Author and yoga instructor Shannon McQuaide (right) with fellow FireFlex Yoga instructor Carol Day (left) and Battalion Chief Eric Vollmer of the Hayward (CA) Fire Department.
By Shannon McQuaide
Wow, what a week! I am sitting down to write this column following a full schedule of teaching yoga to firefighters throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, including the San Jose, Hayward, Scotts Valley, and Southern Marin fire departments, with more classes and departments scheduled for the coming weeks and months. After listening to firefighters’ feedback about their yoga experience, I am more confident than ever that yoga is a practical approach to support firefighters way beyond developing flexibility.
Many firefighters equate yoga practice to stretching. I know this because frequently when I arrive at fire stations to teach a yoga class, I’ll say something like, “Are you guys ready to do some yoga?” and many will respond with, “Yes, I need a good stretch.” How this association came about is unclear—maybe it was those National Geographic photos from years ago capturing East Indian Yogis with their feet neatly tucked behind their head. Regardless, it’s a limited interpretation of what’s available through a consistent yoga practice.
What if I were to tell you that yoga practice can also help develop personal power, leadership, emotional intelligence, and tools for self-regulation? I’m consistently finding that once I talk about these other aspects, the fire culture is suddenly receptive and curious about the less-understood psychological benefits of yoga.
This journey started three years ago when FireFlex Yoga was officially launched in the San Jose Fire Department. At the time, the fire administration was primarily interested in FireFlex Yoga classes to reduce excessive workers’ comp claims related to strains and sprains. It was and still is an admirable goal because injuries are bad for firefighters and their departments. Most firefighters want to be at work doing what they do best, not confined to a couch binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”
Knowing the full range of benefits of yoga for firefighters, I found myself in back-to-back meetings with fire chiefs explaining how yoga practice can enhance neural connectivity in a part of the brain called the insula. The insula integrates and interprets input from our internal organs—including our muscles, joints, and balance system (proprioception)—to generate the sense of being embodied. This part of the brain is also vulnerable to shutting down in the presence of chronic stress and the accumulation of traumatic events, leaving one with a sense of feeling cut off, isolated, and numb. To my surprise, the fire chiefs were very interested! And I started to move the discussion about the psychological benefits of yoga practice toward the beginning of my presentation.
One of the clearest teachings from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations. Yoga practice provides opportunities to look inward rather than outward and listen to our bodies. This type of inward directed attention is not natural to firefighters, who are trained for situational awareness. But connection to the body is an integral part of our identity and how we know that we are alive in this world.
Recently I participated in a Webinar hosted by the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). The topic focused on firefighter behavioral health. During the Webinar, Jeff Dill, the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FFBHA), generated a list of behavioral factors for identifying at-risk firefighters. These warning signs of distress may warrant intervention by a specialist and include anger, reckless behavior, isolation, sleep deprivation, and loss of skills and abilities. Also on the Webinar was psychologist Dr. Beth Murphy. Dr. Murphy suggested that firefighters who learn how to listen to their bodies are in a better position to recognize their limitations and to reach out for help.
Your body has things to tell you. Yoga teaches you how to listen. By getting in touch with your body, by connecting viscerally with yourself, you can regain a sense of who you are, your priorities and values. Yoga increases your personal power, helping you become the leader you want to be, to work and communicate from your personal strength. All this plus you get a great stretch!
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. Shannon@fireflexyoga.com http://www.fireflexyoga.com.