By Shannon McQuaide
“Do you meditate every day?” A firefighter recently asked me this question shortly before our yoga class started. “Yes,” I answered, “especially if you count sitting on the rug with a mug of tea, my cat on my lap, and attempting to focus my attention for seconds or minutes at a time—then I do meditate every day!”
The firefighter laughed and told me that I always seemed to be calm. As we continued to talk, he lowered his voice and asked if I could teach him to meditate. His job was beginning to affect him, he explained, and he didn’t want to feel this way. He wanted to do his job well but was sleeping less, and his sense of humor was becoming darker.
I knew this firefighter fairly well. He had been taking my FireFlex Yoga classes on and off for a few years, which is one of the reasons he felt he could confide in me. Over the next few weeks, we talked about how he could take some of the techniques from our yoga classes, specifically the breathing exercises and mindfulness practices, and continue them at home as part of a regular meditation time.
Having people to talk to whom you trust and who have the skills to help you see your life more clearly can be very helpful. This is why many fire stations have started Peer Support teams. And while these teams are a valuable resource for firefighters, there are some limitations. Sometimes, the last people firefighters want to confide in is their crew. The firefighter who wanted to learn meditation shared that many firefighters are concerned about being perceived as weak.
This is where yoga and mindfulness come in, offering additional resources to help firefighters process difficult calls, disturbing memories, and dark thinking. And these resources require only a yoga mat and a trained instructor.
Yoga means to yoke, like the apparatus used to tether horses to a wagon. Without the yoke, untrained horses may move in opposition to one another, making locomotion impossible. In a similar way, yoga ties together all the disparate threads of the mind. Without the ability to yoke our thoughts, to focus or become present, thinking can take on a life of its own, holding our life hostage to events that happened in the past or causing us to worry about what may take place in the future.
Yoga postures and breathing exercises help us connect with our bodies: Does the downward facing dog pose feel comfortable today? What happens if I open my feet a little wider? Or breathe consciously and allow my neck to relax? What’s happening now? As we become aware of where we’re holding stress, we can take steps to mitigate it and begin to move more comfortably and with more confidence.
And mindfulness training complements yoga by helping us recognize when the Default Mode Network of the brain is hijacking our day and allowing our thinking to drift away from the present and into habitual modes of thinking. This can have negative consequences if we persistently let our thoughts dwell on painful or stressful events and feelings from the past. Mindfulness training helps us use focusing practices to short circuit the Default Mode Network and become fully present in the moment.
So what would it feel like to be free from the thoughts cycling through your mind at a relentless pace? With yoga and mindfulness practices, you can begin to experience what this feels like. And just a few moments of this state can feel exhilarating.
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.