Updated: July 2nd, 2021
When I started my journey in public safety 20 years ago, never did I think in a million years my career path would lead me to yoga, or teaching yoga for that matter. When I started in EMS all I wanted to do was “help people.” This is what every first responder has stated in some interview when asked:
“Why did you get into EMS?”
Learning aspects of my trade taught me how to fix heart dysrhythmias, give medications to stop an allergic reaction, to put a tube in an airway to help someone breathe, along with many other life saving interventions.
Accomplishing all the tasks while performing these skills in some of the most inconvenient, unpredictable, impractical, and small spaces. Add on the distractions of riding in the back of an ambulance, at times traveling at higher rates of speed, with loud sirens blaring in the background, crowds of people, or loud scenes with several engines running power tools. All sounds cool right? My career has been filled with adrenaline pumping, exciting, rewarding calls for service, and I get to be called a hero.
Who didn’t grow up dreaming of being a superhero?
However, in all the training throughout my career never was it covered how to change out of my hero cape back to my human form. Taking care of my human form was almost always mentioned as a side note, as an honorable mention in some vicarious training. So here I was 15 years into my emergency medical services career and found myself on the verge of a major breakdown with anger, anxiety, and depression. Sleep disorder, eating disorder, overweight, physical pain in shoulders, back and knees.
What do we do when we have a medical problem? We seek professional medical help. My doctor wanted to prescribe a gambit of medications to “fix” my problems. Some of the medications were to balance out the biochemicals and hormones that were causing my emotional symptoms or to numb the area of my brain that was causing the anxious behavior. I wanted no parts of any of that. I wanted to find the root cause and fix the problems. I fix things. I’m a paramedic. I identify the problem and stabilize the situation. These medications were not the answer to my problems. One of my physicians offered up in passing, “Maybe you should try meditation. That can help you in some way.”
Frustrated and lost, I researched and downloaded a meditation app on my phone. What could it hurt? The calm voice on the audio suggested, “Sit in a quiet space, breathe, quiet your mind.” Great, now my brain had the time to flood with ALL the things I had been keeping myself busy from and trying to avoid. “How in the world is this going to help me?” Frustrated even more, feeling like a failure and a meditation moron because I couldn’t sit still and my brain wouldn’t shut up. A panic attack began to develop. Back to the drawing board on how to properly meditate, so to Google I went. Most of the meditation websites were linked to yoga websites.
“Maybe I should try yoga.”
So, I landed on a yoga mat, in a yoga class with all of my anxieties and reasons why I shouldn’t be there. “I don’t have a yoga body.” “How the hell am I going to do this?” “I don’t bend like that.” I couldn’t sit in a simple easy pose with my legs crossed without my knees elevated six inches off the ground and pointed up to my ears. My shoulders rounded, and my feet falling asleep. The internal dialogue and personal judgment was strong! The instructor closed the door and welcomed us all to her class. “In this room there is no judgement. First, no judgment of yourself and how you have landed on your mat today. Second, there is no judgment of others in this room because everyone has landed in their own unique way. It’s not about whether they can do more or less than you, but each of you being present with yourself, your own energy, on your own mat. This is your practice.” Those words changed my world. She had given me permission to show up as I am and without judgement. She was referencing Ahimsa, ‘non-violence’, the first of Patanjali’s Yamas. It describes non-harm, compassion, mercy, peace, and love of all beings.
As a hero, I had never been given permission to be a hero to myself.
This permission allowed me to be a human. In yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas are ten guidelines are both a vision of the possibilities of human existence, as well as providing the practical guidance to make skillful moment to moment choices in our daily lives. I quickly realized that the Yamas & Niyamas could be applied in all areas of my life. I was making better choices for myself which was in turn improving my work skills and how I coped with the stress. I started learning breathing techniques to settle my anxiety, how to move my body to release areas of tension from stress, and how to make my body physically stronger. I studied the practice of yoga daily and not just as a human but also in hero mode. I meditated before shift, and again after shift. I used breathing techniques in between calls, and at the end of my shift driving home.
My practice of yoga started to help me create a balance between my hero self and my human self.
I didn’t just practice yoga on my mat in the studio or at home, but also while on shift. My oath as a paramedic to “Do No Harm” to my patients took on an entire new meaning for me. This also applied to my body, my spirit, my mental state. The biggest factor in my change of mindset was I was no good for my patients if I didn’t take care of myself first. This led me to deeper inquiry about how yoga could change my career. “What if I could teach these powerful coping tools to all of my peers?” “That’s it! I will go get my yoga teacher training so I can develop a program to teach other first responders on how to use yoga to regulate between hero and human.”
