Health and wellness
Safe Harbour: Build resilience with yoga
By Keith Stecko
By Keith Stecko
Making a conscious effort to build your personal resilience is one of the most important things you can do for yourself as a firefighter. Being a firefighter is physically and emotionally demanding. Having a tailored personal resilience program can produce positive results and help to maintain work-life balance.
Personal resilience has many spheres, including proper nutrition, rest, and being physically and mentally fit. One activity that can help firefighters achieve and maintain this healthy lifestyle is yoga.
My experience with yoga has been transformational. At first I was skeptical, but as I continued with my practice, I began to implement some of the things I learned. For example, the act of breathing and using your breath to calm the mind and increase mental focus is one of the tools I use regularly.
Yoga is much more than showing up with a mat, bending into some really awkward poses and chanting “om” a few times. In fact, yoga can improve overall mental and physical well-being.
Being a firefighter is demanding work physically and mentally, and over time it can take a toll on the body and the mind. It is important to de-stress by taking care of the mind, body and soul. Practised properly and regularly, and with good instruction, yoga can help firefighters look after all three.
Consider all the protective gear that firefighters wear and the strenuous positions necessary to get the job done safely; yoga helps keep the body limber and flexible. Regular practise can benefit the back, joints, hips and all the parts in between.
Yoga builds strength. Holding the poses longer and using body weight strengthens the larger muscle groups. Yoga is essentially a two-for-one activity, building strength and flexibility.
What about breathing? It seems simple, I know. But many people do not breathe effectively. Yoga teaches its practitioners to breathe full breaths through the belly, which most of us haven’t done since we were kids. It turns out, this is very important. As adults, we tend to take shallow breaths, which means we do not receive enough oxygen throughout the body. When firefighters are on the fire ground doing high-intensity work, breathing properly becomes very important.
Deep breathing also calms the mind and body. Taking deep breaths can even increase concentration – this lends itself well to increased situational awareness on the fire ground. Firefighters know and understand that on the fire ground, the environment can change quickly – nothing is the same as it was five minutes ago. I think the ability to calm the mind during emergencies is one of the most powerful things that yoga can do for firefighters.
Responding to calls can get the heartbeat racing and adrenaline pumping. Sometimes these calls involve traumatic situations that can take a mental toll on first responders. When the body is faced with a crisis it releases cortisol as a coping mechanism, part of our natural fight-or-flight response. Cortisol levels may remain high hours after leaving the fire ground. Excess cortisol in the body can compromise the immune system and lead to other long-term health conditions. Doing yoga lowers cortisol levels and blood pressure, while allowing the heart rate to return to its regular pace.
Being exposed to high-stress events, firefighters may experience lowered energy levels and may even feel depressed. Stress, anxiety and depression drain serotonin in the body, but using breathing techniques that are taught in yoga can raise serotonin levels and bring back positive feelings. This new sense of calmness and restored energy found through yoga helps to maintain mental balance.
Yoga an accessible and easy activity that you can pretty much do anywhere – at the fire station or at home. Another neat thing about yoga is that you don’t need to do it for hours on end. In fact, you can slip 20-minute yoga sessions into your day and still experience the benefits of the practice.
I think yoga offers the perfect balance in terms of a personal resilience program, when the physical and mental health benefits that yoga can offer a firefighter are considered.
The next time you think about working out or building personal resilience, try downward dog. You may find that yoga is more than a foreign four-letter word; it can be extremely effective to firefighters looking to build resilience and better themselves. Namaste.
Keith Stecko is the fire chief and emergency program co-ordinator in Smithers, B.C. He joined the fire service in 1986 as a firefighter/paramedic level 2 advanced life support, served in the Canadian Armed Forces, and is a graduate of the Lakeland College bachelor of business in emergency services program and the public administration program from Camosun College. Contact Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @KeithStecko