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First responders responsive to yoga and horseback riding retreat

Mobile Response Team partners with Naomi Nyuli to create unique experience for first responders
Courtenay Kelliher, a nurse and volunteer firefighter strikes a yoga pose during the afternoon hike of a yoga and horseback riding retreat near Telkwa Sept.17. (Facebook photo.)

The Yoga Cowgirl is back in the saddle again.

Naomi Nyuli recently completed a second workshop combining her two passions of yoga and horseback riding.

This time, the retreat at Glenwood Hall Sept. 16 and 17 was targeted to first responders.

Courtenay Kelliher is a nurse and volunteer firefighter with Smithers Fire Rescue who attend the retreat.

“It was awesome, it was so good;” she said. “Everything was beautifully put together, well thought out, The day was long, but it wasn’t so jam-packed that you felt rushed to go from one thing to the next. There was time to be in the moment and to enjoy. That was the atmosphere they were trying to create, so I felt they were really successful in that.”

Kelliher wanted to be involved partly for the camaraderie that is hard to achieve at work.

“To me, it just felt to me like a nice opportunity to get out and do different things that were not related to being on scene with other people,” she said. “Usually if I’m seeing paramedics and cops at the same time it’s because we’re all at the scene of a car accident, so this would be a nice opportunity to do something together that was kind of fun and relaxing and rejuvenating… and also just unplug for a while.

Nyuli was very pleased with the outcome.

“It was really awesome,” Nyuli said. “We had 10 people come from Terrace, Hazelton and Smithers and they were RCMP, paramedics and firefighters, just kind of giving them an opportunity to have a day and-a-half for themselves, just to relax and have fun and get together with peers and share experiences and stories. It was really therapeutic.

“There were people who were dealing with trauma and PTSD in their own ways, from events and exposure that they’ve had in the field and they really appreciated the time that was set aside specifically for them, this event that was organized specifically for them.”

Kelliher said she does not personally suffer from PTSD, but part of the exercise of the retreat is awareness.

“There are things I’ve experienced that the average person would absolutely consider to be traumatic, but for me, I’ve been exposed to them several times and they don’t necessarily register as being traumatic,” she said.

“One of the things we talked about a lot at this retreat … is you could go 30 years as a first responder seeing all kinds of things and never really have that full-blown PTSD reaction, but then one day you see something and it’s just the tipping point. So, there’s this recognition that we all have to be constantly aware that the next call could be our call that does that to us.”

She believes another value of this kind of workshop is prevention.

“We got to be out in the countryside, and get some fresh air and enjoy not being on call and that can be a really huge thing for helping people to decompress so that they don’t reach that stress level where they’re sort of in danger of hitting that critical incident-PTSD zone.”

This built on a similar retreat Nyuli ran in July for women in which she first combined the yoga and horseback riding concept as an experiment.

“They both really bring you into the moment; everything just kind of fades away,” she said.

“When you’re riding, you’re looking at nature, you’re on the trail, you’re just more in focus and in tune and it’s the same when you’re doing yoga on the mat, you’re just coming into the moment, you’re letting go of everything and you’re just becoming more aware of your body and what’s going on.”

The more recent event, titled “Answer the Call to Adventure and Relaxation,” was sponsored by the provincial Mobile Response Team (MRT) at no cost to the participants.

The B.C. government set up the MRT in 2017 to offer psychosocial support, education and training to front line workers impacted by the drug overdose crisis in the province.

Art Wlodyka is a crisis intervention specialist with MRT and was one of the facilitators for the weekend.

“It was awesome,” he said. “There’s tons of research supporting yoga as really a good, healthy, physical mind and body exercise, working on breathing, which is really good for the nervous system and that type of stuff; it’s a really good restorative practice I was just amazed at how willingly people jumped in. People were really open to giving that a go.”

After lunch it was a three-and-a-half hour hike.

“Along the route we planted different team-building activities and we also had time for moments of personal reflection and letting go exercises and things like that,” Nyuli explained.

Wlodyka said it worked out really well.

“We had just kind of goofy things like an egg toss exercise and log rolling thing down one hill and it was amazing to see,” he said.

“We had guys who were, like, six feet tall and over 200 pounds and they’re hucking themselves down this log roll and giggling away like kids again. It’s just awesome to see people trust each other, feel safe enough in the group, [to] just let go.”

The evening was set aside for a sunset ride.

“It was absolutely just beautiful going up in the mountains and I’d heard some previous research about horses being flight animals and for people to work well with horses you need to control some of our own anxiety and emotions,” Wlodyka said. “Certainly for people with any post-traumatic-related challenges and reactions, the horses can kind of sense some of those issues, so it’s sort of valuable to kind of just connect with the animals and seeing people just immediately get on, who hadn’t ridden horses in years and years or maybe at all, and just connect with the animals and just being up [seeing] beautiful views in the mountains and kind of going along as a team was really, really cool.”

Nyuli hopes the success of the retreat will allow her to keep them going.

Wlodyka said there is a high likelihood this won’t be the last one.

“We’d love to see that move forward on an ongoing basis,” he said.

Thom Barker

About the Author: Thom Barker

After graduating with a geology degree from Carleton University and taking a detour through the high tech business, Thom started his journalism career as a fact-checker for a magazine in Ottawa in 2002.
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