By Shannon McQuaide
Namaste: pronounced nah-ma-stey. Inside yoga studios, Namaste is a word you often hear at the start and end of yoga classes, typically paired with hands together at the heart. Namaste means to greet another person with honor and respect, unconditionally. As a yoga teacher for firefighters, I generally leave many studio rituals at the studio, bringing into fire stations only those practices particularly beneficial to balance the demands of firefighting. Namaste is not one of the practices I leave behind. As I explain below, yoga practice that includes Namaste has both physical and psychological benefits for firefighters.
Out in the world, we all see immense suffering. Suffering is an inevitable aspect of life. First responders know this truth unequivocally. They are exposed to considerable pain, trauma, and suffering on a routine basis. It is a natural human response to feel moved by the distress or suffering of another, and recent research shows that our brains are hardwired for compassion as well as aggression. But over time, the desire to empathize or provide a compassionate response to people in need can leave firefighters feeling drained and diminished.
Without appropriate interventions to address firefighters’ reactions to loss, tragedy, and premature death, they are in jeopardy of a type of burnout called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is described as the “loss of the ability to nurture.” It also has serious physical and emotional consequences. Physical symptoms might include exhaustion, lack of energy, and lack of endurance. Emotionally, compassion fatigue might leave firefighters feeling cynical, desensitized, and irritable. There are also social consequences, including loss of interest in enjoyable activities and the need to isolate or withdraw.
Firefighters can turn to yoga practice to help recover from compassion fatigue. Here’s how: Yoga fosters emotional regulation through paying attention to bodily sensations. For instance, many of the firefighters I work with complain about tightness in the hips and shoulders. I address this issue by teaching postures that assist in opening and stretching muscles surrounding hips and shoulder. This can feel pretty uncomfortable, even intense, and the intensity will be felt emotionally as well as physically. Why? Because every emotion also has a physiological component.
During deep hip opening postures, a firefighter might suddenly feel anxious, sad, frustrated or angry. But on the mat, firefighters can learn to skillfully work with emotions by experimenting with different yoga practices. For instance, how does lengthening the exhalation produce a feeling of calm? Or does attending to the stretch shift its intensity?
Yoga practice empowers firefighters to recognize the connection between their emotions and their bodies. Firefighters come to appreciate that just as physical sensations like hunger, fatigue, and feeling hot or cold come and go, emotional sensations are also temporary and can change in the space of one conscious breath.
I generally wait to introduce Namaste until we have had a few practices under our belt. Asking a highly competent group of problem solvers to appreciate the symbolism of Namaste takes time. However, after we’ve primed the pump by accessing the brain’s right hemisphere, which is involved in making subtle connections between seemingly unrelated things, I offer a connection between Namaste and what firefighters do every day.
Firefighters are called to demonstrate the essence of Namaste each time they provide assistance for those in need. Fire departments serving urban populations with increasing homelessness may experience that the needs of their communities are more complex than they have resources for. I will never forget one experience I had at a fire station near downtown Santa Cruz, California. We were holding class on the second morning of a 48-hour shift. When I arrived, the curtains were drawn and the day room was dark and gloomy. Firefighters were slumped in chairs looking particularly exhausted. I learned that they had responded to four calls after midnight the night before. Two of the calls were in response to the same homeless man who had taken an overdose of heroin.
It is a natural human response to shut down emotionally to deal with unpleasant and difficult experiences. And firefighters, as in the example above, are particularly vulnerable to closing down. Through consistent yoga practice we learn that closing ourselves off from negative experiences can also leave us feeling closed off from positive experiences. The price is to feel love less deeply, be less amazed by our world’s beauty and lose the sense of being fully, sensually alive. It takes practice to remain present in the face of suffering. As one firefighter said jumping off his yoga mat to respond to a call, “Yoga practice isn’t just helping me, it’s also helping the citizens we serve.” Firefighters are willing to put their lives on the line for people they have never met. I can’t think of a better definition of the compassionate imperative at the heart of Namaste.
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.