Vietnam veteran leads yoga class for combat veterans

Steve Trieschmann says yoga saved his life.

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Steve Trieschmann is a certified Level Two iRest instructor, and will begin teaching classes in December for combat veterans. — Stacey Rupolo

If you meet Steve Trieschmann, he may tell you he’s a changed man. The tone of his voice is softer now, and he no longer swears. He believes in long hugs and deep, cleansing breaths. And he loves a good eye pillow.

When you meet him, he may also tell you that yoga saved his life.

Mr. Trieschmann, 67, discovered yoga in 2014 when he checked himself into the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Northampton, on the verge of committing suicide after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for 50 years.

From 1965 to 1969, Mr. Trieschmann served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He was 17 years old when he first entered the service. In an interview with The Times, Mr. Trieschmann said that by the time he checked himself into the VA hospital in 2014, he “hadn’t slept in 45 years.” He was sleepwalking and having nightmares, and working 90 hours a week. He had violent outbursts. His marriage was crumbling, and he was on six different daily medications.

But when Mr. Trieschmann was introduced to integrative restoration (iRest) yoga nidra, all of that changed — in such a way that on Dec. 3, he will begin teaching a weekly iRest class for combat veterans on the Island, on Saturdays at the Fanny Blair Hall in Vineyard Haven. He will not charge them, a promise he made to himself when he checked out of the VA hospital, and aside from the studio space is paying for everything — the yoga mats, the blankets, and the eye pillows — out of his disability and Social Security checks.

“My whole chest just came open,” Mr. Trieschmann said of his first experiences with iRest. “And I felt alive for the first time in 50 years.”

Finally getting some rest

Yoga nidra is an ancient practice that focuses on yogic sleep, a dreamlike state of consciousness that lies at the intersection between being awake and asleep. Practitioners and teachers alike believe that in this deep state of relaxation, the mind can be restructured and reformed, making it ideal for people dealing with trauma.

The practice is similar to guided meditation, where the practitioner has a teacher who provides them with verbal instructions throughout the session — guiding the person to breathe, to focus on various parts of his or her body, to set intentions, and to be grounded in the present moment.

Mr. Trieschmann is now a certified Level Two iRest instructor. The practice of iRest is a form of yoga nidra, but Mr. Trieschmann said that it differs in that it is secular, allowing its practice to have a wider reach. It’s been used for veterans and people serving in the military, as well as for people who have been abused, who have substance abuse issues, for sleep disorders, chronic pain, and fertility, in hospice, for relief from the trauma of human trafficking, and for people who are homeless or have been incarcerated. Children from the ages of 4 to 18 also have experienced benefits that include the development of positive social skills, along with emotional and cognitive intelligence, an increase in self-esteem, and a sense of empathy, and improved impulse control and concentration.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 31 percent of Vietnam War veterans suffer from PTSD, while 20 percent of Iraq War veterans and 11 percent of Afghanistan War veterans are also afflicted.

In 2014, 20 veterans a day died by suicide, accounting for 18 percent of all suicides among U.S. adults, while making up only 8.5 percent of the population. In the same year, 65 percent of all veterans who died by suicide were 50 or older.

Mr. Trieschmann described his experience in the Vietnam War as something too much for the human mind to comprehend. “Gut-wrenching,” he said. “Just absolutely gut-wrenching. An incalculable toll that’s so big on you. I was 17 or 18. And I’m 67. So, two years ago, I finally got OK. And I haven’t been OK in all that time.”

The origins of iRest are within the U.S. military. According to the Integrative Restoration Institute (IRI) website, in 2006 the Department of Defense conducted research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) on the efficacy of yoga nidra.

The study was conducted with soldiers experiencing PTSD who had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was renamed Integrative Restoration, or iRest, and developed by Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist and yogic scholar. In June 2010, iRest was endorsed by the U.S. Army Surgeon General and Defense Centers of Excellence as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

After the study, the Deployment Health Clinical Center (DHCC) at WRAMC integrated iRest into its weekly treatment program for soldiers. There are now over 50 VA hospitals and military hospitals and bases that use iRest as a form of treatment, along with 40 nonmilitary organizations in the U.S.

Mr. Trieschmann’s iRest class will serve veterans on the Island, providing them with alternative ways of healing, both physically and emotionally. He currently does house visits for a wide range of people, saying he’s trying to spread the word. He’ll tell you, yoga saved his life.

“Every time I do this,” Mr. Trieschmann said, “my life gets changed.”