Teaching Yoga in a Way That is Job-Specific and Culturally Informed is a Key Component When Teaching
Updated: July 9th, 2021
I have practiced yoga for many years.
I am that typical skinny white girl that yoga in the west seems to attract. I’ll admit, I was attracted to yoga because of the clothes, the promise of flexibility, the possibility of a workout to maintain my physique, and the feeling of knowing that I would be a part of an elite group of people. Writing this seems so contradictory to how I feel now, but admittedly, that is where my mind was at 12 years ago.
As I started to practice more yoga, I began to notice changes within myself.
I noticed how I was becoming more flexible, and my endurance was increasing. This was assisting me in my daily life, from bending over as I bathed my kids, to recovering much quicker after my hiking adventures. Over time, myself and my family started to notice changes in how I dealt with stressful situations, or responded to unexpected events. In the book, “The Body Keeps the Score”, by Bessel A Vanderkolk, he says that ‘Change begins when we learn to ‘own’ our own emotional brains’. I felt more like my mind and my body were working together, at the same time. Essentially, where my body was, my mind was now starting to hang out there too. In my yoga classes, they referred to this as being “present”. I realized then that I had a choice in every moment, where I could be in control of my thoughts, and in control of myself. This began to be my automatic response to stress.
Now, this all came over some time. I went to a lot of classes, attended a variety of classes, many different teachers. They would say little things during the classes that would make sense to me, things that would remind me. Over time, I started to put it all together, and I began to pick out and use what I thought was beneficial and relevant to me and whatever I was dealing with in my life at the time.
Then, I experienced an intense emotional trauma.
It was unavoidable, and unexpected, and hit me so quickly and so hard. Through my counselling sessions, It was explained to me that what I was experiencing was a form of PTSD and grief. Through this experience, my yoga practice changed. I could no longer go to classes and be around unfamiliar people, or happy people for that matter. Even though I knew nothing about their lives, I felt like they could not be going through the same pain that I was enduring, and I simply did not relate to them at that point .I could no longer go to classes where the teachers would discuss their own balanced lives and lessons they’ve learned. I could no longer stomach the smell of incense. Music used to be my favourite part of the class, and I could no longer endure being in a class where there was any music playing, and I just didn’t want to be there any longer.
The yoga classes that I had come to love were now triggering for me, so I started to practice at home in a way that was more suitable to my needs while I was healing. I then became a yoga teacher and decided I would find a way to teach yoga in a way that would appeal to and not trigger people that have gone through, or are healing from trauma.
I started to research about PTSD,
and about the nervous system and I also began to understand a bit more about my husband’s profession as a Firefighter and what he must deal with on a daily basis. was realizing that yoga is exactly what first responders need, but I knew that if the rest of them are anything like my husband, it would have to be taught differently than how I was used to it; they had to be able to relate to it on their terms.. Yoga seems to be marketed as an elite form of exercise that only skinny, flexible women do and I wanted to find a way that it would make more sense to their needs. When I came across the Yoga for First Responder’s website, my questions were answered, and I was very happy to see that someone had already put the time and effort into finding the answers for all the questions I had, and that the need was being addressed. I attended their training and became a teacher for YFFR.
At the same time, I changed careers and became a 911 and fire emergency call taker, and through this work, I am reminded that the first responder world, and dedicating your life to it creates a very different outlook on life events, and subsequently the response within the body and the nervous system. Even with my dedication to my yoga practice, I know my nervous system has changed. I know that each time I answer a call and there is a panicked person on the other line, my blood pressure spikes, and I am thankful I have the tools to quickly return to my baseline. Each time that I listen to the cries on the other end of the line, I notice how my body tenses as it prepares to store this information within my tissues. I have learned how to quickly take control with my breath, and I know that I have to dedicate my time off the phone to reset my nervous system so that I can be prepared for the next call. I am thankful for the tools that I have learned over many years of yoga, and I am more reminded of how they need to be shared with other first responders.
In “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel A Van Der Kolk, he explains that ‘The body is holding memories that the conscious memory can’t recall’. What I know from many years of Yoga teachings and practice, and my own experience with yoga, is that our memories are held in our tissues. This is why we get so stiff and immobile, and this is where the movement of the yoga postures comes in, to help us to consciously release the years of built up memories and issues that have been stored. Imagine the amount of memories and stress that has been stored away in anyone who is a first responder, and how if not given the tools to release them, what can happen as a result.
Stress isn’t always bad for us though.
Kelly McGonigal explains in her book “The Upside of Stress” how society has been taught to view stress as bad, when in fact, scientifically, it is proven that there is good stress and bad stress, and if that we can channel our stress into energy that boosts our performance. This is where YFFR excels in their delivery of yoga.
YFFR takes the guesswork out and delivers an accessible program that takes out the years of learning so that the first responders can easily recall the tools that will be useful for them. These tools are delivered in a consistent manner, and practiced on the mat in relatable terms, so that this can become the new way that they, and their nervous system respond to daily on the job and off the job stresses. These are the elements that make a yoga practice stick and this is what makes the program successful in the long run.
Yoga can be taught in so many different ways.
It is that initial way that you are taught that will either make you love it, and then stick with it and gain the benefits, or you will decide that it is not for you. I feel that it is imperative that in order for a yoga program to be successful to the first responder population, which I have learned requires yoga the most, it must be delivered in a way for them to be able to relate and understand, and in an environment that is familiar to them, and without the stigma of what yoga has been marketed as. It needs to be relatable to what their daily experiences are, and broken down into a consistent format that is logical and specific to their specific requirements. It needs to be delivered in an accountable, professional manner - a manner that they are accustomed to within their profession. Yoga for First Responders answers the call and meets this need.
Written by YogaShield® Trainee Deneen MacInnes Class 009 S2
Deneen works as a 911 call taker in BC, Canada.
She is a 200 hr RYT and an Ambassador for Yoga for First Responders
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.
McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it.