Updated: August 13th, 2021
Victims focus on what they do not control.
Survivors focus on what they do control.
Victim or survivor, we are all bound by the essence of control. An entirely subjective experience, one could argue control is something that only exists in our minds- a construct of our perception. We know that we want it when we do not have it but rarely recognize the moments that we do. Some could argue this is human nature, a flaw of the superego. But for the First Responder community, control becomes a matter of life or death and it starts on day 1. Police recruits are taught a sliding scale of control, one that essentially lasts their entire career; control yourself, control your car, control your suspect, control the scene, control your squad, control your platoon, control your division, control your department. I have been taught all of these throughout my twenty-year career and have in turn passed them down to the next generation as an academy instructor. We can all recite the value and absolute necessity of remaining in control. This we know. But not one of us has ever been taught how to maintain it or what to do if we lose it.
Captain Dan Willis asks this very same question in Bulletproof Spirit asking “How do you deal with a sense of loss of control?...Discovering how you personally deal with losing control of situations and people, without losing yourself is an important lesson” (Willis, p.19). Willis acknowledges how strong this need for control is in the first responder community throughout the pages of Bulletproof Spirit and frankly, for a bunch of people who thrive on control, it’s amazing that we all picked a profession where we actually have very little of it. The list of things I cannot control during my shift is a lot longer than the things I can. I cannot control the radio tones, I cannot control the people who drive their cars into trees, I cannot control when someone has a psychological break and swallows a package of batteries, and I cannot control the weather that makes every minute of a twelve-hour shift infinitely more difficult- to this day the thought of having to work in a snowstorm produces a level of rage, not simply anger but rage, in me that is completely irrational and completely consuming. And if any cop tells you that they have not screamed, half in anger half in despair, from the bottom of their soul: “Please shut the f--- up” at the police radio while they are alone in their car they are lying to you. Because, there have been days where I thought it would never stop.
By Dr Kevin Gilmartin’s standards we first responders are the definition of psychological dysfunction which he describes as being made up of two components- High Demands and Low Control. “If the loss of control is combined with high demands the individual must handle, the degree of psychological imbalance or stress can be extremely high.” (Gilmartin, p.78). He goes on to suggest that when the job becomes your life, and you cannot control your job, then you do not control your life.
My reluctance to fully embrace yoga, I think stems from the same place as my hatred for work time blizzards.
It seems like a stretch now but hear me out. I have always happily embraced the movements of yoga. I’ve spent the past decade as a PT and defensive tactics trainer for my agency and the carryover has always been obvious. I knew that more mobile hips made escaping the mount and my guard passes easier. My power cleans were cleaner and my squats were…well, squattier. Suffice to say I knew the physical benefits and they were enough to occasionally draw me into a yoga class.
As a firearms instructor I was taught and then re-taught Combat Breathing. I always started off my instruction by saying “It’s a breathing technique that the snipers use'' as if needing to validate the virtues of breath control by covering it in camouflage- a technique that quite honestly, I practice regularly when teaching first responders. It’s like putting cheese on broccoli for a three-year-old- whatever works to get the good stuff in. But, I always knew that there was an entirely other side of yoga that I was missing out on.
People would always say how much better they felt, how their soul felt lighter and they were better equipped to handle their complex grown-up life. They would look at me and say, “don’t you just feel so much lighter?” and I’d say “Well, I think my hip feels a little less like crap- so yeah I’m a beaming ray of rainbow light”. I had no idea how to access this magical light realm of relaxation that others were able to find through yoga and I assumed it was through the doors of “letting go”, doors that my first responder brain just would not allow me to go. Yoga became just another workout and did nothing to help me unclench my jaw or unfurrow my brow which had become permanent features on my face over the past year.
Yoga for First Responders (YFFR) could and maybe should also be called, “Forget What You Think You Know About Yoga”
because one of the first lessons we were taught during training was that the original intention of yoga is to provide mastery over mind. This is like music to a first responders’ ears. The YFFR protocol does not require giving over control, but instead emphasizes the responsibility of one to maintain control over themselves. Movements are intentional and deliberate and when it’s done well, looks more like a carefully choreographed drill and ceremony exercise and less like what you think yoga looks like. It is the definition of slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
We discussed regulation versus relaxation which respected the fact that first responders walk around at a “7” all the time. First responder’s hypervigilance was described as a wave that has to be allowed to roll to the shore. Instead of someone telling me to “just relax” which is the equally infuriating companion to “calm down”, YFFR protocol encourages regulation. No one leaves feeling like a failure because they walk in at a “7” and only leave at a “6”. Through these lessons we start to view yoga as a tool, a mechanism providing control not something trying to take it away.
The most valuable YFFR lesson however, is not about maintaining control, it’s where control lives.
Although a lot of first responders would like to tell you how much control they have over things in their life, the truth comes out when they complain about the things that upset them most. Just ask them and you will hear; administration, red tape, promotional unfairness, bills, taxes, low pay- and the list goes on and on. We give so much of ourselves over to things we really have very little control over and we let those things consume our lives. Captain Willis says that we would do best to “Focus on controlling only what you have the ability to control. This will significantly reduce stress. The only things in life you can control are your integrity, your attitude, your compassion, how hard you work, your reaction to things, and your professionalism” (Willis, p29).
Strange how I thought yoga wanted me to lose control but ended up helping me find a greater sense of control which ended up being the most freeing thing I’ve done. Control is simply a construct of our mind. We get to decide. We get to choose. I am calm and in control- that is my choice and I finally unclenched my jaw.
Written by YogaShield® Instructor Meghann Holloway Class 0010 S2
T/Cpl Meghann Holloway has been a police officer for 20 years and has worked in various capacities including assignments in the Patrol Division, Criminal Investigations Bureau, and in Education and Training as a primary academy instructor. She is a national level trainer on trauma informed practices and is also halfway through a graduate degree in Macro Social Work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. T/Cpl Holloway has been a fitness instructor since 2008 and carries a diverse set of training certifications including everything from Mixed Martial Arts to Yoga for First Responders. T/Cpl Holloway's passion for providing skill sets that empower employees led her to be recently named as her agency's first Wellness Coordinator. T/Cpl Holloway loves systems and big picture problem solving. When she is not actively trying to change the world, she can usually be found hiking or rock climbing where she is most likely still thinking about how to change the world.
Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families.
Willis, C. D. (2014). Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder's Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart. Novato, CA: New World Library.