My next journey began and I obtained my 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training certification in April of 2019. “Ok, now what?” How was I going to deliver these tools to others? Diving back into research on how to teach yoga to my first responder peers I found Yoga For First Responders. “How awesome is this? A program already exists!” I signed up for the first available YFFR Instructor School and again found myself in a space that would have a significant impact in my life. I now had the tools to marry my passion for my career in EMS with my passion for yoga. Bonus! I get to teach yoga in a way that feels authentic to my hero self, plus I get to teach people using the cognitive declaration of “I am a badass.” So, let’s play out a scenario on how yoga is integrated into my shift and not just on my mat. “Medical Box 2-18, respond for the one not breathing.” Hustle to the ambulance. Roll out of the station with lights and sirens activated keeping heads on swivel through traffic or maneuvering country roads (awareness). Arrive on scene to a family member waving their arms frantically in front of the location. Exit the ambulance (lunge, warrior I) and gather all of the equipment (weighing between 75-100 pounds total) to carry into the location (physical strength and mobility). Find the patient on the floor, this is where I will work. Cognitive mind is firing with the protocols to follow, the proper medication calculations and dosage to administer, and skills that need to be performed. (tactical breathing) “Check breathing, check pulse”, none found, “Start CPR.” A flurry of activities ensue including IV/IO access (fine motor skills), calculating doses and giving medications (critical thinking), watching the monitor for quality of CPR. (tactical breathing) Patient needs to be intubated, kneeling on the floor at the head of the patient (half down dog), insert laryngoscope blade, visualize vocal cords, (full inhale), pass tube through the cords (full exhale), connect bag and breathe for the patient. Consider all of the possible reversible causes (critical thinking/problem solving). After thirty minutes of sustained work of the code on the floor (endurance). The discussion with the team for consideration of terminating resuscitation efforts begins. (tactical breath) Saying the words out loud, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Quietly clean up, and return all the equipment to your unit. (tactical breath to regulate sympathetic nervous system) Dispatch notifies your unit for the next call waiting, “Medical Box 2-10 for injured subject.” Key up the radio with control of voice to acknowledge the next dispatched call.
The practice of yoga applied to my profession in EMS has helped to build resiliency which correlates with longevity in my job.
“Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” First responders are confronted with a variety of stressors, perceived threats, and traumas every time they put on their uniform and report for duty. Hundreds of hours are dedicated to training on how to become proficient in managing an emergency situation. First responders become masters of their trade at turning chaos into calm. The tactical skills that they acquire during training are most often what they fall back to during the chaos and the mission. They don’t train until they can get it right, they train until they can’t get it wrong. The skills learned are to keep themselves and others safe so that everyone goes home. Physical safety, strength, and knowledge to perform the tasks needed become part of the muscle memory while working in stressful situations.
However, first responders aren’t trained on how to turn their own chaos into calm. This is a cultural change that needs to happen from the time our first responders begin training in academies or other training institutions. Once they remove the armor, the shield, the uniform there is a transition from “hero” to “human.” This key component is necessary to first responder training curriculum on how to make this transition before the next call or going home. The Webster Dictionary defines resilience as the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress. This is the human factor that is needed for our first responders to live outside of the job. Yoga For First Responders’ mission is to provide the tools to process the stress, build resilience, and enhance performance. The Yoga Shield™ can provide the means to becoming resilient through tactical breathwork, physical drills, cognitive declarations, and neurological reset. The Yoga Shield™ is the missing key component to training the first responders how to recover their “strained body to its size and shape” after a chaotic call, a shift, a tour, and/or a rotation to allow for longevity in a first responders career. Yoga saved my life, and it is now my mission to bring this valuable tool to as many first responders that I can.
Written by YogaShield® Trainee Courtney Shannon
Shannon, YFFR Instructor School, Class 013 is one of our newest instructors. Courtney works full time as a paramedic for a county in Maryland and has 21 years of experience in EMS & Fire. Courtney also has experience as a 911 communications operator. She is the wife of a FF/Paramedic Captain, and the mother to two daughters. Courtney brings her own personal experiences of using the YFFR Protocol to process stress, build resilience, and enhance her performance within her career to the YFFR program.
 The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring yoga's ethical practice [Preface]. (2009). In 1288428017 949676832 D. Adele (Author), The yamas & niyamas: Exploring yoga's ethical practice (p. 12). Duluth, MN: On-Word Bound Books.
 Building your resilience. (2012). Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
 Resilience. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resilience