Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Why is Yoga Made for First Responders?
After the powerful week of training in Pflugerville, Texas in September, 2019, it is more than clear why yoga is made for First Responders.
It is also very clear that by developing a protocol that is job specific and culturally informed, Yoga For First Responders (YFFR) has created a language and environment where First Responders can be most open to learning and practicing this ancient, powerful form of training.
By removing the Sanskrit, minimizing metaphorical language, and removing the prayer hands and Om, the First Responders are left with the most important elements of the practice which are the focus on enhancing the performance and mastery of the mind.
The training that police and fire personnel currently receive, starting at their respective academies, will often minimize the impact of the trauma they will experience as well as the perils of riding what Kevin Gilmartin, Ph.D. refers to as the hypervigilance biological rollercoaster (“Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement”).
From hire to retire and beyond, it is critical that First Responders learn the well-researched impact of trauma on the brain, mind and body and how to mitigate the effects of this inherent risk to physical and mental wellness. With high rates of suicide, PTSD - both acute and cumulative - as well as a myriad of other serious medical concerns, First Responders are in dire need of tools which will help to ensure a long, healthy life and the highest degree of effectiveness when performing their professional duties.
It is striking that in Dr. Gilmartin’s widely read and respected book, there is literally no mention of yoga. First published in 2002, it was clear that officers needed to monitor their wellness and ensure they were exercising regularly, but the exercise that was recommended was aerobic only. Dr. Gilmartin highlights the disequilibrium caused by the imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system when officers cannot safely regulate the effects of heightened hypervigilance.
We now know that yoga can improve this imbalance by teaching First Responders critical methods to control their breathing, a.k.a. tactical breathwork, and ways to take the benefits off the mat and into the field as well as the home of each Responder.
When yoga is taught in a culturally informed way, it takes into account all the physical and emotional stressors that are the hallmarks of First Responder work. It teaches breathwork, which can help calm the nervous system during a stressful call, as well as in the days, hours and months afterwards. It teaches physical drills that can mitigate the stiffness, pain and injury often caused by the physical aspects of police and fire response. Perhaps most importantly, it embeds a period of neurological reset into every session to ensure the regulation of the nervous system after the intensity of the physical drills.
We saw in Pflugerville how police, firefighters and other students, would become deeply emotional at different points in the physical training. This confirms what Dr. Van Der Kolk speaks to in terms of trauma being held in people’s bodies (“The Body Keeps the Score”).
There is no escaping the cumulative trauma of law enforcement and firefighting/emergency response.
When stress hormones are constantly elevated, and disturbing events are seen, heard, smelled, and felt on a regular basis, they will find their way to a Responder’s body. The impact shows up in sleep or appetite abnormalities, physical pain, or emotional distress.
Dr. Van Der Kolk, through his research and clinical experience, could clearly identify breathwork, and yoga, specifically, as a potential remedy for these deep-seated trauma reactions.
Dr. Van Der Kolk does not suggest that people must learn to accept the ill-effects of trauma, but rather “gain mastery over one’s internal sensations and emotions” which is directly in line with the Yoga For First Responders (YFFR) Protocol. Any well-trained yoga teacher will tell his/her students that whatever they are feeling or thinking during a challenging asana or drill is finite.... all feelings and experiences will change.... This awareness that all experiences are transitory can drastically change the perspective of both yourself and the situations you find yourself facing. This is a critical lesson in yoga that can be taken off the mat.
The key to successfully enduring the discomfort is to breathe, let go of the threat mentality, and stay in the present moment.
This ties into the variety of tactical breathwork techniques which are central to YFFR. Van Der Kolk explains the neurological signficance of the exhale being longer than the inhale which is the exact experience in recovery or coherency breathing. Dr. Van Der Kolk also discusses Heart Rate Variability as a measure of basic well-being and he contrasts the low HRV of people with PTSD due to the extreme disequilibrium of their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. He also makes a compelling case for breathwork based on the role of the vagus nerve which is the primary nerve center closely interacting with the parasympathetic nervous system.
