Lance Corporal Casey Casanova was 22 when a roadside bomb killed her in Iraq. Matt Hinojos blamed himself. Just 22, he felt he should have known about the bomb—though of course he couldn’t have.
“Casey’s death hit me hard,” said Hinojos. “I lost other friends, too. I felt responsible.”
War left Hinojos with post-traumatic stress disorder. The military gave him Effexor, a prescription drug. It made him worse—so much worse he hanged himself with a martial arts belt from the bathroom door in his barracks. Friends found him just in time. The military sent him to OASIS, a treatment facility at the Naval Medical Center in Port Loma, Calif.
“That’s where I found yoga,” said Hinojos. “And yoga literally saved my life.”
Now 30 and a yoga teacher in Albuquerque, Hinojos is on a mission to help others to overcome PTSD through yoga. This spring, he will launch his innovative 911 Yoga method at Elevation Yoga & Wellness Studio. Classes will be donation-only, and free for those who cannot afford them.
David Hall, 65, is one of Hinojos’ existing yoga students. Also a veteran, Hall says he has PTSD not from war but from growing up in a bad area. “I’ve seen people murdered as a child. I held my own brother in my arms after he was shot. There are neighborhoods in America where everyone has PTSD.”
Hall began to take Hinojos’ class after his wife of 28 years passed away. “I could not move on from it,” he said. “I would just lay on the floor and pant like an animal, for days. I was considering suicide. I went to the VA and they suggested yoga.”
When he met Hinojos, Hall recognized in his eyes “a shared pain that served as a bridge between us. It takes a lot for a man to be vulnerable in our society, and Matt was vulnerable. He shared his pain with me, so that I would know I was not alone. And it was through this that I healed. Not through medications. Through love. Through compassion. Through kindness. Yoga gave me back my breath, when I hurt so much I couldn’t even breathe anymore.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder itself is a widespread problem worldwide, that is not just limited to veterans. According to the National Institutes of Health, 6.1 percent of the world’s population suffers from some sort of PTSD, in the wake of natural disasters or some form of violence. Symptoms include “re-experiencing, avoidance, arousal, cognition and mood symptoms.”
Even though the military continues to increase its use of yoga as a treatment for PTSD, the NIH remains skeptical of its efficacy. In 2018 the NIH published the results of a study called “Yoga for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder—A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” concluding that “only a weak recommendation for yoga as an adjunctive intervention for PTSD can be made. More high quality research is needed to confirm or disconfirm these findings.” The study concluded that talk therapy and drug therapy were the best method of controlling PTSD.
“I’m not surprised they’d say that,” said Hinojos. “But here’s the thing. You’re the NIH, but you say we need more high quality research. Why aren’t you doing high-quality research? Could it be that your low-quality research is funded by big pharma? They just want to push their drugs. And if talk therapy and drugs worked, we wouldn’t be losing 22 veterans a day to suicide. I’ve lost three friends to suicide since I left the military. It’s a crisis.”
Many experts in the field of trauma say mind-body therapies, including yoga, can be extremely helpful in treating PTSD. Among these is Albuquerque’s own Natalie Smith, director of Awake & Aware, a local psychological trauma treatment center whose pioneering program, Healing in the Desert, makes use of yoga and other therapies.
“Yoga is a practice that helps one calm the mind and body,” Smith writes on the center’s website. “In recent years, research has shown that yoga practices can improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life. Paired with self-regulation, yoga is a promising therapy for helping patients address the cognitive, emotional and physiological symptoms associated with their trauma, and PTSD specifically.”
“Our medical system, as it is, is making people like me worse,” said Hinojos. “I want to help revolutionize the way we deal with PTSD, addiction, mental health issues and people who are suicidal. All because of my yoga, my PTSD symptoms have all but gone away, I’m off all prescription medications, and I’ve lost 85 pounds. I can sleep through the night, and my depression and anxiety are manageable. Why wouldn’t I want to share this with everyone who needs it?”
“What greater gift than to take something that saved your life and turn around and give it to someone else?” said Hall. “When he says yoga saved his life, Matt means it. And now, it has saved mine, too.”