By Shannon McQuaide
A good friend of mine is a corporate coach in San Francisco. She has coached 9-to-5ers at Dropbox, Square, and other high-tech companies. I recently attended a workshop she facilitated where I learned that all of us are exposed to 20,000 more pieces of data per day than we were 20 years ago. How are we managing all the information? We resort to multitasking. Multitasking is a state where we think we are handling several things at once. But what the research is saying is that we are attempting to do several things at once but not doing any of them all that well. The reality is that multitasking overwhelms our nervous system, drains our energy, and increases burnout.
Firefighters are not immune from the deluge of information addressed in my friend’s workshop. During a yoga class recently at the Southern Marin Fire Department, I asked the captain how the amount of information he is expected to manage had changed over the past 20 years. Speaking candidly, he said, “I have to tell myself I’m not going to get it all done in one day. I could easily wake up and get on the computer at 8:00 a.m. and not finish until 10:00 p.m. And that includes responding to calls.”
After hearing his response, I suggested that he and his crew use yoga class as an opportunity to renew rather than expend their energy. With the recent popularity in high-intensity yoga practice, like Core Power yoga and other hot yoga styles, many firefighters equate yoga to getting in a good workout. And while there’s nothing wrong with this, treating yoga class only like a workout seems like missing an opportunity to benefit from yoga’s other focus: calming the mind, increasing attention, and breathing more efficiently.
In a world of hyper connectivity where human beings are expected to operate at Internet speed, many of us find ourselves working in the evenings and on the weekends. But firefighters already work in 24- and 48-hour shifts. Time for them is a finite resource. There are no extra hours to get a little more work done. So how are firefighters expected to meet the increasing demands on their time? They have to manage their energy and not their time.
Energy, unlike time, is not a finite resource. Energy, to borrow a definition from physics, is the ability to do work. Energy can be replenished, expanded, and conserved. Downtime, it turns out, is good for restoring energy: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve our highest levels of performance and to feel meaningfully connected to our life.
Downtime can be found through napping, taking vacations, and spending time in nature. But yoga and meditation practice can jumpstart the energy renewal process and, most importantly, can be done at work. In fact, as my work with firefighters continues to grow and evolve, so does my understanding of the benefits that yoga practice offers firefighters. Using yoga to replenish energy on duty is turning out to be yet another critical benefit for firefighters, and one of the best yoga postures for renewal is built into every class.
At the end of each class, firefighters have the option of relaxing on their backs for 3 to 5 minutes. I don’t provide a lot of direction during this portion of the class. Some firefighters will fall asleep; other will lie there with their eyes closed and not move for the entire time. This final relaxation posture turns out to be a favorite for firefighters. As one firefighter said the other day, “This brief period at the end of yoga class might be the only time during a 48-hour shift where I don’t have to think about anything else but my breath and myself.”
Human beings are not computers. We’re not machines designed to operate at high speed continuously for long periods of time, running multiple programs simultaneously. We are designed, however, to move rhythmically between spending energy and renewing energy. To meet the growing demand in our lives, we need to manage our rest and renewal like we manage our training and our work. For firefighters, yoga practice checks all the boxes!
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.