Yoga helping frontline workers combat mental health issues in NSW Hunter Valley

Yoga helping frontline workers combat mental health issues in NSW Hunter Valley

Yoga helping frontline workers combat mental health issues in NSW Hunter Valley

Updated 14 September 2017, 13:20 AEST

Frontline workers in the NSW Hunter Valley are turning to yoga to help them combat mental health issues.

Yoga is often bandied about as something for the ultra hip but one group of dedicated yogis is using the practice to help frontline workers combat the ongoing stress of their professions.

Frontline Yoga offers free classes to those who serve on the frontline — from defence members to emergency services workers.

The charity is based in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, but yoga teachers from all over Australia are now learning the Frontline principles so they can offer classes in their towns too.

"We have a set of 12 guidelines we follow that remove all the major triggers for someone who has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but in a very subtle way," co-founder Kate O'Donoghue said.

"We ask the yoga teachers to stand at the front of the class and be predictable in their movements.

"Students are free to keep their eyes open, to get up and walk out of the class and we also have [students] facing the door."

The guidelines have been created in collaboration with frontline workers who were coincidentally attending yoga classes.

"I had feedback about the subtle but ongoing benefits in their lives," Ms O'Donoghue said.

"I started thinking if it was working so well for this particular group, surely there's a lot of other industries working with stress and exposure to trauma who could benefit."

Personal experience

Ms O'Donoghue said she used her personal exposure to front line work to inform her classes.

"A lot of the women in my family are nurses, my father was a Vietnam veteran and a Federal Police officer and I was fostered through my childhood," she said.

"My foster father was the state commissioner for St Johns [and] my [biological] father was really quite severely impacted by PTSD.

"As a child you just adapt and modify [and] I was always striving to make him more comfortable."

Ms O'Donoghue said Frontline Yoga was battling to change the stigma around mental health.

"I don't see a broken person, I don't see a helpless person," she said.

"I'm amazed. If that person could have done one activity that day — and maybe that is the only activity they're doing — and they've chosen to come to my yoga class, I can't help but be completely overwhelmed with gratitude."

Former RAAF combat engineer Chris Thompson-Lang has trained as a yoga teacher to help with his own PTSD and depression and is a co-founder of Frontline Yoga.

"I came to start practicing yoga in Canberra two years after returning from Afghanistan," he said.

"Things weren't going well for me — I'd had a marriage breakdown, I was struggling with my personal connections and drinking a lot.

"I knew I needed to do something and it happened to be yoga [and] if I hadn't had yoga in those moments, my situation could have ended up a lot worse.

"[Yoga] is something that I need to stay focused on because if I stop practising, I go back to some of my old habits and I do notice that spiral.

"It takes a fair bit of self-discipline but fortunately, the military gave me that and it's something we can all take with us."

Yoga brings sense of relief to veteran

Special Operations Task Force veteran Stephen Plant was deployed five times, to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, over a 13-year period.

He said the responsibility of being in charge of the lives of other men haunts him as he struggles with PTSD and other mental health issues in response to his time on the front line.

"To look into a soldier's face and to give them an order to go and do something, knowing and seeing their expression in return, is also mentally demanding," Mr Plant said.

He said yoga had become a way to manage his mental health.

"It certainly is most helpful to have an instructor who understands what PTSD is; it is a sense of relief," he said.

According to Mr Plant, having the yoga classes designed so participants make their own choices around how they participate, was an important aspect to help in healing.

"PTSD makes you feel that everything is out of control, so having an opportunity to gain control assists with that long term rehabilitation," he said.

"Working within defence, you're either answering to someone above or someone below.

"You are part of a command structure that needs you to function and operate in a certain way, so that level of autonomy is not there."