Yoga for First Responders
Mind over Matter: Keeping our First Responders Safe
By: Sharon Wheeler, Teacher and Ambassador with Yoga for First Responders
Mind Over Matter: Keeping Our First Responders Safe
Mind over Matter. Is that really achievable? Is that truly possible? If one takes up the practice of Yoga, the answer is a resounding YES! The original intention of yoga, a 5,000 year old science and philosophy, is to prepare one’s mind and body for war. It was established as a specific training for warriors to keep their head about them and stick to the task in front of them: WAR.
Our first responders are at WAR every time they punch in for their shift. Mastery of the mind is crucial to their survival. “Complacency kills” is a signature mantra. It has been said that the job of a first responder is 80% mental and 20% physical. As Captain Willis writes in his book, BULLETPROOF SPIRIT, mastery over the mind and keeping the mind healthy is a necessary protocol for selfcare.
First responders can see more in one day than the average person would see in a lifetime. For both spiritual and emotional wellness, Captain Willis also states that there are effective methods to shield, nurture and sustain your spirit. These methods include practicing some type of physical exercise, practicing self-awareness and incorporating meditation and deep beathing into your lifestyle. This is the basis of yoga! One could say yoga is made for first responders.
There are at least 9 warning signs that can alert a first responder that they are becoming a victim of their profession. These signs include isolation, irritability, difficulty sleeping, anger, emotional numbness, lack of communication and depression. Displaying any of these signs is a serious indication that there is difficulty processing the acute stress and trauma of the job. That’s where yoga comes in.
Yoga can directly alleviate several of these signs of distress in the mind and body. The foundation is tactical breathwork. By the use of breathing techniques, we can immediately tap into the autonomic nervous system and switch the body from working in the sympathetic stress response to the parasympathetic stress response mode. In as little as a few minutes of yogic deep breathing, we can make this switch for our minds and bodies from operating in the “fight, flight or freeze” mode to operating in “rest and digest.” When practicing yoga in a group of peers, the feeling of isolation is reduced. You now have your “tribe.” Yoga has also been shown in studies to help facilitate a sense of calm, thus reducing irritability and anger. Sleeping is improved, emotional numbness is lessened, communication is enhanced, depression is reduced and a general feeling of wellbeing is achieved.
With a regular yoga practice, we can train the mind and body to come into the natural state of regulation. Specifically, we can train the body to self-regulate, bring oxygen to all parts of the body, enhance self-awareness and situational awareness, allow for more effective sleep patterns, improve mind-body communication and more accurate gut responses, all while building physical strength and mobility and reducing the occurrence of injury. All of these benefits allow sustainability in a career as a first responder.
Interestingly, yoga has been so “westernized” that the fundamentals and benefits of yoga are hardly addressed in a typical yoga studio class. Today’s yoga marketing is generally targeted to white, thin, flexible women who are affluent and have the current color and style of yoga clothing. The emphasis is flexibility and competing to do poses that typically only thin, flexible, injury-free individuals can manage. Often a studio setting is stereotyped to include the vision of plenty of mala beads, Birkenstocks and mood lighting. Music is the foundation of the practice in order to distract the mind. There is not much talk of tactical breathing, processing stress and alternate modifications to take when managing a pose with an injury . . . or two. Thus, when there is such a disconnect between the western yogi and a first responder, a first responder may be hesitant to buying into the notion of yoga as part of necessary training.
When we mindfully present yoga to first responders from a standpoint of being job-specific and culturally informed, we can reach them and make a difference! They can now better understand the WHY of it all and apply the practice to themselves. There are no mala beads or Birkenstocks present in the room. Lights stay on. No music is played. Instead of numbing out the mind further with music, the first responder is invited to go into the mind and groove new neuro-pathways and build new neuro-circuitry. This mindfulness is part of the training. By using yoga as the warrior training that it is, one can train the mind to operate from the prefrontal cortex where clear, conscious thinking happens. Using body movement and vocabulary to process stress and trauma out of the body is also key to health. The intentional, culturally informed yoga practice promotes the necessary assistance to come out of a state of hypervigilance - which is needed for the job, and come into a state of health and ease - when not on the job.
WHEREVER YOU GO THERE YOU ARE, the book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, advocates mindfulness to assist us in living our lives with better access to the full spectrum of our possibilities and a bringing about a healthier mindset. He recognizes that yogi’s have been exploring this concept for thousands of years. (5,000 to be exact!) Being aware of the breath is the first step in mindfulness. He encourages using the breath to nurture mindfulness. He states that it is possible, through meditation and intentional breathing, to find “shelter from much of the wind that agitates the mind.”
What a welcome blessing for so many first responders! To truly master the mind over the matter. To master the mind over the events they must face each day and allow the mind a place of solitude and respite. This intentional way of sharing the science of yoga and stating the specific benefits to the first responder from a culturally informed perspective allows the instructor to meet the first responder where they are. In turn, the first responder is more likely to make yoga practice a part of their lifestyle. Offering yoga in this manner, keeping it job-specific and culturally informed, allows it to be accessible and pertinent. It facilitates real healing and transformation. It brings about the ability to save lives.
For more information, please contact Sharon Wheeler at PurpleLotusWellnessYoga@gmail.com