awake.

Although this incident from my childhood still angers me, yoga has also allowed me to be at peace with what I can’t control and to take control of what I can. My own ability to stay centered and calm during that conversation is something I was able to control. To realize this gave me a great sense of freedom and caused me to connect with this person in a way I could not have predicted.

So honestly, yoga has saved my life. I truly believe to this day that yoga is my medicine. It has become my first go-to resource and what has allowed me to face, and work through, my trauma. My therapists and my doctors all tell me that without yoga, I wouldn’t be this far.

After that conversation, I found myself wondering why others who had hurt me could not also feel remorse. But what I also realized is that I needed to forgive, not for their sake, but for my own. I needed to move onward in order to help others. I realize now that this is a large part of what forgiveness is: the willingness to let go of things that have once owned you so you can put that energy in a new, more productive place.

I want to show people that it is possible to move forward from great pain and have beautiful things in your life. You can have a husband, you can have a family, you can be happy. But you have to get healthy first. And the only person who can do that is you. It has to come from within and you have to be ready. Because PTSD is sort of like an addiction, you can get used to using it as a crutch and a way of avoiding things. People have to really want change in order to experience it. A million people can tell you to do yoga and a million people can give you tools, but if you don’t take responsibility for your own behavior and your actions, you will not heal. I truly believe this.

Dreams for the Future

I am honored to have recently begun the masters program at William and Mary, where I will be completing my degree with a focus on clinical mental health. It is my hope to become a therapist for both service members and their families, combining yoga, fitness and psychology. I believe this is how I can give back what I have been given as well as be a part of my continued healing. I want to help others not have to go through what I went through in order to finally get the help they need.

A million people can tell you to do yoga and a million people can give you tools, but if you don’t take responsibility for your own behavior and your actions, you will not heal. I truly believe this.

Because there’s so much negativity in discussion of the military right now, I see my role as helping people see how these kinds of incidents can be prevented and overcome. And I think anything that can be of real use when offered to someone in the military, must be offered slowly, simply and safely. I would say the most important element of that is safety. A safe place is a huge gift and a really important start in getting your life back. Asking for help and getting it are not signs of weakness. It takes strength to want to help yourself, to take responsibility for what you need and ask for it.

I would also like to sincerely thank a few of the commanders on both Ramstein Air Force Base  and Andrews who stepped up and made sure I got the care I needed, once I was ready to ask for it, from both Sexual Assault Response Coordinators and SVC,on Andrews AFB . They also supported my husband while in command. This made me feel safe and realize that there is some leadership in the Air Force that truly care and have no tolerance for military sexual assault.

Asking for help and getting it are not signs of weakness. It takes strength to want to help yourself, to take responsibility for what you need and ask for it.

I sincerely appreciate and respect so much of the work being done by and for veterans and their families, around the country. Programs like Team Red White and Blue, the WTU’s in Germany, the Pentagon, WWP, veterans, spouses and the communities all over are supporting yoga as a way of healing trauma. There is a long list of Veterans that truly care and understand the importance of being healthy both mentally and physically. CJ Keller, Melinda Morgan, Brendan Mckenny, Kate Hendricks, Sarah Plummer, Tony Garcia, Chris Eder, Jessica Coltes, Tania Visconi, to name a few. All have their experience strength and hope to share and are doing great things. People like Robin Carnes, Richard Miller, Rick Echler, Suzanne Manafort,Annie Okerlin and Mary Karstens, Heather Gostage are not veterans but are all doing amazing work to help Veterans, AD and their families. My hope is that we all continue to support each other, remember our common ground, and move forward together on this brave path of recovery.

Organizations and Projects Addressing and Raising Awareness Around Sexual Assault in the Military: 

  • Service Women’s Action Network
  • The Invisible War, Award Winning Documentary Film 
  • Current Coverage of Military Sexual Trauma