Updated: April 9, 2021
A persisting stereotype of yoga in the U.S. is personified as a young, lithe female who flexes and stretches her body into positions that would be impossible for most people to get into.
Searching the internet for “yoga” returns a plethora of imagery wholly consistent with that depiction. Often, the women portrayed in popular yoga-centric social media posts are found striking the full expression of advanced poses, wearing the latest fashionable yoga clothing, or sometimes they are just wearing a swimsuit. They pose in locations that are both serene and scenic, often even exotic. They are next to palm trees on white sandy beaches by turquoise oceans, they are in lush green rainforests, and they are even posing at historical sites or places of archeological interest.
Sometimes yogis are photographed quietly meditating in tranquil studios or in otherwise sterile voids.
A non-yogi viewing these photographs could develop less-than-accurate conclusions based on the imagery. Some of those conclusions might be:
Yoga is for women,
A yogi must be physically fit to practice yoga,
Yoga should be practiced in peaceful surroundings, and perhaps,
Colorful yoga pants are needed.
Although these images partly depict what is understood in America to be a yoga practice, they severely overstate and understate many key aspects. Some, to the extent that the most important concepts of yoga are blurred. Many yogis and yoga studios don’t offer much relief. They might even perpetuate and reinforce the notion that those who practice yoga are outliers and should be avoided by cops at all costs. For example, sometimes yogis exit their studios smelling of incense, using strange words when talking about a session (e.g. Sanskrit), or chanting together and performing musical routines on singing bowls or other strange instruments. Some yoga practices actually do look like this. However, all yoga practices don’t look the same, or even remotely similar to the practices depicted on the internet. Like anything else, variances and idiosyncrasies exist. The eccentric set in the yogi world seems to permeate the media. From this, a formidable barrier is generated that discourages those who might have otherwise been open to the idea of beginning a practice, cops included.
The images of “internet yogis” are a far cry from what rank and file law enforcement officers would define as inspirational, aspirational, or anything remotely helpful to their work in the fight against crime. In fact, the apparent serenity of this imagery could be interpreted by a patrol officer as a complete misrepresentation of the world. It might even be seen as an intangible utopia. In their realm it is chaos, suffering, pain, and violence that permeate nearly every minute of a shift.
Unfortunately, the value and benefits of mindful practices such as yoga are lost in popular culture’s relatively narrow depiction of the practice.
Law enforcement work can be violent, and officers are exposed to more violence than most. In the book 400 Things Cops Know, author Adam Platinga describes how this affects the responding officers. He wrote, “After taking a call of a particularly brutal slaying, especially if the victim appeared to be an innocent, the image of the death may become etched in your mind. Police supervisors take note of who calls in sick after responding to such a traumatic scene. They want to know who can handle that part of the job and who can’t” (Platinga, 2014).
Not only do officers see violence, but they must train to deliver violence upon another if it is needed. Many agencies in the U.S. are unable to deploy their patrol officers in two-officer teams, which places solo officers in harm’s way when encountering a violent person or when they are handling tense situations. In 2017 the FBI reported that 61.4 percent of officers who were assaulted in the U.S. were working alone; 30.4 percent were responding to a disturbance, and 15.8 percent were attempting to make an arrest (ucr.fbi.gov). The numbers are clearly not in the favor of the solo beat officer.
Brute strength is often necessary for these solo warriors to effectively safeguard the public. Officers who are faced with resistance when arresting offenders must be able to overcome that resistance, and officers who are assaulted must be able to defend themselves. Most typically, this requires muscular strength and defensive tactics training to overcome resistance, or to stay in the fight until help arrives.
What type of person desires to work in such a role?
Police work in the United States has historically existed as a male-dominated profession, presumably for reasons such as this. An examination of current demographics indicates that a gender disparity persists in present times. According to the FBI, in 2017 87.5 percent of officers in the U.S. were male and just 12.5 percent were female (ucr.fbi.gov). One could argue that this gender disparity affects the culture of law enforcement agencies, which in turn influences agency decisions that establish training programs.
Of note, mindfulness training (like practicing yoga) is regarded by many members of law enforcement (a male-dominated profession) as a minority (female) pastime. In fact, it can be reasoned that strength training is explicitly reinforced, valued, and held in high esteem amongst law enforcement officers. Job specifications often denote the amount of strength officers should have, and defensive tactics training is regularly scheduled. This is for good reason, as evidenced by the likelihood officers will be working alone, and that they will likely become involved in physical altercations with violent people. After all, how can one argue against the need for a physically strong police force that is fully capable of providing protection to a community?
