As the fire service focuses more on mental wellness, practices like breathwork, meditation, and yoga are being promoted to reduce stress and build resilience. Still, despite this rise in prevalence, many firefighters are reluctant to explore these techniques – especially yoga. There is no doubt a variety of reasons for this reluctance. Some firefighters are satisfied with the things they are already doing. Others may find the whole “yoga thing” a little too “crunchy granola” for their tastes. Still, others may have some fear or concerns about injury if they push too hard. Finally, there are firefighters who are simply afraid of looking silly if they step onto a yoga mat and can’t perform at the level they think they should.
This article seeks to dispel these concerns and to show firefighters that the benefits of yoga far outweigh any perceived risks. In fact, yoga can help your body and mind while also making you a better firefighter. The bottom line is that the benefits derived from a regular yoga practice extend far beyond the four corners of the yoga mat.
Let’s start with the basic question: What is yoga? While the question is basic, there are a lot of answers. Here, we will explore “What is yoga?” through the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali1, which is the highest regarded description of yoga among yoga teachers. Sutra 1.2 states that yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind2. We can see from the outset that yoga is designed to allow our minds to calm and settle. But that’s not all. To understand yoga from our Western perspective, we need to refine things a bit. From a traditional yogic mindset, Patanjali describes eight parts (or limbs) of yoga3. These limbs apply to all aspects of one’s life, not just the time you spend on a yoga mat. When Westerners think of yoga, however, they have a more limited perspective on what yoga is. Nevertheless, while all eight limbs of yoga may not seem relevant to an American, several of them will make sense to Westerners when they think about their own perceptions of yoga. Specifically, when Westerners think of yoga, they envision activities associated with posture, breathing, sense withdrawal, focused concentration, and meditative absorption. To simplify things a bit, these five aspects can reasonably be grouped into three categories: body, breath, and mind.
When most of us think about yoga, it is really asana that we are envisioning. Asana refers to the posture and movement of a yoga practice. Or, as many of us would describe it: The stretching. While this description of asana is limited from a traditional perspective4, it is sufficient for our purposes. Is asana really about stretching, though? In short, no, it isn’t. It is easy to see how one could consider the point of asana to be increasing your flexibility, but in reality, asana is designed to prepare you for the focused breathwork that follows it5. Now, in the western world, many yoga classes have asana but skip the breathing and mind-related aspects of yoga. This is unfortunate, and it skews our vision of what yoga is supposed to be. This stretching-only mindset probably scares many people away from yoga because they feel they aren’t limber enough, and they don’t want to hurt themselves or feel embarrassed if they don’t measure up. They may also feel that, if they want a stretching routine, they can easily find one from other sources.
When we look into the actual roots of asana, however, we can see that it is designed to warm the body and get it used to being held in postures. Ultimately, this allows the practitioner to be able to sit in meditation for longer periods. It also allows us to learn about our breathing patterns and to see what happens within our minds when we are challenged. While these postures may sometimes involve stretching, trying to reach some “full expression” of a stretch is never the goal. Dr. Judith Lasater says it beautifully when she notes that “yoga is not about touching your toes; it’s about what you learn on the way down.6”
A good yoga class for firefighters will be designed not to focus on how far you can bend. Instead, it will recognize and articulate that many of us come to our mats with stiffness, chronic pain, and a decade’s worth of joint injuries. A yoga class that offers multiple modifications and the use of props like bolsters and blocks is essential to firefighters who want to learn how to move their bodies in a way that allows them to quiet the mind and discover their breathing. This type of practice is welcoming and allows us to check our ego at the door easier than if we feel we are competing. Yoga asana should center around how your body feels as you move it. The term for this interoception is at the heart of asana practice. Being able to feel what is happening within your own body as you move it and to determine what those feelings mean allows you to learn from the real expert in the room: Yourself.
We all know how important breath is. Breath is life. But in addition to the physiological function of delivering oxygen to our bodies and removing carbon dioxide, our breath holds broader implications for our overall health. As Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh put it, “breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” As medical professionals, we already understand this connection. When we respond to a call in which the patient is in crisis or emotionally overwhelmed, many of us instinctively counsel our patients to take a deep breath. When we start to become angry, we are sometimes advised to stop, take a deep breath and count to ten. So, one can see that the function of our breath goes well beyond simply being a gas supply and removal mechanism.
