Yoga for First Responders: Going Inward to Heal

October 20, 2015    BY Kathryn Ashworth

On any given day, a firefighter or police officer can see more violence and trauma than the average civilian may encounter in their entire lifetime. The result of which, research suggests, may lead to damaging psychological effects. Compassion fatigue often arises through prolonged exposure to environmental stressors. Vicarious traumatization (the cumulative negative effect which occurs through consistent exposure to the trauma of others) has also been noted as a consequence of work-related trauma—symptoms of which, Police Chief Magazine states, may lead to “changes in identity, value systems and worldviews, beliefs about self and others, trust, interpersonal relationships, intimacy, tolerance, and sense of control.” Furthermore, according to the National Fallen Firefighters Association, “Suicide is four times more likely to happen in a fire department than a line-of-duty death.” 

What preventative measures are being taken in terms of police and firefighters' mental and emotional care?

Yoga For First Responders (an organization I'll introduce you to shortly) notes that roughly 25 to 30 percent of police officers experience stress-related health concerns, and an estimated 18 percent of police officers and up to 37 percent of firefighters experience PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). That said, emergency responders have also been noted to develop a high level of resiliency to trauma through finding purpose in the heroism of their work. Nevertheless, given the data, an obvious question surfaces: What preventative measures are being taken in terms of police and firefighters' mental and emotional care?

Recently I had the pleasure to speak with Kansas City, Missouri, firefighter, yoga teacher, and ambassador for Yoga For First Responders, Essie Marie Titus. Yoga For First Responders (YFFR) is a newly developed nonprofit which serves to introduce first responders to trauma-sensitive yoga and resiliency training. Lately, Titus has been spreading the word about YFFR far and wide (teaching YFFR classes at Yoga Journal LIVE, kind of far and wide). She’s also been working to establish much needed dialogue on trauma among emergency personnel (something she states hasn't traditionally been explored). And given what she's been through (more on that later), from my perspective, her new endeavor seems quite miraculous.

During our conversation, Titus relayed her experiences of witnessing structural fires, car accidents, crime scenes, and general human violence (all in a day's work when you’re a first responder). Her work as a firefighter had been so traumatizing, in fact, that a little over a year ago, Titus entered medical leave after being diagnosed with PTSD. On the verge of losing hope, she decided to uproot her life and moved to a yoga retreat center (where we first met) in Pennsylvania for six months, hoping to find a sense of peace. “I was totally tap dancing on the edge of having a complete breakdown. I was in losing-my-shit mode. I was really inconsolable,” she reflected. “I needed to learn tools to cope and recover.”

While yoga isn’t necessarily a cure-all, the pranayama (breathwork), asana (postures), and meditation she learned at the retreat center (where she also completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training) seemed to work. During her time there she discovered a clear path toward recovery, and after she left, she’d even begun teaching yoga to other first responders. On one of Titus' return trips to Pennsylvania, I watched as she instructed over a dozen local firefighters. A particular moment—when they were lying in makarasana (crocodile pose)—stands out: “Imagine that your body is an oxygen tank, and that you could fill your body with the breath," she said. "Remember, you can’t go into a burning structure with half a tank. You’ll need all the oxygen you can get.”

Titus with the Honesdale, PA, Fire Department.

But how did Titus' synthesis of "firefighter/yoga teacher" come about? Titus says that she believes this might well be her dharma (life's purpose). After leaving the retreat center, she sought training that would enable her to teach yoga to other first responders who were perhaps in a similar situation as she had been (coming out of trauma, or deeply entrenched in it). That's when she discovered Yoga For First Responders at the Sedona Yoga Festival. Titus told me that as far as she knows, YFFR is still the only nonprofit organization which offers yoga to first responders.

“It’s important work. I didn't know I was suffering until I found yoga, or until I began talking about what I was going through," said Titus. She explained that distancing one's self from the emotion of an experience (like showing up at a crime scene, house fire, car accident, etc.) has traditionally been part of the job among fire and police departments, but YFFR is helping to create a sense of awareness around the subject of work-related trauma through their work. "I think a lot of first responders don’t realize they have PTSD and feel really alone. But the more we communicate with each other, the more we'll realize it’s something that’s very, very common, and with adequate tools and support, PTSD doesn't necessarily have to lead to the ending of a career.”

And while many departments do offer gym memberships and annual physical assessments, YFFR feels that using yoga as a preventative measure would, in the long run, be uniquely beneficial—primarily because it would educate firefighters about how to cope with work-related trauma constructively. “Firefighters need to learn tools to turn ‘off’ the hypervigilance, when not on duty, using sustainable practices,” Titus emphasized. “Going to ‘choir practice’ is an inside joke in many fire departments—which basically means meeting up at a bar after a shift to blow off steam. And I’m not judging. I also drink from time to time with friends. If having a drink soothes you and helps you unwind, then do that. But we [YFFR] would like to offer additional, more sustainable tools to de-stress.”

Titus teaching yoga to Honesdale firefighters.

Currently, Titus is building Yoga For First Responders outreach within her own community, particularly through teaching at the Kansas City Central Regional Police Academy. Her plan is to work with YFFR to promote healing on every level of society, not just intra-departmentally. One of her strongest goals is also to reconnect firefighters and other first responders with the community in which they serve: “A lot of times we only meet a firefighter or a police officer in a moment of crisis. We’d like to open the door for more possibilities. This is our way of honoring all the men and women who gladly serve their communities everyday.” 

One of her strongest goals is also to reconnect firefighters and other first responders with the community in which they serve.

To facilitate this communication between first responders and community members, she's currently planning community events such as cookouts, yoga classes in the park, art installations, and fundraisers, all of which she feels just might pave the way toward compassionate communication and much needed trust (something Titus feels has been lost, evidenced by the numerous recent civilian shootings at the hands of police officers, as well as the increasing number of attacks focused on law enforcement).

“Teaching yoga to fellow first responders, and my community, is what I am here to do. You know, I learned just like everybody else can learn. Someone taught me these tools,” Titus emphasized. “Now I am sharing them with others." 

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."

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