While strength is clearly a necessity, the work of law enforcement does not always involve delivering violence of action upon those who would do harm to others. When it does, how should that force be delivered?
What cost is incurred to the women and men who actually deliver force to enforce laws and protect the public?
Recently, as police suicides persist, the concept of mindfulness training has gained traction as an applicable practice to the law enforcement industry. This trend is based on a growing body of empirical evidence that indicates performance and resiliency is increased in participants of mindfulness training and programs. Despite these benefits, mindfulness practices like yoga have yet to fully-permeate the ranks and have most often not been recognized as important enough to be included as regular scheduled training. They are often viewed as having limited utility, despite evidence indicating effectiveness in addressing many problems in law enforcement. In fact, mindfulness is often viewed as a soft skill, likened to de-escalation training, sensitivity training, and community relations skills; many cops cringe at the thought of attending such training. Yoga is also viewed as an exercise centered mostly on stretching to increase flexibility. Its value is less apparent to the uninformed, whereas working to develop physical strength has obvious applicability to the sometimes violent work of police.
One study indicates the, “…combination of exposure to situations that elicit negative emotions and (probable) emotion-regulation deficits is likely to increase police officers’ risk of developing mental-health problems and dysfunctional methods of short-term emotion regulation” (Berking et al., 2010, p. 330). Otherwise stated, police are exposed to violence at a high frequency, and they are ill equipped to process the aftereffects. The outcome of this diminishes their mental health, reduces their ability to communicate with others and, and lessens their ability to effectively resolve problems they face. In the book Bulletproof Spirit, author Dan Willis wrote, “...it’s essential for you to learn how to prepare yourself to constructively process the repeated trauma of your profession” (Willis, 2014). Male-dominated police culture often associates mental problems with weakness. This stigma reinforces unhealthy responses by officers to their job-induced mental distress, which includes substance abuse and other harmful activities which are culturally acceptable and traditionally viewed as acceptable mechanisms used to address stress.
How will a regular yoga practice benefit law enforcement officers?
Increasing mindfulness is perhaps one of the most valuable returns. Mindfulness, as defined by Yoga for First Responders is skillful working together of intention, action, and awareness. The ability of an officer to understand the environment they are in (e.g. their situational awareness) is foundational to improved decision making and officer safety. They choose to be attentive and they become more aware of things that are currently distressing a situation or could potentially distress a situation. What they choose to do (their intention) is informed by a higher quality of information, less-influenced (e.g. hijacked) by their emotional state. Mindful officers learn to self-regulate, and filter and distinguish threats from challenges. Their perception of both threats and challenges are adjusted, and their response to each is more intentional than reactive. When mindful officers take action, it involves their mind, incorporating thought with movement. Implementing mindful practices like yoga into the public safety culture, among other things, requires that stereotypes are dismantled and that long-standing training regiments are re-evaluated for relevancy and applicability to the modern profession of policing.
Berking, M. Meier, C. Wupperman, P. (2010). Enhancing emotion-regulation skills in police officers: Results of a pilot controlled study. Behavior Therapy 41(3). 329-339.
Platinga, A. (2014). 400 things cops know: Street-smart lessons from a veteran patrolman. Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books.
Willis, D. (2014). Bulletproof spirit: The first responder’s essential resource for protecting and healing mind and heart. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Written by YFFR Instructor Dustin Kulling
Dustin Kulling is a 23-year veteran of California law enforcement. He is currently the Captain of Field Forces at the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office where he oversees a division of 240 sworn and non-sworn team members providing front-line law enforcement services to the community. Over the course of his career, Kulling has worked in a variety of assignments and roles, to include: patrol, investigations, field training, and an eight-year undercover assignment as a narcotics agent at a counter-drug task force staffed by DEA, FBI, and other state and local partners. Kulling is a narcotics expert, having dismantled hundreds of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories, and investigated large-scale drug trafficking organizations with international reach. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at San Joaquin Delta College, and a Yoga Teacher with Yoga for First Responders. Kulling has both a M.Ed. In Higher Education and a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Liberty University. Kulling is currently attending the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Command College (Class 66), where he is studying the impact of non-lethal weapons technology. He is married to Patricia for 26 years, and they have three children (and two Shih-Tzu dogs). Kulling has a regular yoga practice, attending a hot yoga class nearly every day.