It is fascinating that 80% of the fibers of the vagus nerve are afferent, meaning they run from the body to the brain. This means that we can directly train our body (through yoga) and thereby change the arousal system within the brain by the way we breathe and move.
Another benefit of the YFFR Protocol is the recognition that it was developed specifically for a culture of individuals who are often misunderstood. By incorporating drills that are similar to postures taken in the field, there is an immediate demonstration of respect for the work these men and women are doing on a daily basis. Both in Gilmartin’s book as well as “The Body Keeps the Score” there is a recognition of warrior culture, as in First Responders and the military, and the trauma experienced in these communities. Both authors speak of the divide or chasm created between those who have suffered and those who have not. Until you have walked in the shoes of the First Responders or those who have suffered significant trauma, you cannot fully comprehend the impact on every aspect of one’s life.
Dr. Gilmartin describes a “couch potato” phenomenon where officers, when off-duty, will find themselves almost inert, feeling tired, isolating from others, apathetic and often angry. This is the most negative version of the pendulum when it swings to the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest phase. This rollercoaster has “visible social and psychological consequences but the root causes are biological in nature.” For this reason, police and fire personnel require education on the impact of their work on the body, mind and spirit as well as on the people that surround them.
The hypervigilance required of policing and the high state of alert that firefighters live with are constantly impacting the way they manage their environment. Because these men and women will routinely swing between highs and lows of vigilance and high alert, they are particularly in need of tools to help recalibrate. As mentioned earlier, Gilmartin saw the benefits of physical exercise to minimize the extreme physical reactions which result from prolonged hypervigilance. He encouraged regular exercise to reduce stress and help officers relax and find a sense of well-being.
We now know that YFFR can do this and more due to its focus on breath, building physical strength and mobility, cognitive declarations which bring a sense of community and a positive attitude to the students, and exposure to mindfulness and meditation through the neurological reset.
The concern with reactivity and implicit bias in policing is also addressed through yoga. Heightened reactivity, for police in particular, can lead to severe consequences to include serious injury or death to a citizen or the officer. It is my experience, and that of others, that a focus on meditation and breathwork can have an almost immediate positive impact by decreasing reactivity and helping officers respond from a more intentional, emotionally intelligent stance. Mindfulness and meditation are known to calm the sympathetic nervous system thereby decreasing the fight or flight response and activating the regions of the brain directly responsible for emotional regulation.
It is only within the last 15-20 years that the close communication loop between the body and mind has been addressed in Western medicine.
This understanding and respect for the mind/body connection has been a central theme in the East, showing up in traditional healing practices for thousands of years. We are now seeing a transformation in our understanding of trauma, how people recover and the pathway to resilience. Yoga is a key ingredient on this road and YFFR is showing itself to be highly successful as a method to enhance performance and overall wellness.
As a mental health practitioner with over 30 years’ experience with the seriously mentally ill (SMI), I made a disturbing connection in the past year that just like the SMI, First Responders, on average, die decades earlier than other civilians. For the SMI, they often have significant medical problems on top of their mental health issues, and this co-morbidity leads to shorter lifespans. It is really no different with First Responders in that the work is a huge stressor, creating mental health challenges as well as significant medical issues, thereby shortening the life span for these dedicated professionals.
If first responders are to live longer, healthier lives, they need to learn about the impact of their work on the body and mind and how to incorporate wellness into their lives, and what better way to achieve this than Yoga....For First Responders?
Written by Leslie Weisman, YFFR Instructor 2, Class 010; YFFR Program Manager
Leslie is a forensic social worker and has partnered with criminal justice professionals for more than 30 years. From providing therapy in jails and prisons to working as the mental health liaison to a hostage negotiation team, Leslie has been committed to the critical intersection of mental health and law enforcement. She also led a county-wide trauma-informed care initiative which she now shares with officers during training. Her yoga journey began in 2002 and once her "nest" was empty, she pursued 200 hour yoga teacher training. After stalking YFFR for years (!), waiting for the moment to pounce - she attended training in Pflugerville and became an Instructor 2. Now working as a Program Manager, Leslie is fully committed to the YFFR mission which fits with a life long commitment to officer safety and wellness.