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Use Yoga to Reduce Stress and Increase Physical and Mental Strength

By Leischen Stelter, American Military University

In 2015 and 2016, more firefighters died by their own hand than in the line of duty. The high suicide rate among firefighters, combined with growing awareness of PTSD, has spurred fire service leaders to find ways to help firefighters manage stress.

Exercise is commonly referred to as one of the most effective ways to manage stress. For firefighters, being physically fit is a job requirement. But could your workout also give you the tools to reduce stress while making you physically and mentally stronger?

Olivia Kvitne has taught trauma-sensitive yoga classes for 14 years and to firefighters and EMTs around the country for over 5 years. Her program, Yoga for First Responders, was developed while working with the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) to help their firefighters address high levels of cumulative stress that was leading to medical problems.

I asked Olivia why yoga is so beneficial for firefighters and EMTs.

Question: Why Should Firefighters Practice Yoga?

Olivia: Yoga is not just “good” for firefighters and first responders; it is meant for them. Why? Because the original and true intents of yoga are to obtain a mastery of the mind and achieve an optimal functioning of the entire being—from the subtle nervous system to the whole physical body.

Individuals who practice with this purpose are often better able to process stress and convert it into higher levels of performance. Yoga increases your ability to focus and problem-solve, gives you heightened situational awareness and encourages intelligent gut reactions to situations.

People who practice yoga also have the ability to make self-directed biological changes, meaning they can impact the functioning of their brain and nervous system through their own actions.

When stress is trapped in the body and mind and no action is taken to process it, stress causes a depletion of a person’s health. However, when individuals take steps to consistently handle the stress they’re feeling, they can improve their well-being and even become more resilient in the face of adversity.

Q: How Do You Teach Yoga to First Responders?

Olivia: Yoga For First Responders targets the specific needs of first responders. The curriculum provides a skill set that is simple, safe, practical and effective. The practice focuses primarily on tactical breath work (specific breath-control techniques) to access the nervous system, physical postures for releasing stress and building mental and physical stability, and concludes with a neurological reset exercise to return the system to a balanced state.

Q: How Can Firefighters Start Today?

Olivia: The good thing is that it doesn’t take much to start a yoga practice right away. Here is a simple exercise to begin your journey toward reducing stress in your life:

Tactical Breath Work:

  • Belly Breathing: Sit in a chair with a tall, straight spine, no slouching. Place one hand on the low belly area. Inhale slowly through the nose and inflate the belly like a balloon, feeling the belly expand against the hand. Exhale slowly through the nose and feel the belly deflate away from the hand. Continue this a few times, working to make each inhale and exhale slower and deeper and directing the breath into the belly rather than the chest.
  • Add Breath Count: Continue the belly breathing above (hand can stay on belly or not) while inhaling and exhaling through the nose. As you inhale, count how many seconds it takes to inhale. It will probably be around 3 to 4 counts. Pause the breath at the top of the inhale, and then slowly exhale and count how long it takes to exhale. Work on making the exhale longer than the inhale. For example, if you inhale for a count of three, try to extend the length of the exhale for a count of four.

Practice the above exercise for 3 minutes at a time. Breathing through the nose, directing the breath low into the belly, and consciously making the exhale longer than the inhale are the three ingredients needed to press the “calm” button on the nervous system.

Practice this breathing technique and then use it when you are feeling particularly stressed or if you’re having difficulty sleeping. This exercise is simple and subtle, yet the effect on the nervous system can make a huge difference in helping reduce stress.

For more simple and short practices on video, check out these videos on Yoga for First Responders.

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