Yoga in America is often perceived as an exclusive extra-curricular, belonging primarily to a select gender, race, and class of people. Even with that description, we all know who you’re thinking of. The westernized version of yoga has trained us to think that yoga is solely practiced by white women in a dimly lit studio with harp music playing the background so they can “relax”.
The origins of yoga from over 5,000 years ago teach us that:
yoga was initially practiced to gain mastery of the mind and optimal functioning of the entire psychophysiological system.
When the western filter that’s been placed on yoga is removed, we see yoga as a tool to increase physical strength, perform well under pressure, process stress, and enhance our self and situational awareness.
There is one profession which requires all of these skills, all the time, at the highest functioning level: public safety first responders.
From the long, demanding shifts, to the physical toll taken on the body, to the ever changing work environment and the dire need to adapt in an instant, yoga was made for first responders.
Yoga is commonly associated with words like “relaxation” and “zen”. In its most original state, yoga is training the body’s nervous system to self-regulate after it’s been activated. This self-regulation, or returning to homeostasis, is innate in humans. Think about going on a quick run or watching a scary movie. Our bodies can experience high activation like this and re-balance itself naturally in 24 to 48 hours, thanks to our autonomic nervous system. In our autonomic nervous system, our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work opposite each other.
Explained by Lt. Col. David Grossman and Loren Christensen,
The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes and directs the body’s energy resources for action. Think of it as the physiological equivalent of the body’s front-line soldiers, the ones who do the fighting in a military unit. The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with relaxation and is often concerned with activities that increase your body’s supply of stored energy. It is the physiological equivalent of the body’s cooks, mechanics and clerks who sustain a military unit over an extended period of time. When you are asleep at night, the parasympathetic nervous system processes are totally ascendant; you do not even have a guard at the front gate. Your military unit is on stand down, your ship is in port, and you are completely helpless. Then you wake up in the morning, get a cup of coffee, take a shower, and you hit what is called homeostasis: a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic processes. You have all troops in the front lines and some troops doing maintenance, which allows you to conduct sustained operations (Grossman & Christensen, 2012).
When the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are working together, our bodies aren’t relaxing, they are working with the perceived stressors to return back to homeostasis. Stress typically has a negative connotation. We are trained to think that stress is bad for us, that it keeps us from performing at our highest potential, and that we need to get rid of it.
It’s natural to make the assumption that first responders should practice stress relieving exercises often, since so much of their job is demanding, intense labor. First responders are put in high stress situations from the minute they clock in until they leave, often 12 or 24 hours later.
Not only do they rarely get the chance to relax while they are at work, relaxation ignores stress and temporarily calms the nervous system. Yoga teaches self-regulation to give our bodies different ways to quickly return to homeostasis and process stress effectively.
Through breath work in stillness, mindfully breathing while moving through each position, holding strengthening positions for an extended time, and experiencing a neurological reset, first responders are actively and intentionally using the energy from stress to recover and stay mentally present on the job.
In her book “The Upside of Stress,” author and psychologist Kelly McGonigal states,
“Stress is destructive until the moment we believe it isn’t. The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce it or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”
The root of yoga is a disciplinary tool to teach the body to use stress to perform and process it efficiently to bring our bodies back to homeostasis. Yoga For First Responders® teaches yoga as a way to interpret this stress as a positive, performance-enhancing stimuli that is familiar to first responders.
Yoga For First Responders® changes the way Westernized yoga is marketed and instead teaches yoga and stress as a symbiotic relationship. Yoga is overlooked as a discipline for physical and mental resiliency. If there is one thing first responders are trained to respond well to, it’s a disciplined, routine practice. Not only is yoga truly made for first responders, first responders are made for yoga.
Westernized versions of yoga have turned it into a “self-care” regimen that continues to perpetuate an exclusive aura around the practice. The idea of self-care or just taking time for oneself can be looked down upon or seen as unneeded for first responders.
So much of their job is taking care of others and protecting their communities. They see themselves as the care givers or protectors; using the resources or taking the time to check in on themselves is selfish or seen as a sign of weakness.
Removing the stigma and existing attitudes around both stress and yoga opens up the chance to explore both as a survival and performance-enhancing method. When yoga is treated and disseminated as the resiliency building tool that it is, it gets back to its traditional roots and foundational purpose and stress is properly channeled.
Anyone can do yoga, it’s not just a luxury that a certain group of people get to do for fun. Yoga is for everyone, and when it’s taught in its traditional 5,000 year-old form, it’s for firefighters, police officers, and EMTs.*
*Yoga For First Responders® (YFFR) is designed for first responders and military personnel. YFFR considers first responders anyone who works in public safety or emergency services. YFFR currently has training models for law enforcement, fire service, EMS, Dispatch/911 Telecommunications, and military, with jail-based law enforcement and behavioral health currently in development.
Essay written by Emma P. YFFR Instructor 2, Class 010, Squad 4