Meet the Guest

Kathryn Thomas Executive Director, Yoga 4 Change

After an ankle injury derailed her dream of becoming a Navy pilot, Kathryn Thomas turned to yoga for healing. She saw the benefits of yoga for physical and mental health, including recovery from substance use disorders. In 2014, Kathryn started the nonprofit organization Yoga 4 Change, which provides yoga therapy to veterans, troubled youth and people in recovery from addiction.

Transcript

  • Trey Dyer

    Welcome to another episode of Ready for Recovery. I'm your host Trey Dyer. Last year I had the pleasure of attending the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health Summit. The Summit focused on pain management and opioid treatment alternatives among veterans. The day featured many presenters, the last of which was Kathryn Thomas, who is our guest today.

    Kathryn is a veteran who experienced an injury that required surgery and caused her a great deal of pain during the recovery. To cope with that pain, she started doing yoga and immediately began to see an impact on both her physical and mental health. Yoga became a recovery tool for Kathryn, and she wanted to share that with others who could benefit from yoga therapy.

    She wanted to use yoga to help other veterans cope with their service-related injuries and give them an alternative to opioid medications to relieve their pain. Kathryn also saw that yoga could help other people who've experienced trauma, such as people who are incarcerated, those recovering from drug addiction, and at-risk youth. Kathryn took that idea and ran with it.

    In 2014, she started a nonprofit organization called Yoga 4 Change, which focuses on providing yoga therapy and support to veterans, people who are incarcerated, youth and those in recovery. Kathryn is joining us today to tell us more about Yoga 4 Change and how they are helping people in the North Florida area.

    I'm here with Kathryn Thomas from Yoga 4 Change, and she's going to tell us about her organization today, and what they're doing to help people through the organization. Kathryn, thank you for joining us.

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Thank you so much for having me.

  • Trey Dyer

    We're really excited to hear about Yoga 4 Change and everything you guys are doing in your area. So why don't we just jump right into it, maybe have you tell us about Yoga 4 Change and what you do.

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Awesome, well thank you again. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a great opportunity to tell you and all your listeners about Yoga 4 Change. Yoga 4 Change is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that's based out of Jacksonville, Florida, that was founded in March 2014. What we do is we bring in evidence-based, trauma-informed yoga curriculum to facilities that serve our clients. Specifically, our clients are veterans, incarcerated individuals, youth, and individuals suffering from substance abuse. We've been around since, like I said, 2014, and in four years we've partnered with more than 100 different facilities. We have two employees, contracted 14 teachers, and we're just really excited to continue serving our community.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very cool. What are some of the things that you do on a daily basis?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Our program, it's not like a yoga studio program, instead meeting students where they are, so our teachers go to the facilities that serve individuals struggling with substance abuse, for instance, so that's at halfway houses, residential programs, in recovery, outpatient/inpatient community classes, or even incarcerated individuals. What we do is we bring the programs to the individual where they are, and we supply all the mats, and props, and what we're doing is leading a way of potentially dealing with stress and anxiety through physical movement, through breathing as opposed to maybe releasing tensions and stress via maybe illegal substances or high-risk behaviors. So, our teachers are able to really meet students where they are.

    What I mean by that is we have individuals who are very physically able to do a lot of different postures, but there's also individuals who might have amputations, or might have loss of limb, or might have loss of feeling or sensation, so we have — there are different types of yoga that allow individuals to practice either maybe in a chair, or on a mat, but really empowering the students to feel like they are actively achieving as opposed to not achieving.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very cool, so it's kind of like a very inclusive program, like it seems like anybody who wants to participate can.

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Yes, and a lot of our students, they've experienced trauma in their past, and that's been the main ribbon that kind of ties everybody together is that they've overcome a traumatic situation or instance. And a lot of individuals who are self-medicating their traumas, and anxieties, stressors, are doing so to kind of either numb out, or to feel nothing. And so we are able to allow them to feel something, in a positive way, by connecting with their body, and their sensation, and then being able to name those sensations. What I mean by that is a lot of our students when I ask them, "How are you today?" a lot of them respond, "I'm feeling some kind of way," or "I don't know," or "I'm okay," but what does "okay" feel like, or what does, "some kind of way," actually feel like?

    When we're going through the postures, we might be stretching like our left arm towards the ceiling and pressing our left hip towards the floor, and we talk about where we feel those sensations, and then it just starts to remind people that they can choose to check out, either by using substances, or high-risk behaviors, or they can choose to check into what's actually occurring in their body. Once we check into what's occurring, we can start to overcome our past traumas, to start identifying those sensations that we're experiencing when we're maybe triggered and figure out ways that we can decrease that stress in a healthy way.

