How Yoga Training Combines Wellness and Physical Fitness for Firefighters
By Olivia Mead, Founder and Director, Yoga for First Responders
Recently, a 25-year veteran of the fire service told me that although he believed in the importance of mental wellness training, 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 these statistics:
- Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the fire service
- Post-traumatic stress has been reported by as much as 37 percent of those in the fire service
- 103 firefighters died by suicide in 2017
Of course I am not disagreeing with the importance of physical fitness, nor do I believe any single training should be classified above any other training. If it is necessary for the job, it carries equal weight to its counterparts.
That particular comment from the fire service leader stemmed from a conversation regarding yoga training, or what he assumed about yoga. Yoga is a new training modality used by many firefighters, but not all fire service professionals have embraced it. 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 yoga training does aid mental resilience and recovery, there is more to it. The true intention of yoga is to enhance overall human performance, both physically and mentally.
Below is a breakdown of elemental techniques in traditional yoga training, along with the benefits they provide specifically for those in the fire service:
- Breath Work
Traditional yoga is largely founded on measured and manipulated breath patterns and exercises. Yoga breathing techniques optimize the Bohr effect to increase the efficiency of oxygen transportation through the blood to the necessary tissues in the body. This is achieved by training the body to have a higher CO2 tolerance, which makes smaller amounts of oxygen more effective. In essence, one’s system can function productively using less air. This greatly enhances firefighters’ air management, especially when using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), to improve their performance in the field.
Breath work techniques also have many benefits related to stress response and mental training, which is undoubtedly valuable for firefighters. Respiration is a function of the body governed without conscious direction by the Autonomic Nervous System, yet we have the ability to apply conscious control and manipulation to our breathing. Through this conscious control, we can influence our nervous system’s response and mental framing of a situation. Training firefighters to use yoga breath work techniques can give them the ability to hit the “calm and control” button on their nervous system whenever needed.
- Physical Practice
Does stress give you neck tension or backaches? Is it increasingly difficult to open up your chest to yawn and stretch? When immobility develops over time, it is not the muscles that are to blame. Rather, it is fascia and other connective tissues in and around the muscles and joints that become hardened with years of mental and physical stress. Yoga training can combat this by increasing strength in small, stabilizing muscles and releasing tension from the body to increase functional mobility.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, psychiatrist and world-renowned researcher on embodied trauma, 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 normalized traumatic events 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.”
One of the modalities Van Der Kolk has studied and recommends for regulating stress and the nervous system is yoga training. The body stores stress like a storage unit and yoga moves the “boxes” of stress out and keeps the space well maintained for what lies ahead. Yoga works from the “top down,” strengthening messages from the medial prefrontal cortex that 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. The purpose of the physical practice of yoga is for the body to process stress out of the tissues; improving optimal levels of strength and mobility is an appended benefit.
Mammals have inherent ways of naturally moving stress out of their physical system through tremors and shaking. You may have felt this instinct yourself when stress becomes overwhelming. After a particularly difficult situation or call, firefighters may feel the need to “take a walk,” or go to the gym to release the tension. 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. However, humans have a tendency to allow our mind (and ego) to override the body’s nervous system regulation abilities by thinking things like, “man up, don’t look weak, don’t cry, be tough, this is part of the job.” By doing so, the nervous system does not perform this natural form of recovery, therefore allowing stress to remain in the body and blood stream. Overriding this natural process is thought to contribute to some of the reasons humans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms whereas other mammals do not.
- 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 the concept has been further studied by many others, most notably Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire. Kotler describes 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 exertion, the recovery stage is essential for the brain to enter the flow cycle once again. However, recovery techniques can be dismissed as too deliberate or decelerated, and therefore they are not taught. Yoga has built in recovery techniques, which are typically practiced at the end of a yoga training session, but they can be easily practiced off the yoga mat whenever needed. Recovery techniques can be as simple as counting the rate of breath, repeating a centering thought, or doing a body scan exercise. Firefighters who practice yoga have reported using these recovery techniques, along with 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.” Many confuse coping mechanisms that make one feel temporarily “relaxed” with the effective and consistent practice of recovery techniques that help regulate the nervous system. Irene Lyons, a Kinesiologist specializing in Somatic Experiencing®, states that regulation is “riding the wave” of activation, teaching the nervous system to heal and achieve homeostasis after 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; they provide a break from the stress, but not a permanent solution. Teaching self-regulation and recovery techniques creates true, lasting biological change.
Embedding Yoga in Physical Fitness Training
Although yoga training uses the physical body as vehicle, it does not have to be a separate or distinct physical fitness training. Yoga and other proactive wellness and resilience modalities can easily be embedded in other physical fitness training. Christopher Johnson, a psychotherapist and Yoga For First Responders Ambassador, said “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 essence, yoga is not what you achieve on the mat, it is about what you learn as you practice yoga, and then intentionally applying those lessons to all other fire skills training.
By incorporating concepts from yoga philosophy into physical training, firefighters can also achieve mental and neurological wellness. In truth, yoga is a multifunctional tool that addresses the mental, physical, and tactical aspects of fire service. You should not have to choose between the importance of mental wellness versus physical fitness, as one relies on the other. Yoga training is the modality that brings both concepts together as an optimal training tool.
About the Author: Olivia Mead is the Founder and CEO of the non-profit organization, YogaShield® Yoga For First Responders® (YFFR). Yoga For First Responders® offers training that is job-specific and culturally informed for the purposes of processing stress, building resilience, and enhancing job performance. YFFR programs include train the trainers, in-service trainings and protocol demos, department programs, training academy curriculum, and conference presentations around the country for fire service, law enforcement, jail-based law enforcement, EMS and dispatch. Notable agencies who have hosted YFFR include Chicago Police Department, Denver Fire Department, Kansas City Police Department, Indianapolis Fire Department, Detroit Police Department, Seattle Fire Department among others.
Besides running YFFR as an organization, Olivia teaches weekly YFFR classes for several fire and police departments. She is the recipient of the 2016 Warrior Award and Community Choice Award from Yoga Alliance International for her work with first responders and veterans/military. Olivia’s work has been featured on NowThis, 60 Second Docs, and PoliceOne‘s Tactical Tips. You can hear Olivia interview authorities on innovative public safety training on her podcast.