What is it about the deep breath and/or focused breathing that calms the mind? Without turning this into an anatomy and physiology lesson, it boils down to the autonomic nervous system. Within the autonomic nervous system lies the parasympathetic nervous system. There are ways for us to deliberately activate the parasympathetic nervous system that allows us to calm ourselves. In polyvagal theory, the part of the parasympathetic nervous system that allows us to connect with our true selves is the ventral vagal system. While the polyvagal theory is a controversial concept, it is still clear that we can tap into the parasympathetic system in a way that allows us to capitalize on a “sweet spot” wherein we can calm the mind, lower respirations, lower heart rate, and lower blood pressure. This type of deliberate activity is a natural de-stressor, and it is a great way to proactively empty our internal “stress bucket.”
The idea of using the breath to calm our minds and connect with ourselves is an ancient concept. Yoga has promoted breathing practices for thousands of years through what is known as pranayama. Directly translated, pranayama means “drawing out the life force.7” The contemporary translation is “breath control.” Traditional pranayama uses several different techniques for this breathing control, and the techniques vary between the styles of yoga and the person teaching them.8 To avoid overcomplication, we can consider just a few techniques that you may already be doing. Have you ever done box breathing (aka, tactical breathing)? If so, you have engaged in pranayama. With box breathing, you inhale for a four-count, hold for a four-count, exhale for a four-count, and pause for a four-count before inhaling and starting the process over again. This process is repeated five times (or more) if possible. If you have a wearable heart rate device, try out box breathing on your own and see if it lowers your heart rate. Another common technique is 4-7-8 breathing. You inhale for a four-count, hold for a seven-count, and exhale for an eight-count. Then the process is repeated five or more times. This technique is great at bedtime. Even something like the skip breathing we are taught in the fire academy is a type of pranayama. While skip breathing is designed to lower air consumption, it does so by requiring us to calm down and focus on our in-breath and our out-breath. While not all pranayama is designed to slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure, the things we can do (and may already be doing) that can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and lower stress are invaluable. And again, while this may be the first you’ve read the word pranayama, you have almost certainly already been practicing without knowing it.
No discussion of breathing is complete without discussing some mechanics. In public safety, we are taught to be authoritative and confident, which often leads to us standing with our chests puffed out. A puffed chest normally also means that we use our chest muscles to breathe. That is exactly the wrong approach to breathing if it is used as a calming mechanism. Instead of chest breathing, we need to focus on belly breathing. With belly breathing, the stomach is allowed to relax and expand as you inhale. This technique requires us to check our egos and our vanity at the door, which can be difficult. Still, allowing our belly to relax and expand as we breathe in activates the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby relaxing us. It also allows us to take deeper breaths. Speaking of mechanics, it is also helpful to breathe in through the nose and out through the nose. The nose is designed to handle calm breathing. When we breathe through our mouths, the air isn’t properly filtered, warmed, or humidified. The mouth is useful for breathing when we simply can get enough air through the nose; in all other circumstances, nasal breathing is preferred.9 Nasal breathing signals the body and the mind that everything is okay, which has a naturally calming effect. So how does pranayama, belly breathing, and nasal breathing impact a yoga practice?
When I teach a yoga class to firefighters, I focus on the breath at four distinct times. The first time we focus on the breath is during our warmup. During the warmup, we sit as a group and try to shake off the stress of the world that we are currently feeling. Part of that process is to really focus on the breath and how it feels entering and leaving the body. I also ask students to note how their body feels as they focus on their breath. With this approach, students can calm their minds and body and use interoception to gauge their emotions. The next time we focus on the breath is during asana. Regardless of the style of the class, breathing is directly tied to the movements and postures engaged during the class. Tying the movement of the body to the breath and the mind is truly at the heart of yoga. In fact, the word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word Yuj, which in English means “to yoke” and is an expression of uniting the mind, the body, and the senses.10 The third time that the breath becomes a focus is immediately after asana. After asana, the students are invited to sit upright, and they are guided through focused breathing (pranayama) exercise. It may be something as simple as box breathing or something more complex like alternate nostril breathing. The point of this part of the practice is to recenter our focus on slowing things down and calming the mind through focused breathing. This focused breathing also sets the stage for the final breath practice as it relates to meditation. The mind and meditation are discussed in the next section, so for now, just recognize that focused breathing plays a larger role in one’s yoga practice than anything else, including “the stretching.” A firefighter-friendly class will recognize how important the breath is and will provide several opportunities to hone the skill of focused breathing. The ability to capitalize on focused breathing helps firefighters not only on their yoga mat but also under the stressors associated with firefighting and EMS work. If for no other reason, firefighters are encouraged to develop a yoga practice simply for the wide-reaching benefits they can derive (personally and professionally) from better breathing,
The culmination of a yoga class is, ideally, some type of meditation practice. Many Western yoga classes, however, focus more on the body than they do on the mind. The result is a class that revolves around movement, stretching, and possibly exercise without much focus on the mind.11 As mentioned above, the traditional intent behind asana practice was to prepare the practitioner for breathwork and meditation. Without a deliberate meditation practice during class, one of the key components of yoga is missed. Recall from the introduction of this article that “the mind” aspect of a yoga practice is actually the combination of three different limbs of yoga. Omitting it from a class leaves out a considerable basis for getting on a mat in the first place.