  • Trey Dyer

    Absolutely. Why is yoga therapy or yoga practice, in general, why is it therapeutic for the people that you help?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Yoga is therapeutic for the people that we help because many of our students have experienced trauma in the past. When an individual experiences trauma our bodies release adrenalin and chemicals, because of our autonomic nervous system.

    An example of this is actually a possum. As a possum is chased by a fox, chemicals are released in the possum's body causing them to flip on their back and then actually to release a smell and go still and slow their heart rate down so that the animal actually thinks that the possum is dead. The animal comes over, smells the possum, and then after the animal goes away and the possum feels that they're safe and secure they actually flip back over and do a little dance releasing those chemicals out of their body in a healthy way, and then go on about their merry way.

    Well, the example of that is nice to see because you can see the possum's fear, you can see that they are gonna freeze, and then you see their flight after the trauma passes. We as humans, if we don't actually get rid of that adrenalin or chemical in our body, they can actually build up causing — and this is based on study research — but causing potential rheumatoid arthritis, a break down in limbs and bones. There is stress on the body, depression that can occur, PTSD, ADHD. There's a lot of things that are related to childhood trauma.

    Our students, the reason that we bring in yoga practices in breathing and movement modalities is because that is the healthiest positive way to get rid of any sort of adrenalin or chemicals that have been released because of the stressful, or anxiety, maybe attacks, that our individuals that we teach, have learned in our past lives to potentially use illegal substances or high-risk behaviors to kind of get rid of those excess fuel of adrenalin. Yoga works by allowing our students to positively get rid of their trauma and traumatic past by kinda coming back to their physical body.

  • Trey Dyer

    Can you tell me about your personal story, and then why you started Yoga 4 Change?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    My personal story starts actually when I was in the Navy. I was a Naval helicopter pilot, and while on deployment, I fell and suffered an ankle fracture and break. When I was flown back to the United States, and after undergoing a surgery, I found that I actually lost feeling in my left leg. So my dreams and goals of being a pilot were shattered because of a second, a simple fall. After the surgery, they snipped some nerves, and stuff just didn't work out the way that I had thought that it should work out. My physical therapist suggested that I start taking yoga, and because of that suggestion, I was able to find that while on my yoga mat, I wasn't nervous about what was not going to occur or what goals I would never achieve.

    Instead, I could still focus on what I could achieve physically. I could balance, I could sit still and breathe, I could still move and stretch. When my husband and I were moved back to Florida, I saw a need for this type of healing in my community — specifically with veterans and individuals who are struggling with addiction and abuse, and those who are incarcerated. So I found an organization with the honest and truly belief that it would be easy to reach all those individuals. That it was just gonna be me, and my dad, and my husband, on the board, and I was gonna make it work.

    I was a little naive because nobody really donates to a family foundation that's bringing yoga to incarcerated men. We live in Florida, and it was very naïve, so I had to start understanding more about nonprofits themselves. In that time frame, I actually had to get surgery on my other leg due to some other stuff that was going on, and I had to give my classes away. Long, sad story short, I got back off bed rest, coming back on the teams, none of the teachers wanted to give me back classes, and so that made me aware that this what we need in our community, and that yoga teachers were actually really connected to it.

    Since then, we've been able to create an amazing board of directors who have really taught me and helped me learn how to better run an organization. Now our organization employs two people. We have a former student, who's actually on our teaching team, who's a contracted teacher now. We're really excited to continue creating change in our own community.

  • Trey Dyer

    That's awesome. So it's almost like yoga was your recovery tool, now you're sharing it with others as well.

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Yes, 'cause I'm a veteran, and I was prescribed a lot of narcotic drugs to deal with the pain of my injury. A lot of the horror stories of the VA prescribing opioids is true, and I was told that this would be my last prescription, so I had to figure it out. So there's a lot of fear, and worry on my end, and shame about my body becoming addicted to the opioids. When they were taken away, I went through — my body went through — this missing of the numbing out sensation. Although I'm not in recovery now, I do understand what it feels like to have those aches and want something that you know you really shouldn't want. It's been really healing for me to see how yoga has helped me with my chronic pain, has helped me with my injury, and helped me actually, more though physically, mentally, and emotionally as well.

  • Trey Dyer

    You're talking about the actual physical dependence that opioids cause?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Yes.

  • Trey Dyer

    So, just for our listeners’ sake, there is an actual distinguishable difference between dependence on opioids and opioid addiction. Whereas, physical dependence does not necessarily mean and individual is addicted, but the mental component along with the physical component, makes up the entirety of the addiction in the end.

