Calm Body, Kind Mind: Serving Veterans Through Yoga

2014-11-11-KatrinaKopeck.jpgThis is an interview with Katrina Kopeck, a vinyasa yoga instructor since 2011. I first met Katrina at a 15-hour Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans teacher training in Boulder, Colorado early this year. Soon thereafter, she began teaching at the Boulder Vet Center, offering a mindful yoga practice open to veterans and therapists.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Katrina: I grew up with a great respect for the military. My dad was an officer in the Coast Guard and is a founding member of the Warrior's Watch, and my brother served in OEF/OIF as a flight medic in the Air Force. My maternal grandfather served as a gunman in World War II for the British Canadian Navy and my paternal grandfather served as a lieutenant in the signal corps in the US Army.

I was never in the military myself. I've had lots of jobs in various careers but chose to pursue yoga as my passion and career. Teaching yoga to the men and women who have dedicated themselves to service is a way to connect my two worlds and give back to a population that deserves a lot more respect and attention. I'm continually motivated by stories of what these people went through and how civilians treated them after their return.

Is there a standout moment from your work with veterans?

Simple moments hit me the hardest: a couple of weeks ago a vet told me that he noticed it's easier for him to tie his shoes. It's something most people take for granted, but it makes his day just a little bit easier. That's huge.

There's another vet I work with who has a very hard time staying still physically and mentally throughout class. But he continues to practice, and he's changing, even if he doesn't realize it yet. I started watching his toes in savasana (corpse pose) and his record is 30 seconds of stillness. He gets better every time.

During a yoga nidra (deep relaxation with inner awareness) practice, an OIF vet woke up suddenly and looked at me. After the practice, he shared that he had experienced a particular memory that he had only thought about one other time since Iraq, and that last time he had gotten extremely angry and physically aggressive. In this moment though, his relationship with the memory had changed into one of an observation instead of a reaction. Pretty cool!

What did you know about working with veterans before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about them, and how have those assumptions changed?

I walked into the VA the first time with the assumption that I was going to have to be very assertive to start a yoga program in a center that had never offered yoga before. I figured I would have to talk to a lot of people up the ranks and have a lot of information to back up my desire to teach yoga for vets.

Because of these assumptions, I probably entered the VA a little on the aggressive side. I wasn't going to take no for an answer. I brought my certificates, yoga resume, and a lot of verbal information about why our vets need yoga and no, I really don't want any money from the VA.

With great timing, a veteran publication had printed an article about yoga for vets that same week. The lead therapist at the center brought the article to our second meeting and said he thought it would be a great idea.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

In a veterans' yoga class, I don't offer any assists or leave my mat. This was very challenging to start as I love offering touch in my vinyasa classes, but it wasn't appropriate in the VA setting. Partially because of this, I was able to gain the trust of the people in my classes.

I also encourage "community time" at the beginning of these classes. I set aside the first 10-15 minutes of class time to let everyone chat and connect. Sometimes they're pretty quiet, but most weeks they're chatty, telling stories about boot camp, war, bears, something someone saw about yoga, whatever comes up. I think this time to connect everyone on an intimate, comfortable (and sometimes crass) level before getting into breath and movement, is important in this kind of class. Just listening without judgment goes a long way in creating relationships built on trust.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

The greatest challenge in my teaching experience has been adapting a class to balance younger vets and veterans who have been out of the military and living in Boulder for a long time. I ask for a lot of feedback to develop a class that serves them the best, and this population really wanted more: more core work, more Sanskrit words, more challenging poses, more energy movement. We're finding a way to walk the line of accessibility and tradition with a mix of people who have studied yoga, as well as those who are brand new.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at a vet center?

  1. Know how you are going to present yourself and your information. Go in confidently, professionally, and with all the compassion you have. Leave judgment at the door.
  2. Get right to the point. Ask to speak to someone about volunteer opportunities, then have an "elevator speech" ready to introduce why you want to teach to vets in this location. For example, "Hi, I'm Katrina. I am a certified yoga instructor and interested in working with veterans. Is this something you would consider offering?"
  3. Bring materials for the staff to keep and look over. Offer your certifications and credentials, resume, printed articles and media, and any books that might shed light on yoga therapy for vets.
  4. Know your "why." The first question everyone -- therapists, friends, vets -- asked me was, "Why do you want to work with vets?" Knowing your answer and having a concise way to explain it will help gain the trust of the vets and staff.
  5. Don't take no for an answer. If you find resistance, ask them "Why?" Since yoga therapy is still so new, chances are the staff just isn't that familiar with yoga or the effects of yoga therapy for veterans. Offer your materials, media, and your verbal skills to assure them that this is a positive, helpful therapy option.
What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

I want to see yoga as an integral part of the military: in training, in combat and in treatment. It's such an important tool to offer anyone who has or might experience serious trauma. I want to see trained, talented yoga instructors creating a community in which yoga is accessible to everyone.

How has this work changed your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My definition of yoga is constantly changing. In this context, yoga is a way of inclusive, supportive living using the tools to mindfully handle stresses and traumas in a healthy manner, on a daily basis.

My own practice has become more healing and intuitive through pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation as a result. It can be very difficult to take your own advice as an instructor, but learning and living the breath and meditation practices is key to finding balance and healing, especially while working in a yoga therapy setting.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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Do you work for a VA hospital or vet center? E-mail Executive Director Rob Schware if you're interested in obtaining discounted copies of the multi-media training manual Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans, for use by veterans.