Yoga, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and PTSD

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September is National Yoga Month

Can yoga help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans? What about the martial art/ combat sport known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)? And, will one prove more effective than the other?

The research isn’t in yet but Dr. Kevin Kip, a USF College of Public Health epidemiology and biostatistics professor involved in a study comparing the two therapies on veterans with PTSD, thinks that both approaches will show significant benefits.

PTSD is a complex and severe anxiety disorder that typically arises after witnessing a traumatic event. It affects anywhere from two to 30 percent of veterans in this country and can produce debilitating depression, panic disorders, hyper-arousal, sleep disturbances and fractured interpersonal relationships.

Kip is a co-principal investigator, along with USF professor Alison Willing, of a three-year, three-arm pilot trial involving former U.S. military servicemen with PTSD. The study compares the effects of a 10-week BJJ program, a 10-week Hatha yoga program (Hatha is a widely practiced form of yoga that concentrates on physical and mental health) and a five-week waitlist control regimen on PTSD symptoms.


Kevin Kip. PhD, FAHA, is a Distinguished USF Health Professor.  (Photo by Caitlin Keough)

“There is not a lot of research on the mental health effects of BJJ, but there is some literature that suggests yoga is a potentially effective adjunct therapy for PTSD. Since we know yoga can be helpful, and we hear a lot of anecdotal stories about BJJ being beneficial,” Kip added, “we thought, ‘Why don’t we compare the two?’”

You don’t have to be an expert yogi to see how yoga—with its emphasis on deep breathing, mental cleansing, meditation and mindfulness—may reduce the stress associated with PTSD.

When asked if it is having a stress-relieving impact on the study participants, yoga instructor Rebecca Wood, who teaches the veterans at Palm Yoga, her yoga studio in Carrollwood, answers with an emphatic yes.

“They seem more relaxed and conversational. They engage with the other students and are able to rest quietly at the end of class, which was difficult for them in the beginning,” Wood commented. “Yoga calms and balances the nervous system, creating an environment conducive to healing and wellness. This is true for everyone, not just veterans.”

Airman holding a half-frog yoga pose. (Photo source Google Images)

Can the same be said for the less Zen-like, more combat-style martial art BJJ?

Kip thinks yes.

While science hasn’t yet formally weighed in (Kip’s study should be completed mid-2019), Kip suspects BJJ could be as effective as—and maybe even more effective than—yoga in treating symptoms of PTSD. Kip points to a small, uncontrolled study done at USF among veterans in a BJJ program and notes that by the end, the majority showed substantial improvement in mental health.

“There are a number of reasons why we think it will be beneficial,” Kip continued. “It is structured and fosters camaraderie. And we hear from participants that regular BJJ practice makes them feel more centered, calmer and that it instills self-confidence.”

“There is a movement right now—in the Legislature as well as at the Department of Veterans Affairs—to give veterans more choice in treatment options, including alternative options, when it comes to mental health issues,” Kip added. “And these two therapies show significant promise.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health