By Shannon McQuaide
In June, a highly skilled and passionate group of yoga teachers and first responders gathered in Santa Cruz, CA, for the first FireFlex Yoga Foundations Teacher Training weekend. Demand for on-duty yoga classes is growing, as more firefighters experience the benefits of yoga off-duty as well as on the job.
During the training, yoga teachers had a rare opportunity to meet and hang out with first responders. Yoga teachers opened up and revealed their fears of teaching yoga to firefighters. First responders dispelled many misunderstandings about the profession as well as confirmed some of our fears about walking into a fire station to teach yoga for the first time. Firefighters Jake Maxson, from the Hanford (CA) Fire Department, and Gene Eden, a 30-year veteran firefighter from the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department, did a great job separating fact from fiction and Hollywood spin, and we all shared many laughs and moments of inspiration as, one by one, assumptions came tumbling down.
What Yoga Teachers Believe is True About Firefighters
Yoga or Tactical Stretching?
Most yoga teachers are wise enough to know to not show up at a fire department with prayers beads hanging from their necks and to not greeting fire captains for the first time by saying, “Namaste.” But in an attempt not to scare firefighters, we tend to overcorrect. Recently, a firefighter from Scotts Valley told me that some yoga teachers working with military organizations refer to yoga as tactical stretching. And while I agree that yoga can increase one’s flexibility, is the word yoga that threatening?
When I look back on my first few yoga programs at the San Jose (CA) Fire Department, I cringe. Convinced that I needed disguise yoga to feel like a boot camp experience, I led a 75-minute power yoga session. Now keep in mind that most of the firefighters had never practiced yoga before, and the classes took place in the apparatus bay in the middle of summer. Sweat flying, faces pinched and grimacing, audible groaning. This was the yoga experience firefighters wanted, right? Well, yes and no. These early classes affirmed and dispelled some assumptions I held about firefighters. And I come from a family of firefighters!
My assumption that the strong foundation of fitness possessed by most firefighters translates well to strong yoga practice was correct. But I realized that my assumption about the purpose of yoga for firefighters was not. I learned that fire stations can be an exhausting environment and, although a good workout is welcome, yoga can be the perfect practice to bring some well-deserved physical rest to the body and balance to the nervous system.
My approach to teaching yoga inside firehouses is much different today than even a year ago. I tend to spend as much time or more on deep-breathing exercises and other stress-reduction techniques as I do on building strength and flexibility. Most firefighters know how to create a physically strong body, and many stations have fitness rooms with treadmills, Nautilus equipment, free weights, and kettle bells. But when I ask a firefighter, “How do you strengthen your mind?” I mostly get a blank stare. But, firefighter performance is a balance of both mental and physical fitness, and by focusing on developing mental stamina, I get to bring something new and necessary into fire departments.
Keep Your Hands to Yourself!
This is obviously a sensitive topic, since the majority of firefighters are male and the majority of yoga teachers are female. But the assumption that came up during the FireFlex Yoga Foundations Training is that it’s better for yoga to teachers to refrain from using their hands to make adjustments to postures because touch would trigger an unwanted emotional release from stressed-out firefighters, compromise the integrity of the yoga teacher, or just be a distraction. But is refraining from touch the best solution? In certain situations it may be, but this has not been my experience. In fact, the opposite is true.
Firefighters consistently report that physical touch being used to make adjustments in yoga poses is a positive experience. At the completion of a recent yoga class, I asked the group how helpful it was to have me offer some physical support. Overwhelmingly, the group reported that a second pair of eyes on their practice made a huge difference. One firefighter said that using the leverage and weight of his own body created a good but limited stretch and release, but when I added additional pressure to this pose, he experienced a much deeper stretch and a better release of tension from his body.
Firefighters are highly trained professionals who spend their career training in self-control and self-restraint. Yoga teachers are also trained professionals who practice self-discipline. The practice of self-control is just one of the many overlaps between yoga and fire cultures. I generally give firefighters a chance to opt out of getting help with adjustments when they are in a pose with eyes closed or foreheads touching the ground to eliminate the pressure from their peers. Although I expect it will happen at some point in my teaching, I have yet to have a firefighter opt out.
In the next column, I will continue with more assumptions demolished and lessons learned about yoga with firefighters!
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.