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Which is More Important: Wellness Training or Physical Fitness?

Imagine you are a Deputy Chief of Training. You have a limited budget for training, and a limited amount of time in which to get it done. You can schedule physical fitness, or you can schedule mental wellness training. Which do you choose?

Recently, a 25-year veteran of fire service told me that although he believed in the importance of mental wellness training for fire service, it should never take the place of, or have priority over, physical fitness. My typical response to this argument is, “What good is a physically fit body if you are not out in the field to use it?”

Consider this:

Of course, I am not disagreeing with the importance of physical fitness, nor do I believe any one training should be classified above any other training. If it is necessary for the job, it all carries weight.

This particular comment from this gentleman stemmed from a conversation regarding yoga, or what he assumed about yoga. Yoga is a new training modality for firefighters and one that not everyone has bought into yet. Many have the misconception that the sole purpose of yoga is to achieve “balance, flexibility or relaxation”, often classifying it only within the categories of wellness or stress management. Although outcomes of yoga training can include optimal levels of mobility and methods for recovery, the common belief that that is all there is to it misses the mark. The true intention of yoga, and therefore its full potential to enhance job performance, is lost.

Below is a break down of elemental techniques in a traditional yoga practice, along with the benefits those techniques provide for fire service specifically.

1.  Breath Work

Bohr Effect - The Bohr Effect increases the efficiency of oxygen transportation through the blood to the necessary tissues in the body. This can be achieved by training the body to have a higher CO2 tolerance making smaller amounts of oxygen more effective. In essence, one’s system can function productively using less air. Contrary to popular belief, traditional yoga techniques are largely founded on measured and manipulated breath patterns and exercises. Breath Work techniques have shown many benefits correlated to the stress response and mental training which is undoubtedly valuable for fire service.  But in addition, the benefits yoga breathing techniques can have on air management with SCBA are one of the most direct links to enhancing job performance.

Calming mind and nervous system - Respiration is a function of the body governed by the Autonomic Nervous System, yet we also have the ability for conscious control and manipulation over respiration. It is through this conscious control of respiration that one can control his or her nervous system response and mental framing to a situation. The breath work techniques in yoga can train one to hit the “calm and control” button on his or her nervous system whenever needed.

2.  Physical Practice

Releasing trauma from tissues will increase mobility - Increasing strength in small, stabilizing muscles, and increasing functional mobility, are valuable benefits of yoga. Ever wonder why immobility is so prevalent? It is not the muscles that are to blame. Rather, it is fascia and other connective tissue in and around the muscles and joints that have become hardened with years of mental and physical stress. It is as if the body creates a protective armor in response to the challenges found in every aspect of life. 

Does stress give you neck tension or backaches? Is it increasingly difficult to open up your chest to yawn and stretch? The body stores stressful experiences not unlike that of a storage unit. Every day another box of trauma, pain, and frustration gets added. Psychiatrist and world-renowned researcher on embodied trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk, states in his book The Body Keeps the Score, “The bodies (of people who have experienced cumulative stress and trauma) register the threat, but their conscious minds go on as if nothing has happened.” This can be true for a firefighter who has consciously normalized traumatic events, due to having experienced them as part of the job. 

Van Der Kolk continues, “However, even though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don’t stop. The emotional brain keeps working, and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to tense for action or immobilize in collapse.” 

What is one of the modalities Van Der Kolk has studied and recommends for regulating the brain and nervous system? Yoga. This is because yoga works from the “top down”, strengthening messages from the medial prefrontal cortex that will affect how the body responds to a threat, as well as from the “bottom up”, using movement and breath to send signals to the brain. Physical practices of yoga are built for the body to process out stress from the tissues, with optimal levels of strength and mobility being an appended benefit. 

This not only moves the "boxes" of stress out of the body's “storage unit”, it also keeps the space well maintained to prepare for what lies ahead. Mammals have inherent ways of naturally moving stress out of their physical system through tremors and shaking. As a mammal, you may have also felt this instinct to move your body when stress has become overwhelming. Often one feels the need to "take a walk" or go to the gym to handle the tension after a particularly difficult situation or call. You may have seen someone’s body shake uncontrollably after a minor car accident. This movement is the nervous system’s way of regulating itself. Yet due to one's normal ego and thinking override, the body's natural rebalancing mechanism can become compromised, with stress hormones remaining in the blood and tissues.

