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.


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 

Yoga May Help Breast Cancer Patients


by Kathleen Doherty

TUESDAY, March 4, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Women with breast cancer who practiced yoga had lower levels of stress hormones and reported less fatigue and better quality of life, new research shows.

"Yoga is having an impact on subjective well-being, as well as better regulation of cortisol, a stress hormone," said study co-author Lorenzo Cohen, director of the integrative medicine program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston. "Better regulation of stress hormones has been linked with better survival and longer survival."

The study is published in the March 3 online edition of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Other research has found yoga helpful for cancer patients, Cohen said, but some of those studies have looked at small numbers of patients and others have not compared the yoga group to a "control" group to measure results.

Yoga for Breast Cancer Patients - Kula for Karma

For the new study, Cohen assigned more than 160 women with breast cancer who were undergoing radiation therapy to do either yoga or stretching up to three times a week for an hour each session. Those two groups were compared to a control group that received no instruction in either yoga or stretching.

The women reported on their quality of life, including how fatigued or depressed they felt, and described their daily functioning. They gave saliva samples at the study's start, the end of treatment, and at one, three and six months after treatment, so cortisol could be measured.

Women in the yoga group had the greatest reduction in cortisol levels across the day, which reflected the ability of yoga to help regulate stress hormones, the study authors noted.

After finishing radiation treatment, which is linked with fatigue, only the yoga and stretching groups reported feeling less tired, the findings showed. The yoga group had more benefits in physical functioning than the other two groups.

No differences were found between the groups for mental health and sleep quality. That may have been because all the women were doing fairly well on those measures at the study's start, Cohen said.

Previous studies have linked exercise with better well-being and less fatigue among cancer patients, said Dr. Joanne Mortimer, director of women's cancer programs and co-director of the breast cancer program at City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif.

Recommending exercise to a cancer patient who is already tired may sound counterintuitive, Mortimer said, but research suggests that's not so.

"This study supports that the more you do, the better off you are," Mortimer explained.

Cohen put it this way: "I think it's important for breast cancer patients to engage in some sort of activity to buffer [dealing with the disease]."

Yoga, he said, provides an important mind-body approach to help patients get physical activity, relax and calm their mind.

While yoga class offerings are widespread, Cohen pointed out that "it's important to find the right kind of yoga teacher. It's about doing a gentler form of yoga."

He suggested women with breast cancer ask their doctor first if they can participate in yoga, then find a yoga instructor with experience leading a class that includes cancer patients.

How Yoga Can Help Women with Breast Cancer

ABC News, May 4, 2014

By Danielle Krol, M.D. (@dailydosemd)

Yoga for Breast Cancer - Kula for Karma

Yoga can help ease pain, fatigue and depression among women battling breast cancer, a new study found. It might even help them survive.

The study of 191 breast cancer patients linked yoga to improvements in self-reported quality of life, including measures of mood, pain and fatigue. Practicing yoga also appeared to help regulate the stress hormone cortisol, which is tied to poor survival among breast cancer patients.

“The benefits of yoga are above and beyond stretching,” said Lorenzo Cohen, a professor of oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and lead author of the study published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. “These findings may improve outcomes in cancer survivors.”

To conduct the study, Cohen and his team randomly assigned 191 women with breast cancer who were undergoing radiation therapy into one of three groups. One group did yoga, another did simple stretching exercises, and a third group did neither. The participants in the yoga and stretching groups attended sessions for one hour, three days a week throughout the six weeks of their radiation therapy.

Throughout the study, Cohen’s team asked patients a series of questions assessing their quality of life, fatigue level and sleep quality, and tested their cortisol levels. By comparing the groups, they found yoga significantly reduced fatigue, raised physical function and health perception scores and reduced cortisol levels.

Dr. Barrie Cassileth, chief of the integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said the new findings lend additional weight to the science behind mind-body approaches to cancer treatment.

“Yoga is a very important intervention, and this was a high quality investigation,” said Cassileth, who was not involved with the study. “This study looked beyond the physical benefits of yoga by looking at the physiologic measure of stress: cortisol.”

The new research is part of an ongoing effort by researchers at M.D. Anderson to scientifically corroborate mind-body interventions in cancer care. The study was done in collaboration with Swami Vivekananda Anusandhana Samsthana, India’s largest yoga research institution.

Breast Cancer is the most common cancer among women, with an estimated 232,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Doctor’s Take

Integrative medicine, a philosophy that explores new ways to treat the mind, body and spirit, is increasingly popular among physicians. Now research is starting to provide concrete evidence on the benefits of yoga, especially in the cancer setting.

A practice that began over 5,000 years ago, yoga has only recently begun to be integrated into medical therapy at cancer centers across the country. And while its original focus may have been wellness and emotional health, studies like this, which look at physical measures like cortisol levels, suggest that yoga’s effects may extend beyond what many doctors once believed.

The study adds to mounting evidence that yoga can be used to control physical functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, metabolism and body temperature. And for women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, it might be one more reason to look to this ancient practice for improved quality of life and possibly a better chance of beating their disease

How the Mind-Body Aspects of Yoga Can Help Breast Cancer Patients

Yoga for Breast Cancer - Kula for Karma

The mind-body aspects of yoga specifically could carry benefits for women undergoing breast cancer treatment, according to a small new study.

The research, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, shows that women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer who were enrolled in a yoga intervention (that included meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques) experienced improved stress hormone regulation, decreased fatigue and improved general health.

"Combining mind and body practices that are part of yoga clearly have tremendous potential to help patients manage the psychosocial and physical difficulties associated with treatment and life after cancer, beyond the benefits of simple stretching," study researcher Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said in a statement.

The study included 191 women with breast cancer of varying stages, who were randomly assigned to one of three groups as they underwent their radiation treatment for six weeks. One group did simple stretching, the second group did yoga, and the third group did no yoga or stretching. The yoga and stretching groups did their assigned activity for one hour, three times a week.

The participants self-reported their fatigue and depression levels throughout the intervention, and researchers also collected saliva samples and administered echocardiogram tests at the beginning of the study, at the end of the radiation treatment, and then one, three and six months after the radiation treatment had ended.

They found that overall, the participants who were assigned to the yoga group experienced the greatest gains in all measurements of health. Specifically, the yoga group had the greatest decreases in cortisol levels throughout the day. And after radiation treatment, the yoga and stretching groups experienced decreases in fatigue, compared with the control group. Months after the radiation treatment, the yoga group self-reported higher general health, and were also more likely than the other two groups to say that they found some kind of meaning of life from their cancer experience.

Previous research has indicated that yoga could decrease inflammation and fatigue among breast cancer survivors. One study showing this effect, published in the same journal as the new study, posited that the beneficial effects could come from yoga's ability to improve sleep.