When most people hear “yoga,” they have one of a few responses: “Yoga is for girls," "I’m not flexible," "I don’t know how to relax," "I’m too overweight," "You won’t see me in a pair of yoga pants!” I thought a lot of the same things. But after six years of training, I’ve learned yoga is so much more than I could have imagined.
The first time someone told me to try yoga, I laughed. I'm your typical adrenaline junkie—I’ve been in EMS for 25 years. I thrive off the rush you get going to emergencies, the thrill of the fast-paced thinking in touchy situations, the high you feel during and after a bad call.
But I’m also a runner, which has resulted in frequent injuries. Following my initial skepticism I decided that if yoga could help me get back to running, I’d try it.
It wasn’t enjoyable for me at first. The practice made me slow down and challenged me physically and mentally in ways I hadn't been challenged before. Yet I forced myself go back. And while initially it was a way to get me back to running, I soon found yoga was actually changing my life.
Calm in the Storm
The focused practice of yoga goes biologically deeper than just stretching and relaxing. Yoga taps into your nervous system by focusing on mindful, purposeful breathing. After years of compassion fatigue and secondary trauma from my career, it felt as if my nervous system was about to break. Yoga helped bring calm to my storm.
First responders live in a state of hypervigilance. We’re taught to be constantly aware of our surroundings. We are extraordinarily alert, perceptive, and active, and make split-second life-or-death decisions daily.
EMS providers also see more illness, pain, death, violence, and destruction in one shift than the average person sees in a lifetime. As soon as we start out on a call, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure rises, we begin to sweat, our digestive system slows, and stress hormones flood the bloodstream. These hormones are necessary to perform under stress, but if they are released constantly without allowing time for our system to return to homeostasis, we may begin to show a decrease in compassion and increases in illness, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, and depression. Eventually these physical and mental symptoms can develop into post-traumatic stress.
What if there were a way to proactively teach our bodies to maintain a calm and focused state during these stressful circumstances?
Features of Yoga for EMS
There are many opportunities for EMS providers to practice yoga: at the gym, in a studio, at home, or even at work. One of these programs, Yoga for First Responders (YFFR), builds resiliency through somatic and cognitive exercises within the foundation of the yoga philosophy. It uses techniques geared specifically for first responders as a tool for stress management.
YFFR focuses on tactical breathing techniques that open the door to access the nervous system. Physical drills are added along with mindful, conscious breathing for releasing stress and building mental and physical stability. Using these techniques, along with cognitive behavioral therapy, changes the mind-set surrounding stressful circumstances.
Designing a yoga program for first responders speaks directly to our needs and supports the skills we require daily. “Prayer hands,” chanting, music and Sanskrit (the classic Indian language used in yoga postures), while often components of other yoga disciplines, are not features of this program. It offers a choice of various poses.
By practicing tactical breathing while in a physical posture and using a technique to mentally reframe your experience, your brain will develop a memory of it and tuck it into a subconscious “file folder” to use later. Continued practice will make it an automatic reset for your nervous system to fall back on after stressful calls.
There really can be a calm in your storm. It’s up to you to take a chance and try it.
Sidebar: 5 Yoga Strategies
Olivia Kvitne, founder and director of YFFR, and a featured speaker at EMS World Expo 2018, offers these yoga tips for EMS providers:
1) It takes just three minutes of mindful breath work to effectively calm the nervous system.
2) If an overwhelming sensation begins to take hold, try this: Begin to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth. Drop the breath down low into the belly. Extend the exhale longer than the inhale.
3) When you begin your yoga practice, there’s often an expectation to feel relaxed, peaceful, or at ease. You may not, and that’s OK. Release those expectations.
4) Move first thing. Simple movements, coupled with breath and an empowering affirmation, can set the tone for your entire day.
5) If you experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress or vicarious traumatization, look for a yoga class taught by a teacher trained in trauma-sensitive yoga.
—Source: Yoga Journal, www.yogajournal.com
Heidi Wiegand, NRP, is an active paramedic and team leader with McCandless Franklin Park Ambulance Authority in Pennsylvania. She earned her yoga teaching certification in 2016, teaches power vinyasa flow yoga, and is an ambassador for Yoga for First Responders.