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Right. We believe that we can change a person, the way they view their bodies, through movement. If you're able to become more flexible and stronger, you start to see the change in your own body. When you start to see the change in your body, you start to think differently about yourself. When you think differently, you can change your behavior, and when you change your behavior, you can change your outcome. So we do deal with individuals who truly believe that they cannot live without their next pill, or their next drug, or the next drink, and we have to allow them to believe that that is actually — that they can succeed without those drugs, or that substance, but more importantly, they can change.

    We can see it in their eyes when they recognize it, but also it's really beautiful to see after they participated in our classes.

  • Trey Dyer

    Yeah, very cool. How do you specifically help those who are in recovery from addiction?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    There's a student of mine who was very on the fence about yoga. He didn't understand how yoga was gonna help with anything in his life. He was sort of forced to attend. We go to a rehabilitation facility and everybody from a specific gender is required to attend, so men are on Mondays, and women are on Thursdays. He sat with his arms crossed over his chest, and he told me that he wasn't flexible so he couldn't do yoga. So while we were practicing, it's not about actually touching your toes, it's what you potentially say to yourself on the way down to touch your toes. That's what we're really trying to change, is maybe a mindset.

    So he was just breathing with us, and even though the postures, he wasn't really doing them, they were still physically challenging. We count down, some postures we count down breaths: three more breaths, two more breaths, one more breath, and then you switch. Just that practice of holding somebody that's super uncomfortable, and breathing through it, is a new way for him to deal with breathing. At the end of class, he said, "Wow, that's a really good practice is three more breaths, two more breaths, one more breath. I could probably do that when I'm craving." That knowledge and realization that it clicked for him, allowed it to help me teach it in different ways for future people because I can lead that in now when we’re teaching.

    I know our teachers are really aware of that breath now. We really teach that breath of five more breaths, four more breaths. If you're still craving at the end, then you just do five more breaths. And that's how we really help people who are struggling with cravings, is just to remind them that they can get through this one breath at a time.

  • Trey Dyer

    Okay, cool. What do you think your most rewarding moment or story has been since you started this organization?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    I have two actually, a woman and a man. One of my very first students, her name is Jaime, and she really was broken while she was incarcerated. She was a victim of human trafficking, and she really was trying to find her place in the world, and now she's incarcerated. This is always after the fact, she works in the nonprofit sector here in Jacksonville, Florida, and she's going on the national circuit now to talk about human trafficking. She was the marketing director for another nonprofit called Rethreaded, and she works for the Delores Barr Weaver Research Policy Center. Really, she's turned her life around, and she says it's because I just treated her like she mattered. That statement of you treated me like I mattered, just being seen, our student just being seen is very important because many of them have not been seen, and they have not felt heard. They feel like they're being treated like an animal.

    We can actually look them in the eye, teach them positive and healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety. We allow them to then reconnect with themselves and then potentially with others. The other story is, one of our students, I did talk about him very high level of this call. Allen, who's actually one of our teachers, he was incarcerated a lot of times, and he found himself April 1, 2014 in jail. He took his first yoga class with Yoga 4 Change, while he was incarcerated. Upon his release, about a year later, he followed Yoga 4 Change, went to all our free classes, and all our workshop events. He regained custody of his daughter, and he stayed clean, and he became a sponsor, and he holds 12-step meetings in his house, and he's employed, and he's giving back to community, and he's home with his kids, a stable father figure for his four daughters.

    And so he has been able to show, along with Jaime, that yoga, the practice of yoga, the breathing through yoga, the movement through yoga, and the way that it makes you feel seen and heard, and that you are enough, is a very powerful tool for an individual who's struggling with addiction and with trauma. Those are the two main stories that I really ... I learned from my students, Jaime and Allen, more than I potentially taught them. It's been amazing to see their growth and how yoga's totally changed their lives, and I'm very proud of what they've been able to achieve.

  • Trey Dyer

    Those are incredible stories. I it's almost enough to bring a tear to your eye, it's so cool. That's just awesome. That's what the whole organization is all about, right?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Yep, yep.

  • Trey Dyer

    So how do you usually find your students? Do people reach out to you or do you make a pitch to different entities saying, “Hey, I think I have a program that could help people”? How does that work?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Well, the Jacksonville location, we have community classes, so anyone can attend our community classes, and all that information can be found on our Facebook, but also our website www.y4c.org. You just go to the events tab, and you can see all our community classes and workouts. But if an individual is in recovery, or in actual facility, we work with the facility. We would go to various facilities and offer classes for their clients. So that way the student doesn't need to worry about having to pay for services. The facilities themselves cover the services. So if an individual is interested in bringing Yoga 4 Change to the recovery center, or a person who has somebody that they know in recovery, or you work in a recovery center, just reach out to Yoga 4 Change, and you can email us at [email protected] Two easy ways, but we don't really have open classes except for those community classes, and that's because of the security risk of the multiple facilities that we deal with.