What is meditation? For our purposes, meditation involves sitting or lying down and focusing on the breath or some other object. Often, meditations are guided by the teacher, and students are asked to focus on particular sensations, thoughts, mantras, or just observing the mind. A vital point here is that meditation is not designed to quiet the mind; meditation is focused on observing the mind. Your mind will wander. Period. When it wanders, you simply return to the object of focus. Even if you have to do it 100 times a minute, you are still meditating. In fact, the whole point of meditating is observing the mind as it starts to think, catching it, and returning to the focal point. Every time you follow that process, you improve your concentration. This cannot be stated emphatically enough: Do not view your wandering mind as an obstacle to meditation; it is an opportunity to develop concentration for which you should be thankful. Grateful that your mind wanders? Yes! It is going to wander anyway. Adding the ability to catch it as it wanders makes your mind stronger. While meditation can and should be practiced independently of a yoga class, having it as part of a yoga class is part of the natural progression of yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras. My classes have a five-to-ten-minute meditation, and even that short meditation has a powerful impact on the mind. Meditation which focuses on the breath, interoception, and a focal point, activates the same parts of the parasympathetic nervous system as focused breathing, and they have the same stress-reducing impact. To omit or neglect this part of a yoga practice turns the practice on its head and means that firefighters don’t receive the full benefits of yoga. Finding a class that incorporates meditation is essential for firefighters.
An internet search for yoga classes will find a plethora of practices from which to choose. Many of these classes will be for a particular ailment or situation. “Yoga for this” and “yoga for that” can range from classes for anxiety to classes for runners to classes for sleep and everything imaginable in between. This article isn’t intended to critique any of those classes. If they are right for you, then that settles the matter. But one thing that all firefighters should keep an eye out for is “trauma-informed yoga.” This type of yoga is particularly helpful for first responders, especially if traumatic stress has been a part of their lives.
When it comes to traumatic stress, there are some aspects of a regular yoga practice that can exacerbate or cause a re-experiencing of the trauma. For example, holding postures for a long time, touching a student without permission, certain pranayama practices, hot yoga rooms, turning off the lights during Savasana, directed cues rather than inviting cues, and postures that aggressively open the hips and spine can trigger a traumatic response.12
To understand the relevance of this to firefighters, it is important to discuss how the brain responds to trauma. There is a network of structures in the brain called the “default mode network” (DMN), which “processes sensations that you feel in your body, coordinates emotions and thinking, and allows you to reflect on your own emotional and physical state.”13 The brains of people who suffer from traumatic stress learn to shut down the DMN so that they can avoid the fear and terror associated with past events.14 The unfortunate result of this emotional processing shutdown is that it also turns off the ability to sense one’s body. In addition to losing the ability to sense one’s body, trauma can make a person hyperreactive to stimuli such that a slight increase in one’s heart rate or respiratory can cause a panic attack. If a yoga class is led in a way that ignores the lowered DMN responsiveness and the overactive emotional and physical responses to stimuli, then it can lead to an aggravation of the traumatic response – a response that may be considerably out of proportion to the stimuli. A couple of other structural changes in the brain that can occur with traumatic stress are the enlargement of the amygdala and decreased hippocampal volume. These physiological changes cause the person to feel threatened more easily, which results in an enhanced fight-or-flight response. In short, the person may never feel safe.
