An estimated 25,000 violent crimes occurred in Los Angeles last year, and more than two-thirds of those crimes happened in the South Los Angeles area.
Concerned community members, police officers and former gang members are now uniting to make their community safe by doing one simple thing: breathing.
The "Cities for Peace" initiative, lead by program director Mandar Apte, aims to improve the quality of life in cities by teaching peace, nonviolence and compassion through yoga, breath and meditation practices. Through these teachings, the project hopes to strengthen communication and understanding between city officials and the community.
The program began its inaugural Nonviolence Ambassador Certification Program in South LA, a notoriously violent part of the city, and brought together officials and community members in ways they didn't think possible.
"It has to start somewhere," Apte said. "I want to be on the side of peace and compassion. If Los Angeles can become the change, then it creates a ripple effect."
Andre Vickers, a gang intervention activist and graduate of program, said he initially thought the program was a "crazy" idea. Ismael Del Pino, an LAPD senior lead officer, said he was also "a bit skeptical" about the program.
Now, officers, former gang members, and Los Angeles residents who admitted to having a negative view of police, are looking forward to those peaceful moments when they can get together to just breathe.
"You've got to partake and you'll really understand," Vickers said. "It got me to live in the now. It's a peaceful place."
Yoga is known to improve health and one's well-being as well as increasing energy levels and creativity.
"If I can control my breathing, I can control my thoughts, and therefore I can control my actions," said Petra Funtilla, a gang intervention activist and graduate of the program.
The meditation practice is also beneficial for first responders and police who may become psychologically affected by the violence they respond to every day. It also, Cities For Peace said, lessens the tension, conflict and misunderstandings between police officials and residents.
"We're a little more understanding in terms of how they feel, what they're looking for, and what they have been through in their lifetime," Del Pino said.
The passion and commitment to make Los Angeles a safer place has bonded this unlikely grouping of people, breaking down barriers and creating new perspectives.
"I was able to see past the uniforms and see them as human beings, and I'd like to think they see me the same way," Funtilla said.
The program demonstrates the benefit and need for more self-care and self-compassion as an individual in a community, but it also trains members to spread the message of nonviolence in their own communities and organizations.
Apte hopes to expand the program to other cities.
"Be a peace catalyst--love. That's it. Nonviolence is simply love," Apte said.