Updated: July 23rd, 2021
Although there has been a shift in First Responder culture, for a long time the norm in this community has been to “man up.”
And if you’re manning up on a regular basis, there is a strong possibility that you’re storing tension, stress, and trauma in your body. When this stress builds up over time, it can form an armor in the physical body. Specific events or even an accumulation of instances over a long period of time can become caught in the physical tissues of the body, and encapsulated by fascia.
Fascia is a thin layer of connective tissue surrounding the muscles. It wraps and connects
muscles, bones, and nerves, but also connects to ligaments, tendons, and joint capsules. It is
woven like a web around internal organs such as the heart, lungs, brain, and the spinal cord. It
has numerous functions, including structural support of the entire body, connection of bodily
tissue, protection of organs, metabolic function, energy storage, and formation of scar tissue.
While fascia is a necessary part of our bodies, if left untended, it can get fuzzy and layered over.
Physically, this causes immobility and inflammation in parts of the body. Mentally and
emotionally, this can make it difficult to access stored stress in the tissues.
When First Responders continue to show up to stressful calls, without properly addressing previous buildup, trauma can become encoded in the body.
This is when the body armor can substantiate, layering over in the parts of the body that it feels needs most protection. Allowing this seemingly protective armor to build up over months or even years not only decreases mobility, but can inhibit proper function of the internal organs, and weigh heavily on the mind and spirit. In “Bulletproof Spirit,” Captain Dan Willis discusses The Nine Warning Signs of becoming a victim of the First Responder profession. He emphasizes the importance of
becoming self-aware, and says the following “The solution starts with recognition of the problem
and an awareness of the warning signs. But in order to become aware of how the job is really
affecting you, you must first become aware of your inner strengths and weaknesses; what you
have traditionally neglected that has hindered your wellness; where you draw support, healing,
and inspiration from; and where you may need to apply more effort in order to fortify your
spirit.” Taking the time to “remove the armor,” is an effective practice to explore all of the
aspects that Captain Willis mentioned.
A regular yoga practice facilitates removing the armor.
In yoga, we focus on taking deep quality breaths to immediately access our nervous system. We then tie in this breath work with challenging physical postures, and this is where one can really start to see what some people call “issues in the tissues” bubble up to the surface. For some people, it may be while holding Warrior II or plank pose that they begin to shake. As long as it isn’t accompanied by pain, shaking is a good indicator that stress is being effectively processed. For others, stored emotions may come up while holding deep poses in stillness for longer periods of time. In this practice, we are not simply relaxing. We are using a discipline to access the nervous system, observe what comes up physically and mentally, notice how we respond to what comes up, and essentially we learn to reprogram ourselves. As we move into the layers of our tissues, we also wade through the buildup of our past that has been encapsulated in the body.
Consider this, what if something has been stored in your body, but you don’t realize it?
Perhaps there was an event that you felt was routine, and you brushed it aside. Now that event is
deeply ingrained, and covered by layers of other instances, and you have no idea it’s there within
you. As a consistent yoga practitioner for almost 12 years, I have had some very memorable
moments of past issues coming up to the surface, and being released during a physical yoga
practice. I vividly recall being in challenging classes, holding certain physical poses for longer
than I wanted, and suddenly feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger, and sometimes sadness
coming out of nowhere. After experiencing these moments of intense emotion, a sense of relief
would come after, and a new awareness of myself. It was evident that this discipline was offering
my body and mind much more than stretching.
It was during a week long intensive with Yoga For First Responders that I was given the gift
of how to articulate what yoga really does for people. Yoga allows the body and mind to process
past experiences, emotions, and thought patterns. By properly processing what we have gone
through or learned in our past, we are creating self-awareness. In “The Body Keeps the Score,”
Bessel Van Der Kolk writes “The more people try to push away and ignore internal warning
signs, the more likely they are to take over and leave them bewildered, confused, and ashamed.”
Having the tools to become more self-aware, and to process stressful events before they get
encoded in the body is vital to the health of a First Responder’s entire being.
During the intensive with Yoga For First Responders, we moved through multiple practices, and each one provided a valuable lesson.
We were instructed to always notice the theme or message of each practice. Some of these themes include dedication, precision, and taking responsibility. However, every once in a while you may come out of yoga with an entirely different message for yourself. Each body will have a different personal experience, and it’s always the hidden message that comes up during yoga that ends up being the most profound. In one particular instance, we were moving through what seemed like a routine yoga practice, and at the end of it I had a realization that has given me the gift of relief and understanding for an area of my life.
A really solid yoga practice will provide three main components: breath work, physical
postures, and a few moments of stillness at the end of it all to allow full integration of the
practice. We had just completed a yoga practice that involved all of those important pieces.
While lying in stillness, we began a Neurological Reset called Constructive Relaxation. This is a
guided practice in which the teacher has you create tension and release in isolated parts of the
body. You start on one side of the body, and the teacher instructs you to tense up and squeeze an
area and then release. There isn’t an inch of the body that isn’t mentioned.
Without any thought towards it at all, I listened to the teacher and squeezed and released
muscles one by one. I don’t remember if any deep-seated thoughts came up during any other
parts of the body, but when we got to the left leg, it was very evident that I had some business
stored there. What I find to be the most interesting about this experience is that I had been
having sciatic pain in my left hip that ran down the leg and would sometimes be so intense it felt
like my left foot was radiating. So when we were told to tense up our left leg, I was expecting
physical frustration there. Our teacher instructed us to express any of our mental tension out
through the leg, and she kept telling us to squeeze harder and tense up so much that the leg lifts
about an inch away from the ground. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. Just before she told us to release,
The last person I could imagine popped into my mind. This person didn’t pop up with
warm, fuzzy feelings attached. It was anger. They will remain nameless, but the narrative in my
mind was immediately “F*%# you, ____________!!!” As soon as I screamed that in my mind,
and we were told to release, a wave came over me. It was part relief, part confusion. I cried a little
bit, which is the relief part. I wasn’t baffled that I felt this way towards this person, but I certainly
don’t know why it came up at that very moment. I’m in a room full of new people in my life, in a
whole other state, moving through a practice I know and love, and this person somehow came
into my thoughts at the very moment I was squeezing a part of my body that had been irritating
me for months. The fascinating part is that I have had no pain in the left hip or leg since that
moment. Circling back to the idea of exploring the buildup within us that we have no idea exists.
Sure, we can “man up” and leave that to live on inside of us, but we don’t have to.
Written by YogaShield® Instructor Vanessa Munaretto Class 0010 S4
Vanessa has been practicing yoga since 2007, and obtained her Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice the same year. She completed her 200 hour RYT in 2012 and has been teaching ever since. In 2014 she became a part time bartender for the local chapter of IAFF, where she became a fly on the wall and learned specific details about what first responders endure. With the support of local 3080, she attended YFFR training in Pflugerville in 2019 and is currently only teaching YFFR protocol to the first responder community.