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Tex. First Responders Learn Stress Management Through Yoga

Austin American-Statesman

A group of Pflugerville firefighters traded in their typical gear for yoga pants this week.

The nonprofit Yoga for First Responders held its largest training to date at the Pflugerville Fire Department this week. Over 50 participants from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Round Rock and Austin fire departments and several other organizations participated in sessions to learn methods to combat the stresses of handling emergencies.

Olivia Mead said she founded the national program six years ago to address the rising number of first responders dealing with post traumatic stress.

Trainees in the six-day program will take the knowledge they gained and share it with their respective departments. Four members of the Pflugerville Fire Department participated in the training, including health and fitness coordinator Vanessa Frost-Piedrahita and firefighter and EMT Peyton Perrier.

While he said he's no amateur when it comes to yoga, Perrier worked up a sweat as Mead guided him and other firefighters in challenging warrior poses and sun salutations during a session Tuesday morning at Pfluger Hall.

"We fight against insurmountable odds and sometimes your body wants to give up," he said. "Her (Mead) being deliberate, you having to follow exactly what she says, not giving up ... those are really good strength building techniques, not just for the body, but definitely for the mind."

Perrier first tried yoga two years ago through the Pflugerville Fire Department recruitment academy. He said he immediately noticed the positive mental and physical effects of the practice. Now he regularly does yoga with his wife at home or at a studio, and tries to implement it as much as he can into his work schedule.

"Before yoga ... depression was a huge problem not just in my life but a lot of our first responders," he said. "Our mental health can be pretty garbage and you may not notice it, but you take it home and sometimes you even take it into the station."

Frost-Pedrahita said the department implemented yoga in its fitness offerings a few years ago, recognizing its benefits in terms of increasing strength and flexibility. She said the department is using the yoga program as a tool to help build resiliency.

"The more important pieces are how to regulate their nervous system, how to calm down from stressful calls and be prepared to go for another one, and what kind of skills we can give them to potentially fall asleep better and sleep more soundly," she said.

Yoga for First Responders typically holds two training events each year at different departments around the country. Pflugerville's event marked the 10th training for the nonprofit.

The program is in high demand. "We have a waiting list of about 1,000 people waiting to get our training," said Nikki Bustos, chief training officer.

Rachel Peterson, public information director for the nonprofit, said the training is specifically tailored to first responders.

"When people think of yoga, they think of white women in yoga pants and crop tops doing these insane poses, and we are not doing that," she said. "We're doing varied foundations of yoga and translating it into how first responders can use it on the job."

She said yoga can help first responders in neurological control, breathing and physicality, and can help combat issues with stress, sleeping, alcoholism and even suicide.

"We're getting a proactive tool that's just another skill set they have to help combat all these problems while also helping them while they're out on a call," she said.

First responders can also use their newly gained skills through the program to help others, she added.

"We just had an EMT tell us that he used our protocol to help calm a patient down who was hyperventilating," Peterson said.

Perrier said seeking improvement in mental health through physical fitness shouldn't be seen as a weakness.

"I think it's a sign of strength," he said.

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