Therapeutic benefits of yoga catch on among Jacksonville's caregivers

The need for physical relief first brought several of Jacksonville’s yoga teachers to the mat, but the added benefit of peace of mind kept them coming back.

For Kathryn Thomas, founder and executive director of Yoga 4 Change, it was about restoring her well-being after an injury forced her to retire from her job as a Navy helicopter pilot. The unexpected career change left her devastated.

For Lotus Yoga co-owner Bonnie Currie, yoga first served as a way of cross-training for her more competitive running and triathlon endeavors.

For Khristi Keefe-Bowens, who teaches yoga to teens and social-service providers, yoga eased her back pain from years of competitive swimming.

All three said something unexpected also happened: Their minds — not just their bodies — felt restored. Calmer, and less stressed, they said.

“I can’t tell you what exactly happened when I started practicing; I could just tell you that I felt better,” Currie said. “Slowly, it became less about the physical and more about everything else that yoga is,” such as the spiritual and emotion component.

Yoga is exploding in prominence locally, with more than a dozen studios across Jacksonville and at the Beaches. Free yoga classes are offered in parks. Thousands joined online yoga groups.

Yoga’s therapeutic benefits catch on as practitioners like Thomas, Currie and Keefe-Bowens look to bring emotional relief to people. Organizations that serve kids increasingly incorporate yoga to work through trauma and teach self-esteem. Social service providers can learn to cope with the job stress by using the breathing and movement of yoga.


Thomas’ Yoga 4 Change is one organization leading the charge to bring yoga to more people.

After her Navy career ended, Thomas began yoga because her physical therapist urged her to find something for her physical and emotional well-being.

To her surprise, it was more than stretching.

Thomas moved to Hawaii with her husband, where she enrolled in a teacher training class. Part of the training required she teach yoga in jails. “I saw these guys who hadn’t wanted to end up this way realize that they can mentally, emotionally, physically alter their bodies through yoga practice,” she said.

Thomas and her husband returned to Florida. In March 2014, she started Yoga 4 Change, which serves inmates, veterans, at-risk kids and those dealing with substance abuse.

Thomas made cold calls to facilities, offering to teach yoga free. Six locations — including the Community Transition Center, PACE Center for Girls and the Florida Youth Challenge Academy — accepted her offer.

Others were a tough sell. “ ‘Yoga? I don’t think so,’ ” Thomas said she was told. “And they hang up.”

Now, she said, people are more welcoming.

Yoga 4 Change’s programming has been taught in 67 locations in five Northeast Florida counties. Since May 1, it has served more than 7,500 people and offers at least 20 classes a week.

It won big at this year’s One Spark festival, taking home the social good prize, the first time a project had won awards from jury and the public. Yoga 4 Change also netted the largest amount any single One Spark creator ever received: $32,000.

“The shift happened because it works,” Thomas said of why more people seek yoga. “I believe that it’s the same reason that some people turn to drugs or alcohol or religion. It’s a way to get out of your head. It’s a way to not think about all the stresses in your life. It’s a way to calm your emotions.”

Yoga 4 Change is supported by donations, Thomas said. A school program that meets once a week for six weeks costs about $2,500, which includes mats, the instructor and curriculum. But that program can support up to 300 kids, she said.


Keefe-Bowens, a counselor at Lee High School, began practicing yoga more than a decade ago in an effort to soothe her back. “The first class, I walked out and felt better, physically,” she said, noting that she couldn’t touch her toes when she started. While she did more yoga and became a trained teacher, she also worked as a school counselor and on her doctorate for school counseling, with a focus on grieving teens and their resilience.

Her two paths converged.

Keefe-Bowens taught a series of yoga courses through the Jacksonville Children’s Commission this past year to show counselors, social workers and teachers how to use it to increase kids’ self-esteem, solve problems and set goals.

“We know that these kids that we work with are coming from environments that we know are pretty unstable for whatever reason,” she said. Often, the children they work with are so young, they can’t identify or express their feelings. Yoga can teach them how to have fun while also being still with and breathing through their emotions.

The providers Keefe-Bowens trains may have no prior yoga experience, so she focuses on fundamental poses that are easy to do and remember. “I wanted to keep it as simple as possible so people walk away and say, ‘I can do that!’ ” she said.

Keefe-Bowens also teaches a course for teens at Yoga Den in Avondale once a week where she uses poses to guide students through reflections. First, she may ask the students to take a challenging pose, and then follow up with a restorative pose where they reflect on the previous challenge.

“What is their brain telling them when they see something hard? … How can they take the success they have in class and how do you get it to apply to the problem off the mat?”

Rheiana Delatorre, 17, said her senior year at Lee has been stressful with college applications and upcoming prom costs. After teen yoga on Mondays, she feels a weight lifted off her shoulders.

Daziyah Sullivan, 17, a Lee senior, said even after only few classes, she doesn’t know anything else that works so well to relieve stress. “I was hooked,” she said. “All the stress just disappeared and I was calm for two hours, which is a miracle for me.”


Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, said people who work in juvenile justice and child protection often experience vicarious trauma, where the things they hear and see also impact their well-being.

Because of that, the center’s See the Girl Summit last month featured courses on “wellness through the healing arts.” Sessions on mindfulness, yoga and reflection aimed to teach people skills to care for themselves as well as teach the girls they help.

“As women, we are also socialized to take care of others and taking the time to take care of ourselves can be viewed as selfish,” Ravoira said. “There is a tremendous cost when we do not have strategies of self-care such as yoga, mindfulness and meditation for the staff.”

Ravoira and Currie spoke about ways to incorporate yoga at the Policy Center, and they decided that a good first step would be offering the practice to some providers.

Currie, of Lotus Yoga, began yoga 15 years ago as another form of physical fitness. She described herself as “pretty stressed out” at the time, working full time as an attorney. But yoga made her a better lawyer, she said, because it relieved stress and she became less reactive.

A certified teacher and studio owner now, Currie said the relationship that she and her business partner are forming with the Policy Center is in its infancy.

“Whether you’re a stressed-out child or a stressed-out adult, we live in a culture where we’ve forgotten how to relax,” Currie said. “We live in a world right now where ‘busy’ is a badge of honor.

“Maybe busy isn’t the end-all. Maybe taking care of yourself is an important component and maybe taking time to do that should be valued.”

(Originally posted on

Russel Quadros