By Shannon McQuaide
It’s not surprising that I found my vocation in translating the practices of yoga into a sensible approach to fitness for firefighters. I have been passionately pursuing yoga and meditation since college. My father spent 34 years of his life as a firefighter–and I spent 20 years after college trying to convince him that yoga was a good thing for firefighters to do!
Before my teenage years, my father and I were very close. But by the time I hit high school, we started to perceive and relate to the world very differently and the arguments began. When I dropped out of my graduate program in solid state chemistry to travel to India, our relationship became even more strained. I became enthralled with yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, and the practices of ahimsa, non-violence. But my love for yoga was threatening to my dad’s way of life, and I had no idea how bridge the differences in our beliefs about the way life worked.
Ironically, it was yoga that healed our relationship. The more I began to understand myself through practicing yoga, the more I was able to understand where he was coming from. I was slowly able to address his misunderstandings about yoga and how it works; he began to be interested in the health benefits available through practice. Yoga not only repaired our relationship, but in the process I was methodically groomed to lead yoga classes inside the fire service.
The more conversations I had with my dad, the more I saw how the practical applications of yoga make it uniquely beneficial to firefighters. Firefighters will inevitably spend hours lifting, carrying, dragging, and holding heavy people and heavy things. All this lugging, carrying, and lifting require both a strong and stable body. It also requires conscious attention to how one moves–knowing what one’s body is capable of doing and moving in a way that gets the job done routinely, safely, and effectively. What I have learned from my years both practicing and studying yoga is that the best way to prepare the body for performance is to practice performance-based yoga on the mat. Which poses will best prepare firefighters to develop both body and mind for peak performance is the question that informs every yoga class I teach as well as the foundation of FireFlex Yoga, the program I created specifically for firefighters.
Here’s how it works in a typical fire station: After a 60-minute yoga practice, we settle on our mats for the final pose, deep relaxation. In the background a fire alarm is going off, AC/DC is playing, and the dispatcher announces a sewer line has burst. At the end of class the firefighters tell me they found it all comical, and after four weeks of classes they’re staying relaxed and centered.
When I see my dad now, he is genuinely interested in the progress of FireFlex Yoga and curious to hear how firefighters are responding to this idea. He admits that no one would have considered practicing yoga during his career. But he also sees yoga as one of the positive changes happening inside the service. For the most part, our conversations are easy, and we meet each other for coffee regularly and for a yoga update.
In future columns I will be writing about the experiences firefighters are having with yoga, current research demonstrating why yoga is a practical and powerful approach to health for firefighters, and some basic yoga practices you can begin at the station or at home. In the meantime, please follow me on Facebook and Instagram. You can find out more about FireFlex Yoga at www.fireflexyoga.com.
Shannon McQuaide is a registered yoga instructor with Yoga Alliance and the founder of the FireFLEX YogaTM program. FireFLEX Yoga was developed through her work with the San Jose (CA) Fire Department, where she continues to lead FireFLEX Yoga classes. She is a certified functional movement trainer and has a master of arts degree in leadership and psychology. [email protected] http://www.fireflexyoga.com.