  • Trey Dyer

    Gotcha, that makes sense. Right now, are you guys just operating in the Jacksonville, North Florida area?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Yes, right now we're currently operating in the Jacksonville, North Florida area, but there is potential for us to expand throughout Florida by the end of 2018, so stay tuned.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very good. What else are your plans for the future for Yoga 4 Change?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    I would like Yoga 4 Change to be growing and helping more individuals struggling with trauma and addiction. Right now Duval County is the only county in the nation that is sentencing incarcerated men and women to our programming. That's through our 4th Circuit judges that are actually sentencing individuals to yoga as opposed to sentencing them to anger management or domestic violence because they really see the impact of our program. And so I'd like to take that model — which is currently getting evaluated because of the Chartrand Family fund — I'd like to take that model and expand it to more correctional facilities in more counties because we are seeing the impact that individuals are having while they're inside.

    Specifically, we collect actual data so we can prove impact, and so the data we collected is both qualitative and quantitative. And so for the feelings data, we're able to say across the board that we reduce stress by 30 percent after one class. We increase mood by 25 percent after one class. Which is pretty great because if you can reduce your stress by 10 percent — there's actually a book that's "10% happier" — so we're able to do it by 30 once a week, which is a really positive tool. But on top of that, the physical data that we have, the blood pressure, heart rate data, shows that we decrease blood pressure by 10 to 20 points every time after one class.

    That allows an individual who's struggling with hypertension, who might be incarcerated, or who is in a substance abuse facility, struggling with high blood pressure, we're also giving tools for how to create a more healthy sustainable lifestyle as well, on top of just teaching anti-stress and body technique.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very good. Can you maybe talk a little bit about how trauma and drug abuse are linked, and even how both of those fit into and relate to the struggles of veterans?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    I can only speak really from personal experience. I don't have any research background in this specifically. I don't want to say something that I haven't done or researched specifically. There comes a time that, especially being a veteran and then being prescribed all these painkillers, there was a time that I was feeling no pain. No physical pain, mental pain, or emotional pain because I was using the opioids as prescribed to treat that pain — because that's what they're used for. For me, if I didn't want to feel sad, or to feel pain, or basically to feel anything, I could see how somebody could take more opioid drug medication to not feel.

    When I'm teaching, and there's individuals who are in substance abuse facility, we do have time for there to be a talk therapy component where people can get stuff off their chest. I have found that many of the individuals who have been abusing opioids, or drugs, or substances, are doing so because they don't want to feel those dark feelings associated with the trauma — so shame or guilt or fear or sadness. And instead, they want to feel nothing, so they take those substances. What that ends up doing is if you numb out those negative feelings, you also are numbing out the positive feelings. Doesn't really go both ways, and so what somebody is doing is they're trying to feel better by taking all these substances, but what they end up doing is just totally numbing out and disconnecting with themselves and what they're feeling and with other people in the community and what they're feeling.

    With trauma, it becomes a very solo experience, and addiction — for me at least — I've seen it where it's very solo, and there's the same sort of feelings of shame and guilt associated with it as well. So I see there's parallels, and then also at the same time, I feel that everybody has experienced trauma in some way, shape, or form, just based on talking to friends and family.

  • Trey Dyer

    Absolutely. So, Kathryn, if people wanted to become involved in your organization or help out in some way, where could they contact you? Could you tell them about the website again?

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Yes, so they can just go to www.y4c.org, or they can just email me [email protected], and it's me because, like I said, right now we only have two employees, so I get all the emails. Or they can check us out on Facebook. Yoga 4 change, the number 4, in Jacksonville.

  • Trey Dyer

    Awesome. Well, Kathryn, we wish you the best of luck here at DrugRehab.com, and thank you for joining us on the podcast today And we hope to hear about the great things you guys are doing across the state in the near future.

  • Kathryn Thomas

    Thank you so much, and I appreciate your time.

  • Trey Dyer

    All right, take care.

    To find out more about Yoga 4 Change visit www.drugrehab.com. Thanks for joining us for another episode of Ready for Recovery. For DrugRehab.com, I'm Trey Dyer.

Looking for help?

Our recovery programs are designed with you in mind.

Get Help Now

Other Podcasts

Question mark symbol icon

Who am I calling?

Calls will be answered by a qualified admissions representative with Advanced Recovery Systems (ARS), the owners of DrugRehab.com. We look forward to helping you!

Question mark symbol icon

Who am I calling?

Phone calls to treatment center listings not associated with ARS will go directly to those centers. DrugRehab.com and ARS are not responsible for those calls.