Yoga for First Responders: Waking Up Through Serving Domestic Soldiers
by Olivia Kvitne*
I remember the moment when the definition of “teaching yoga” changed for me. Barking out asanas in a hot room with a required Top 40 playlist didn’t seem to fulfill what I had intended to offer. I also didn’t practice that way, so why was I teaching that way? I started my yoga teaching career with a heart of servitude, offering low-cost private sessions to those with disabilities. But I had fallen into a trap of feeling obliged to teach in the manner that was most popular. I had been blindly swept up in thinking that common place was the only place.
Teaching in this manner and for reasons that didn’t inspire or educate me made me exhausted. I would dread leaving my apartment to go teach and felt nervous that I wouldn’t be a “cool” enough teacher for my students to become addicted to and follow as their Beverly Hills workout guru. I felt drained and weak and felt that my own practice was slipping away from me.
The exclusiveness of yoga was a top misconception about the practice that was becoming more solidified every day. It bothered me that large groups of people with no experience in yoga held many assumptions about the practice that kept them away from it at all costs. If something weren’t done about this the yoga practice would soon unknowingly grow into its mistaken identity. My new mission was to dispel this fallacy. I wanted to introduce yoga in a practical manner and provide its feasible application for populations who are in great need of its healing abilities.
Having always been a patriotic American with fantasies of an alternate life where I joined the Navy like my grandfather, I explored yoga for veterans and military. Fortunately, I found there were already programs and training systems in place just for that purpose. The subsequent training I received on the functioning of the nervous system and stress response, viewing the horrible statistics of Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, and suicide in veterans, and learning how we have the power to change the cellular structure of our brains (neuroplasticity) woke me up to the philosophical science of yoga that I had originally studied and loved. The spark had been reignited and I was off and running. I studied psychology and yoga sciences further and deeper and dove back into an authentic personal practice.
I began serving this population by offering my yoga classes free for military and veterans. I also directed yoga workshops to educate on the true intention of yoga and its healing capabilities for them specifically. I loved teaching my veterans, but I still felt there was more to explore.
Then an important and unforgettable shift happened. My mother asked me why I wasn’t opening the doors of yoga to firemen and police officers. I paused, looking for an answer to give her while simultaneously seeing the pieces of the puzzle finally falling into place. “Yes, yes I should. I need to,” was all I could say. My heart of servitude almost jumped out of my chest. I had been helped by a firefighter or police officer on more than one occasion and now I wanted to help them. I felt myself closer to my dharmic path than ever before.
In just one incident emergency personnel can witness more trauma, loss, death and destruction than the average citizen will see in a lifetime. It is estimated that 25 to 30 percent of police officers have stress-based physical health problems and 40 percent suffer from sleep disorders. Numbers are rising for Post Traumatic Stress among all emergency personnel: 18 percent in police officers and 10 to 37 percent in fire service. The need is most certainly there.
When the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) opened its doors to me at the Frank Hotchkins Memorial Training Center, I used my knowledge of teaching yoga to veterans as a foundation and quickly discovered that I needed to make adjustments for this new group. Although both approaches are based in Trauma-Sensitive Yoga, and many first responders are also veterans, this yoga class required specificity for the needs and unique culture of first responders.
The yoga classes I began teaching at LAFD and subsequently at the Los Angeles Police Department (both in conjunction with behavior wellness department psychologists), were trauma informed yet had the added elements of cognitive and somatic training to build mental resiliency and strength, and provide tools to deal with high levels of on-the-job stress.
Thanks to the support of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, Yoga for First Responders (YFFR) is now an organization and national program. With a core faculty of authorities on the subjects of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga, psychology, Vedic sciences and first responder culture, YFFR is able to offer training intensives around the country so that others can offer this powerful practice to domestic soldiers nationwide. YFFR also offers public workshops and other special events.
Since our first training at the Sedona Yoga Festival, a vital organization in the launching of Yoga for First Responders, many trainees have started YFFR in their communities. The Give Back Yoga Foundation and the YFFR faculty, the trainees and supporters, have become a family with the common bond of contributing to something bigger than themselves. We support each other through encouragement, continuing education, networking, fundraising and more.
Now I am no longer exhausted. I no longer feel that teaching yoga is something I carry around my neck like a burden. I am putting in more work and effort than ever before yet I feel awake with a purpose, focused, and highly aware. I have re-discovered my practice and come closer to my dharma through the specific service of offering yoga to first responders.
Join us at our next training:
Myrtle Beach Police Training Annex
October 7 – 9, 2015
For more information on upcoming events and workshops, visit givebackyoga.org/yffr or email firstname.lastname@example.org
*Olivia Kvitne, E-RYT 500, is director of Yoga for First Responders, a program with the Give Back Yoga Foundation. While living in Los Angeles, Olivia taught weekly trauma-sensitive yoga classes at the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Training Center, as well as presented continuing education workshops on yoga and the neurological system for LAFD, and special workshops for high-ranking command staff of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Olivia currently teaches yoga for the Carlisle Fire Department, Des Moines Veterans Association and the Des Moines Police Academy. Olivia writes for and is Assistant Editor of LA Yoga Magazine. Her writing for other yoga publications and blogs includes the inaugural issue of Yoga Iowa, with her article on the benefits of yoga in the military being the cover story.