Truth. I wasn’t prepared for the challenge of promoting a pitch to fire department officials to bring yoga for first responders in my community. My presentation included statistics, research articles, and my credentials as a healthcare provider and a certified yoga instructor. The proposal was passionately presented to a less than attentive audience.
After my enthusiastic proposal of teaching yoga to our public safety officers, a battalion chief asked me, “What do you mean yoga is made for first responders, how is it different from regular yoga?” I took pause and pursued further research that led me to the non-profit organization, Yoga For First Responders® (YFFR). I was immediately intrigued by the data and science behind the research-based protocol YFFR teaches.
Traditional yoga has its origin thousands of years ago in the eastern part of the world. Soldiers in India practiced yoga in preparation to endure mental and physical challenges of combat. Yoga was their tool to enhance their fight in extreme conditions while maintaining mental and physical composure. Warriors practiced yoga as a means of obtaining mastery over the mind through meditation and tactical drills.
So how does yoga from more than 5,000 years ago apply in the western culture?
Most people think to practice yoga you must be flexible and able to touch your toes. The image most people have is a thin female in pretzel-like poses on a beach. It’s actually the branding of yoga in our culture today that has perpetuated this misconception.
To understand the original warrior mindset, “mastery over the mind”, imagine that you are on a fast moving train, symbolic of the mind racing in a tense, stressful situation. The scenery is a blur as the train moves at record speed down the tracks. A sense of tunnel vision sets in with difficulty concentrating and focusing. This is what happens to the brain when a surge of hormones, adrenaline and cortisol are released. Imagine a warrior, a yogi, pausing for a split second to access the breath.
The foundation of yoga is the breath, a tool to self-regulate the nervous system.
As the conductor (warrior) is able to gain control over the breath, he/she is able to recognize the stop ahead, the warrior begins to slowly release the throttle, apply the brakes, and gain control over the engine. The scenery is less blurred as the warrior is able to focus, plan attack without reacting, instead widening the zone of optimal performance by allowing the breath to control the nervous system in which he is calm, cool, collected, and connected.
Physiologically, the heart rate decreases, thus parasympathetic system is activated, the body becomes calm, and the mind is focused. It’s at this moment the warrior, the yogi, jumps off the train, brushes himself off, and says “I got this”, just as the conductor brings the train to a stop safely.
The job of the first responder is to “protect and serve” the community.
The public depends on these individuals to be present and engaged in life and death situations. That’s a tall order for any human being to fulfill while maintaining mental and physical well-being.
Captain Dan Willis author of “Bulletproof Spirit” states in his book it’s the responsibility of the first responder to maintain “emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellness in order to be there for those who need and depend on us”.
He goes on to say,
"Our fellow citizens deserve nothing less than a dedicated, healthy, and complete first responder who is emotionally stable, fully invested in the job, and willing and able to do everything in his or her power to serve those in need”.
Studies have shown that approximately 30 percent of first responders develop depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compared to the general population. Badge of Life, the non-profit organization reported in 2016, it was estimated between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide every year.
First responders witness far more trauma, loss, destruction, and death in one shift than the average person sees in a lifetime.
How does a human being go from a hypervigilant state to homeostasis? By accessing the breath, the window to calm the nervous system. All it takes is 3 conscious breaths inhaled specifically through the nostrils to the belly to slow the nervous system, decrease adrenaline flow, cortisol, and release oxytocin (the feel good hormone).
Without conscious, mindful breathing, the mind continues to shift from one thought to another resulting in a sustained state of the autonomic system (flight/fight response). Each Yoga For First Responders® class begins with three-part breath, a tactical breathing technique used during stressful, challenging drills to train the body and mind how to function during difficult situations on and off the job.
To be accepted by first responders, yoga for this population must be culturally informed.
Unlike community yoga classes, yoga for the first responder omits the use of Sanskrit terms, no mudras, no Namaste’ (prayer) hands, the lights are not dimmed, and there is no music or incense burning. I could be wrong, but I doubt soldiers training for combat more than 5000 years ago were in a quiet, dimly lit room while practicing physical drills and breathing techniques. Our safety warriors today are taught a skill set that is job specific, stripped of “woo-woo”, no mysticism involved.
The cross-over of yoga poses to the physical demands of a first responder is not a coincidence. For example, there are many awkward firearm positions similar to yoga poses. To see this in action, watch Pat McNamara’s “TMACS INC M4 Cabine 4 position shoot” on Youtube. Notice the 4 stances are similar to 1. Mountain pose, 2. Squat, 3. Wide leg forward fold, and 4. Baby-cobra.
The intent of bringing yoga to first responders is the integration of skills, both physical and mental, into their jobs and personal lives. Yoga as a tool teaches first responders to perform under stress, process that stress when the situation is over, build resilience, and enhance performance. A good example is increasing situational awareness, proprioception, and learning air consumption during physical drills.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of “Wherever You Go There You Are” says to practice mindfulness may be simple, not necessarily easy.
"Mindfulness requires effort and discipline for the simple reason that the forces against our being mindful, namely, our habitual unawareness…are exceedingly tenacious”.
Essay written by Sharon Thorpe, YFFR Certified Instructor 2, Class 009, Squad 4