Yoga classes that anticipate and respect these potential issues among students are best suited for first responders who may have concerns about being triggered during class. A trauma-informed class will be led by a teacher who understands not to touch students without their permission. Trauma-informed teachers also lead classes in a way that students never feel obligated to perform a pose. Instead, students are empowered to choose what parts of the class feel right for them. One of the deleterious effects of trauma is the lost sense of control one feels over their person and decisions. Something as simple as telling students they are free to take a break or to refuse to engage in a posture anytime they want is remarkably empowering. Returning for a moment to the autonomic nervous system, regular yoga practice also appears to train the autonomic nervous system to be more adaptive, which lowers the heightened response seen in those who are more easily triggered.Additionally, the practice of mindful meditation as part of yoga “can lead to positive changes in neural functioning, including the reduction in the size of the amygdala and increased hippocampal volume.”15 When these areas of the brain are returned to their normal sizes, the fight-or-flight response is less easily triggered. To demonstrate the power of trauma-informed yoga practice, a “2013 study of 64 women with chronic, treatment-unresponsive PTSD found that after a ten-week trauma-informed yoga program, 52% of participants no longer met criteria for PTSD.”16 While not all firefighters need a trauma-informed practice, it never hurts to start there and see how it goes.
Yoga helps us sleep better, reduces stress, and reduces anxiety. If firefighters can get past their preconceived notions of what yoga is and their fear of “doing it wrong,” then they stand on the threshold of an opportunity to destress, build resilience, and even recover from trauma. Any practice that helps us face physical challenges, remain calm, and use our breath to get through things is a perfect vehicle to develop some life-saving skills that firefighters can use on the fireground and EMS scene. These skills also create a healthier overall life. If I can offer one piece of advice as a yoga teacher, it would be this: Find a yoga class that sounds interesting and get started now.
Brandon Dreiman is a Captain and 21-year veteran of the Indianapolis Fire Department, where he serves as the Coordinator of Firefighter Wellness & Support. He is also an International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Peer Support & Resilience Master Instructor. He is a Certified Addiction Peer Recovery Coach and a Certified Recovery Specialist in the State of Indiana. He believes in a holistic approach to mental wellness, is a Registered Yoga Teacher, and is the founder of Naptown Yogawalla.
1. Patañjali., Sastri, G. D., & Ballantyne, J. R. (1971). Yoga-sutra of Patanjali. [2d ed.] Delhi: Indological Book House.
2.The Sanskrit translation is Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha.
3. The eight limbs of yoga are Yama (moral disciplines), Niyama (positive duties), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breathing), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (focused concentration), Dhyana (meditative absorptions), and Samadhi (enlightenment). See Newlyn, E. (2022) The eight limbs of yoga explained. Ekhart Yoga. https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/philosophy/the-8-limbs-of-yoga-explained.
4. Desikachar, TKV (1995) The heart of yoga. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International.
5. Kabel, O. (3 April 2015). How to prepare the body and mind for meditation. Sequence Wiz. https://sequencewiz.org/2015/04/03/prepare-for-meditation/.
6. Laseter, J. (2020). Yoga myths. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
7. No author. (14 March 2019). The eight limbs of yoga. Vagabond Temple. https://vagabondtemple.com/what-is-pranayama/.
8. Warren, S. (11 February 2020). Why body-centered therapies help heal post-traumatic stress. Somatic Movement Center. https://somaticmovementcenter.com/ptsd/.
9. For a nice discussion of several pranayama techniques, see Julian. (25 January 2022). 15 types of pranayama (Indian breath) breathing techniques and their benefits. The Yoga Nomads. https://www.theyoganomads.com/pranayama-breathing/.
10. In some yogic and meditative breathing, practitioners are encouraged to exhale through the mouth. As a general non-guided approach, however, breathing through the nose is ideal.
11.Carerra, J. (2006). Inside the Yoga Sutras. Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications.
12.Many Western yoga classes will engage in 45-50 minutes of asana (or flow) and then end the class by having everyone lay in corpse pose (Savasana) before ending the class. The corpse pose is incredibly valuable and often difficult, but it is not a replacement for meditation practice.
13. Rice, A. (3 January 2022). Trauma-informed yoga: A guide. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/health/what-is-trauma-informed-yoga.
14. Warren, S. (11 February 2020). Why body-centered therapies help heal post-traumatic stress. Somatic Movement Center. https://somaticmovementcenter.com/ptsd/.
15 Streeter, C., Gerbarg, P., Saper, R., Ciraulo, D., & Brown, R. (24 February 2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Med Hypotheses. 2012 May;78(5):571-9. DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021. Epub 2012 Feb 24. PMID: 22365651.
16 Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43. DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006. Epub 2010 Nov 10. PMID: 21071182; PMCID: PMC3004979.