First Responders include police, fire departments, paramedics and 911 operators. All these groups work under stressful and demanding conditions and can benefit from yoga practice.
Shift work can create many health issues related to poor sleeping patterns, poor eating habits, digestive problems, cognitive difficulties, ‘fuzzy brain’, irritability and difficulty finding time for positive social relations.
Police Officers face the physical stress of carrying weighted belts around their hips. Whether sitting, walking, or driving, this added stress is felt in the lower back, hips, and hamstrings. Officers also carry stress in their shoulders as they try to remain calm and composed in the face of stressful, traumatic, threatening or dangerous events. The duty to remain stoic has a cost: physical stress is retained in the body, which becomes tight and tense. Little time for debriefing, or not enough personal time to release from emotional events, can also add to personal stress. Left unaddressed, the mental and emotional drain of policing may take a toll. Then complex stress is felt from morning until night, and even sleep may be fitful and bring little restorative benefit. Common physical symptoms include tightness of the chest, headaches, insomnia, increased blood pressure, hyperventilation and light headedness, and restrictive breathing. Emotional symptoms can include anxiety, increased outburst, anger or feeling detached from others.
Firefighters also carry much added weight from their equipment. Although fitness is part of their regimen, flexibility in the hips, shoulders and hamstring is sometimes neglected. The added stress of witnessing emotional and dangerous events can also add to physical tension, mental anxiety and emotional suffering. In a culture where firefighters are expected to be strong and fearless, the aftermath of incidents and events takes its toll. Sometimes debriefing is not available or encouraged; having little personal time to process and release oneself from the event can also add to the occupational stress. Compassion fatigue can easily set in when a helping professional must suppress his or her own emotions in order to attend and help others. Over time, everything can become overwhelming until the person’s emotional system ‘shuts down’. Symptoms include physical tension, tension headaches, insomnia, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased hypervigilance and startled responses and restricted breathing. Left untreated, the body and mind wear down and the individual becomes more susceptible to illnesses.
Paramedics are also expected to remain calm, think clearly, lift heavy loads, and drive safely under pressure. Like other first responders, they typically have little time to debrief and process their day’s work. They accumulate stress from their neck and shoulders to their hips and hamstrings as they take on more and more physically, mentally and emotionally over the day’s work. With time, the stress becomes complex and leads to physical illness, headaches, insomnia, increased blood pressure, tightness of chest and restrictive breathing.
911 Operators are also at high risk of occupational stress. They field many calls, some of which are very traumatic in nature. They are expected to sit and remain calm at all times, on alert to assess, observe and listen while multi-tasking correspondence. Tension builds in their shoulders and neck, hips and sacrum. The physical toll eventually leads to feeling emotionally and mentally drained, leaving the individual with little energy to participate fully in family and social life.
Yoga helps to release tension by focusing on breathing and progression of movement through a series of physical poses (asanas). Those who practice yoga learn to focus and release, and become more aware of and able to manage the body’s response to triggers. Many of the skills learned at yoga class can also be used while driving, sitting at a desk, or taking a break: to release tension, clear the mind and remain focused.