Guest post written by Olivia Kvitne Mead, Founder and Director of Yoga For First Responders (YFFR)
These days you may be seeing an increasing number of brothers and sisters on your crew coming to work and checking for their masks, hoods…and now their yoga mats. This may seem out of touch with fire service culture and even a waste of time for those unfamiliar with the original purpose of yoga training.
Yoga in the west is typically branded as a feminine, trendy exercise technique. Because of this, when I began teaching yoga to first responders, I noticed my students would walk into class visibly uncomfortable. They feared I was going to ask them to try unachievable stretching techniques or mystical ways to relax. Therefore, I would start my classes by addressing the misconceptions about yoga, relating the true origin and principles of yoga as a philosophy and as a warrior/protector’s training tool. Then I would finally introduce practical application methods.
The original intention of yoga in and of itself demonstrates how exceedingly beneficial it can be for first responders. Taking the time to enlighten my students allowed them to feel comfortable trying it. Once they experienced the techniques first hand, they were all in.
In time, the percentage of my students who arrived already understanding the benefits of yoga was expanding. Yet how to implement it appropriately and successfully as a training tool for the fire service was still up for discussion. Through the non-profit organization I founded, Yoga For First Responders, I have taken the principles of traditional yoga and tailored them to fit within the training fabric to which emergency responders are already accustomed. This facilitated streamlining the implementation and the sustainability of the program.
How can yoga help on the job and off the job?
A captain I was recently speaking with at one of the biggest departments in the country said, “Yoga isn’t about touching your toes. It’s about doing your job more efficiently.” “Efficiency” is a major buzz word among fire service professionals; training to improve efficiency is always desirable. Generally, this is in reference to operational decision making or fire ground tactics. In this case, I am referring to the mental, physical, and neurological efficiency for overall long-term, strategic survival as well as quick decision making and productive performance techniques. This is what yoga training provides.
Efficiency and other high-performance expectations can be compromised when high levels of stress unconsciously remain in the mental, physical, and neurological systems. Stress is the necessary survival mechanism needed to act quickly when lives are on the line, yet without a method of processing stress hormones out of the blood and tissues once the threat is over, that highly valuable stress response can become fatigued. A fatigued stress response can manifest in ways such as difficulty sleeping, poor performance on the job, a shortened career, or even a shortened life span.
How does yoga inform and improve short-term efficiency and long-term survival? Here are the three major elements of yoga training that can influence your personal and professional day:
- Tactical Breathing – Respiration is directly connected to the Autonomic Nervous System and stress response. Using yoga techniques that emphasize manipulated and measured breath patterns can teach your system how to regulate itself and process stress as well as increase the effectiveness of oxygen on the tissues when stress levels are high.
- Physical Strength and Mobility – Gaining physical strength and mobility are valuable benefits many attribute to yoga training. Yet the immobility a lot of us experience is mainly stress-based. Using the physical body as a training tool in yoga, one can not only strengthen muscles and open joints, but also release the stress-tension that becomes stored in the physical body and can be a predecessor to injury.
- Recovery and Assessment – Proper and consistent recovery is necessary for long-term performance and resilience. Yoga teaches short and accessible techniques for mental, physical, neurological, and emotional recovery. Yoga training is based on the study of the Self, and therefore all the training tools yoga offers lend themselves as opportunities to assess one’s state of mind and make adjustments as needed.
Several studies have shown that shorter, more frequent training in yoga and mindfulness has a better effect on reducing stress and lowering levels of inflammatory markers in the blood than infrequent longer practices.
Use the video below to create a consistent practice that encompasses all three areas listed above.