Yoga and Resiliency for First Responders: Part 2

This is part 2 of an article on Yoga and Resiliency for First Responders. Here’s a link to part 1.

Yoga is a Pain Management Technique

Pain is something that many first responders deal with on an ongoing basis, and pain has a powerful impact on human feelings and behavior.

  • “There is a neurophysiological basis for the modulating effect of the central nervous system on the perception of the pain with a clearly identified somatic origin … yoga and psychotherapy are effective in pain management.” (Nespor, 72)
  • “Self-awareness has a protective effect … [and] is also one of the basic principles of yoga … Meditative techniques based on increased self-awareness were successfully used in the treatment of pain.” (Nespor, 72)
  • Partial and complete relaxation can relieve pain.
  • “Decreased anxiety and depression by relaxation techniques influence the emotional component of pain … Relaxation techniques were successfully utilized to treat the pain in various conditions:  surgical distress, tension, and migraine headaches …” (Nespor, 73)

    Female yoga student practicing balasana child's pose

  • There are common features among various relaxation techniques—including breath awareness, muscle awareness and relaxation, imagery—and these elements can all be found in Yoga for First Responders classes. Various breathing techniques include Dirga Swasam Pranayama (Three-Part Breath), Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing), Ujjayi (Victorious Breath). Classes also incorporate long holds in physically challenging postures, paired with conscious breathing, as well as cognitive declarations (positive affirmations), tension and release exercises for neurological reset, intention setting, and visualization techniques.
  • Breath awareness is very important in reducing pain and anxiety, since “pain modifies frequency, depth, and patterns of respiration … [and] voluntary change of respiratory pattern, like lengthening exhalation … may induce more relaxation and may also decrease pain.” [Nespor, 74]  In yoga, individuals are encouraged to “breathe into” the areas where the pain is felt as a method of relieving it. Simply observing the breath alone will lead to calmer, slower respiration.
  • The idea of being a witness or detached observer in yoga practice can also change the context of pain, allowing the self-understanding and inner experience to take over feelings of pleasure or pain.  (Nespor, 74)
  • Yoga allows for freedom from rigid perception patterns and encourages self-analysis to eradicate strong negative emotions.  (Nespor, 75)

Yoga Classes Improve Quality of Life

Group of yoga students practicing yoga outside

Yoga classes encourage community re-integration, the building of self-confidence and self-awareness, improve lifestyle and quality of life, and open the door for personal growth.

  • “Yoga combines activity with recuperation and rest in an integrated way … [and] regular practice makes the lifestyle less chaotic and better organized.” (Nespor, 76)
  • Personal growth can occur through yoga’s ability to aid in the process of acquiring self-knowledge, discover sympathy and kindness toward self and others. A “new personality center is being created [as in other therapies], which is able to become open even to negative emotions, to repressed traumatic experiences, and to frustrated needs.” (Nespor, 77)
  • Yoga influences somatic and psychological subsystems and social systems due to the use of various physical, mental, and nutritional practices. It is necessary to choose suitable yoga practices for each individual based on health, personality, values, motivations, family, time, previous experience, and perceptions, either positive or negative. (Nespor, 78) This is why Yoga for First Responders follows a specific protocol, to meet first responders where they are and within their culture.
  • “Independence and self-confidence of suffering people” may be protected by practicing yoga. (Nespor, 78)

How Yoga Practice Builds Resiliency

Yoga facilitates building mental and physical resiliency. Through the use of tactical breath work, such as the Three-Part Breath, Yoga for First Responders teaches first responders how to access and reset their nervous systems, to effectively hit the calm button and return to homeostasis.

Yoga teaches us to be adaptable to change and how to remain centered and grounded in the face of challenge. Trauma and stress are eradicated from the body through yogic practices. Yoga for First Responders’s use of positive affirmations, paired with challenging physical postures, builds the ability to find stillness within chaos, along with physical strength and resiliency.

Male yoga student practicing yoga stretches at home

Participants can build new neural pathways to change their habitual thought patterns. According to Konnikova, “you can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.”

Finally, yoga teaches awareness. Participants learn self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness, attention to alignment in physical postures, attention to breath, attention to sensation in the body, and plenty of opportunities to check-in and assess. Self-awareness on the mat can then translate to situational awareness off the mat.

How Yoga Helps First Responders Relieve Stress

Each posture within the framework of a Yoga for First Responders class presents an opportunity to challenge one’s resiliency and ability to adapt. Participants are purposely “stressed out” via challenging postures and then moved directly into neurological reset via breathwork and affirmations. They are guided back into neutral.

First responders are taught to find strength and flexibility of mind, rather than simply of the body, a form of neurological fitness. Over time, participants learn that physical strength, power, and flexibility come with the re-connection of mind and body that yoga teaches. Therefore, “the cognitive skills that underpin resilience … seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.” (Konnikova)

Male yoga student practicing upward facing dog urdhva mukha svanasana

Yoga is a practice, and the Yoga For First Responders approach is no exception. It serves to meet first responders where they are culturally, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Through the use of specific breathwork, mindfulness exercises, and physical postures, paired with conscious breathing and positive affirmations all from a trauma-sensitive approach, first responders experience a positive shift in their physical and emotional wellbeing. They are more resilient to the stressors that come with the job, and they enjoy a happier, healthier life outside of work.

This practice provides first responders with the tools to eradicate stress but also builds the necessary body armor for them to go back in for the next shift. Yoga for First Responders demonstrates that “resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught.” (Konnikova,)

Reprinted with permission from Leanne Wierzbicki and

Tom Myers, YogaUOnline presenter, wellness, yoga and fascia, lifelong mibility

Leanne Wierzbicki, Yoga teacher, Trauma-informed teacher, Yoga for stress reliefGuided by Leanne Wierzbicki, intuitive Yoga teacher, healer, educator, holistic health and nutrition coach, and author. Breathe Live Believe is unique in its commitment to Green Yoga and its desire to create community that unites as One. 

I offer Trauma-Sensitive Hatha style and Restorative therapeutic private, semi-private and corporate Yoga, Yoga for First Responders, Holistic Health and Holistic Nutrition Coaching services, Plant-Based Whole Foods Classes, Workshops, and Retreats.

I practice Green Yoga, a practice that translates the 5000-year-old moral teachings of yoga into living a sustainable and green lifestyle, one in which we not only learn to purify and transform the body, mind, and spirit but one where we take those teachings off the mat and into the environment.

Sources [*]
  1. Konnikova, Maria. “How People Learn to Become Resilient.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
  2. Chudler, Eric H. Ph.D. “Brain Plasticity:  What is It?” Neuroscience for Kids. n.d. Web.
  3. Cotman, C., Berchtold, N.:  Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity.  Trends in Neurosciences, 25: 295-301, 2002.
  4. Nespor, K.:  Pain Management and Yoga.  International Journal of Psychosomatics, 36: 72-78, 1989.

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