Recently, (note: this essay was written pre-2020) my husband and I went to visit my in-laws in Washington state. My father-in-law was a Sentry Dog handler in Vietnam and a 20-year San Francisco police officer, retired on a job-related disability. My mother-in-law was a dispatcher for their small town on the outskirts of San Francisco.
With my passion for sharing the benefits of yoga with first responders and military, I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask him how he handled the stresses of the job. I got to spend a lot of time chatting with him about his experiences, and we barely even scratched the surface, so finally I asked him how he handled all the stresses of the military and as a police officer and managed to stay so well-adjusted.
He told me that when he was in Vietnam, some snipers taught him how to breathe.
They taught him to take a really deep breath in through the nose, filling up his lungs as full as they could possibly get, and then instead of letting the air out all at once, let it out super slow, even slower that you did when you inhaled. He told me that after a few breaths like that, he was able to get his mind right.
He then went on to explain to me that he learned about adrenaline and what happens to the body when you have all that adrenaline pumping through your body it made you shaky and made it hard to think and hard to see what was going on around you.
He told me a story about a high-speed chase in the 70s or 80s that involved multiple departments across the city while the passenger was shooting at the officers out of the back of the car. Eventually, the driver ended up crashing into another car on a bridge and the shooter’s rifle had jammed. Dad had to make a snap decision whether to take the shot, but was able to steady the effects by breathing and realized that the driver of the other car was directly behind the shooter. He talked about how bad it could have gone had he not been able to keep a clear head.
As I was listening to his stories, I kept thinking that dad had been practicing yoga his entire career and never even knew it. All he knew was that adrenaline had a major effect on people and he was able to counter those effects with breathing deeply.
Men are often conditioned from childhood, hearing things like “suck it up” or “boys don’t cry” and as a result often don’t reach out for help, whether it be physically, mentally, or emotionally. In the book, Bulletproof Spirit, Captain Dan Willis states, “Prolonged exposure to violence, trauma, death, and suffering can scar a first responder’s spirit and take a terrible toll; substance abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional suffering, suicide, and lost careers plague these honored professions. The effects of the invisible wounds of the job ripple outward, and wear and tear affect not just the first responders themselves, but also their friends, family, colleagues, and the community they are devoted to protecting.”
The statistics of suicide and stress related deaths within the first responder community reflect a problem that has not been adequately addressed.
The body has a natural intelligence to it that is designed to help us. It is almost instinctual for us to take a big deep inhale when we need energy, motivation, or courage to act. The same goes for a long, extended exhale when trying to calm down and not react impulsively. I often found myself taking long extended exhales while raising my children and trying not to completely lose my mind, but never knew the science behind why it helps calm me and not act irrationally.
Yoga techniques can help us to take charge of the mind and body and implement those innate physiological functions and use them in a conscious and informed way.
Our body's Autonomic Nervous System is broken down into the Sympathetic Nervous System, which is responsible for the physiological responses of fight or flight in response to danger, and the Parasympathetic System, which is responsible for rest and digest when not in danger. The body was designed to be in a state of rest and digest most of the time and only transition into states of fight or flight when faced with immediate danger. Unfortunately, the state of current Western society rewards behaviors with an emphasis on action such as putting in extra work hours and not “wasting time” sleeping and have become misguided badges of honor.
These stressors impact the body in a way that it was not designed to process, often leading to the body breaking down physically and/or mentally.
The Mayo Clinic, in one of their online articles, “Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior”, states:
“Stress symptoms may be affecting your health, even though you might not realize it. You may think illness is to blame for that irritating headache, your frequent insomnia or your decreased productivity at work. But stress may actually be the cause.
Common effects of stress:
On your body: Headache, Muscle tension or pain, Chest pain, Fatigue, Change in sex drive, Stomach upset, Sleep problems
On your mood: Anxiety, Restlessness, Lack of motivation or focus, Feeling overwhelmed, Irritability or anger, Sadness or depression
On your behavior: Overeating or under-eating, Angry outbursts, Drug or alcohol misuse, Tobacco use, Social withdrawal, Exercising less often”
To bring the body back into a natural balance, it is first necessary to become aware of what is going on and then intentionally bring the body back into a state of homeostasis.
In his book, The Body Keeps Score, Bessel Ven Der Kolk says, “When our autonomic nervous system is well balanced, we have a reasonable degree of control over our response to minor frustrations and disappointments, enabling us to calmly assess what is going on when we feel insulted or left out. Effective arousal modulation gives us control over our impulses and emotions: As long as we manage to stay calm, we can choose how we want to respond. Individuals with poorly modulated autonomic nervous systems are easily thrown off balance, both mentally and physically.”
By ensuring that the autonomic nervous system is balanced, people in these high stress jobs will have the ability to process stress and be more resilient to the daily stressors of the job and life in general.
Yoga is designed to bring awareness to the mind and body and provides methods of bringing them back into a state of homeostasis.
Unfortunately, yoga often has a stigma associated with it and that it is nothing more than “stretching for girls”, especially for those in traditionally male-dominated careers including military and first responders. There are many people in these professions that have a regular yoga practice, but don’t share the practice because of the stigma and teasing that can come with it.
The potential benefits of having a regular yoga practice far outweigh the perceived negatives, so I will continue to educate and bring the benefits of yoga to the populations that need and deserve it the most.
Written by Michelle Boot, YFFR Instructor 2, Class 007 Squad 3
Comments from Squad 3 Leader, Eric Brenneman:
Michelle shares some interesting points and speaks directly to my experience of working with first responders and their mentality of what they believe yoga to be. Just the other day I was talking with a firefighter from a major city who reiterated the belief that yoga isn't for them. This couldn't be further from the truth. As Michelle points out, yoga is exactly the tool firefighters and other first responders need. Little did those snipers know during the war they were actually teaching each other the foundations of yoga
The Body Keeps Score; Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, 2014
Bulletproof Spirit, Captain Dan Willis, 2014