Watch: An Investment Banker-Turned Yogi Brings Healing to War Vets
video interview and blog post by Sura
Molly Birkholm was an investment banker in New York City when she nearly died in a serious taxi cab accident. After an SUV struck them sideways while running a red light, Molly experienced near-death injuries, enduring a fractured skull and a severe spinal injury. After witnessing her cab driver become decapitated, Molly suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Recurring nightmares and an extreme fear of driving in cars led her to yoga and a specific meditation practice called yoga nidra. Yoga nidra, translated as the “yoga of sleep,” was instrumental in helping Molly recover from PTSD. Molly’s journey of healing eventually led her to leave her job on Wall Street and travel through Asia, where she lived in ashram in India and became certified as a Sivananda Yoga teacher.
Upon her return one year later, Molly had no idea what she would do next. After marrying her husband and moving to Florida, she was invited to volunteer a few hours a week teaching wheelchair yoga to vets at the Miami Veteran’s Administration. What happened next was what Molly describes as, “unbelievable and completely unexpected.” War veterans experienced overwhelmingly positive results. Both Molly and the staff saw veterans experiencing alleviation from their PTSD, insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. Her classes soon expanded to the 3-month Residential PTSD & Substance Abuse treatment programs, outpatient PTSD treatment programs and even the acute mental-health ward. The program went so well that in 2008, the Department of Defense Center of Excellence rewarded the program with a $262,000 grant to conduct clinical research measuring the effects of iRest yoga nidra on veterans with PTSD.
Clinical research is validating that yoga and meditation are effective in helping soldiers and vets heal from PTSD. In a study conducted by the Department of Defense at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, researchers found that a secular form of yoga nidra called iRest, which has been widely adopted by the military, helped to alleviate symptoms associated with PTSD, reduce combat stress and trauma. Participants reported feeling less anxiety and increased feelings of safety. Another research study measuring the “Effects of Sensory-Enhanced Yoga on Symptoms of Combat Stress in Deployed Military Personnel” found that the individuals participating in the yoga program showed significantly greater improvement in 16 of 18 mental health and quality of life factors over the individuals who were not practicing yoga.
As Molly’s programs at the Miami VA grew, she co-founded Warriors At Ease, a non-profit organization that has now trained and ‘deployed’ over 500 yoga and meditation teachers into military communities.
Molly Birkholm is a Sivananda Yoga teacher, iRest Yoga Nidra and meditation teacher trainer, and trauma educator. She is the co-founder of Warriors at Ease and has helped pioneer evidence-based trauma-sensitive yoga and meditation programs for PTSD in the military and other communities affected by trauma, including human trafficking survivors and homeless communities.
Also a professional speaker, consultant, and writer, Molly’s stress management programs, resilience training, and trauma treatment programs are used by leaders and top organizations around the world, including the US Department of Defense, McKinsey & Company, and the Young Presidents’ Organization. Molly teaches yoga-based trainings and retreats around the world, as well as online on The Great Courses and as the host of the Women’s Empowerment Initiative on Yoga International.