Training the mind is invaluable in allowing and assisting the nervous system’s method of recovery. 

Besides the element of stress, nearly half the injuries on the fire ground are strains and sprains. Small muscles, which can be missed during a typical gym workout geared toward heavy lifting, can save joints from injuries. Small muscles also support the larger muscles when it is time to pull the 250-pound body out of a burning building. 

3.  Recovery and Concentration

“Flow” describes the state of consciousness for optimal levels of performance. The word “Flow” was first coined by psychologist Mikayl Csikszentmihalyi and then further studied by many others, most notably Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire. Kotler describes the cycle of Flow as a cycle in one’s brain that includes a different brain wave and state of consciousness for each part of the cycle, the Recovery stage being one of them. 

After performing at high levels of physical or mental feats, the Recovery stage must be a purposeful and required practice in order for the brain to enter the Flow cycle once again. 

Until the Recovery stage is appreciated, however, its techniques can be dismissed as too deliberate or decelerated, and therefore not taught. Yoga has a built-in Recovery portion to its structure of training. These Recovery techniques are typically practiced at the end of a yoga session, but they can be easily practiced off the yoga mat whenever needed. 

Firefighters who practice yoga have reported using these Recovery techniques, along with the Breath Work techniques, to regulate the mind and body in order to access effective sleep after a middle-of-the-night run. 

It is important to note the differences between “relaxation” and “recovery”. Although there can be similarities, with the words often used interchangeably, many confuse coping mechanisms that make one feel temporarily “relaxed”, with the effective and consistent regulation-to-recovery of the nervous system. Irene Lyons, a Kinesiologist specializing in Somatic Experiencing® and the nervous system states that regulation is “riding the wave” of activation, teaching the nervous system to regulate, heal and achieve homeostasis after having been in stressful situations or chaos. Temporary relaxation mechanisms such as drinking alcohol, watching TV, taking a day off work, or taking a vacation, can offer a Band-Aid effect, a break from the heaviness of stress, but not a permanent solution. Teaching self-regulation techniques creates true biological change.

Although yoga uses the physical body as its vehicle, it does not have to be classified as physical fitness. And physical fitness can incorporate concepts from yoga philosophy to also achieve mental and neurological wellness.

In truth, yoga is a multifunctional tool that addresses the physical, mental and tactical aspects of fire service. 

Leaders on these subject matters agree: Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, PhD, ERYT, CYT states in her course on Mindfulness for Self Care for University of Denver’s Center for Professional Development, "Research with mindfulness exercise practices indicates that the combination of exercise and mindfulness strategies may offer unique psychological and physical benefits above and beyond either meditation training or exercise training alone.”  Captain Jim Moss from Metro West Fire Department and Chief Fire Marshal Dan Kerrigan from East Whiteland Township, co-authors of Firefighter Functional Fitness state in their article, Healthy Body, Healthy Mind: Improve your Mental Health through Physical Fitness, “As many benefits as there are to maintaining our physical fitness, the mental benefits of exercise can also dramatically reduce the stress and anxiety we accumulate during our careers.” Yoga is listed in their book as one of the tools for optimal firefighter performance and longevity.

Yoga and other proactive wellness and resilience modalities can easily be imbedded within other fire service training including physical fitness. Christopher Johnson, psychotherapist, Yoga For First Responders Instructor 2, and Jiu-Jitsu athlete, comments on this subject, "Yoga isn’t one more thing to put on the to-do list of your life. It’s HOW you do everything in your life.

In its essence, yoga is not what you achieve on the mat, it is about what you learn as you practice yoga, and then HOW YOU intentionally apply those lessons to all other fire skills training.

Whether you believe yoga is intended for psychological wellness, or whether you believe yoga is intended for physical training, either way you are correct. You do not have to choose between the importance of mental wellness versus physical fitness, as they are one in the same. Yoga is the modality that brings both concepts together as an optimal training tool.

By: Olivia Mead

Founder and CEO

YogaShield® Yoga For First Responders®


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