By Ti Blair, Yoga for First Responders Ambassador
“I admire girls who cut” was how he started his speech.
Afraid my ears had deceived me, I turned to my dear friend and yoga teacher to read her expression. She had heard it, too. She had the same look of…what was it? Shock? Disbelief? Amusement?
I’ll never forget it. These were the first words spoken by one of my personal heroes, Bessel Van Der Kolk, during his “Frontiers of Trauma Treatment” workshop in October 2013. Out loud. At a microphone. To a sea of yoga teachers, therapists and psychiatrists determined to brave the hurricanes of trauma we saw swarming in our lives, practices and classrooms.
“I admire girls who cut … because, at least, they are screaming. They are expressing themselves. They are making their inner pain known.” I scribbled down Van Der Kolk’s words as I tried to conceal what was happening on my face. We matched. Hot tears of recognition and compassion, coupled with a burst of unedited laughter at the relief of being understood, streamed down my face. I felt seen. I felt heard. I felt understood.
I am no stranger to trauma. I have had decades of experience in battling shame, guilt and numbness, which expressed themselves in every unhealthy way imaginable, including addiction, crime, eating disorders, risky behavior and self-harm. And here I was, in a room full of other adults, who surely had their own reasons for being there, hearing a pioneer in trauma express his heartfelt admiration for those who communicate their suffering. It was a revelation. It was a beam of light that shone into my heart and became a wave of possibility and hope. Permission to be exactly as I was. Permission to have a past. Permission to look at how self-injury could also be a sign of strength, courage, power and survival.
Going In – On Purpose
As I think back to Van Der Kolk’s declaration, it still makes me smile. That’s right. SMILE. It is that sick sense of humor that has kept me alive.
I can’t help but relate his matter-of-fact attitude to the challenges of a first responder during their careers. Here we have someone who chooses to run and go in, ON PURPOSE, toward danger to protect and defend the lives of others. First responders must, by choice and profession, be alert, brave, hypervigilant, ready and willing to respond to a threat. In their early careers, they might find their work exciting, rewarding and full of purpose. Over time, however, repeated exposure to crime and trauma can begin to chip away at their spirit.
It is not enough for us to simply supply young recruits with physical fitness and tactical skills, and then send them on their way. We must equip first responders with the power to survive and thrive in their lives on and off the job, as well as take a long-view approach of addressing all aspects of the first responders’ physical, mental and emotional well-being.
In his book “Bulletproof Spirit,” Capt. Dan Willis explains the dilemma every first responder will likely face with his own experience: “The innocent kid who once dreamed of becoming a police officer had turned into a hardened and emotionally numb adult. I learned firsthand just how insidious the adverse effects of the job could be as I turned into someone my loved ones no longer recognized. I felt helpless to stop what was happening. I had no training in how to survive emotionally and maintain wellness. Every day, I slipped a bit further into a fate that is far too common for first responders.”
What goes up must calm down
There is evidence that suggests the practice of yoga can be a comprehensive system of healing. Many attempts have been made at producing “Trauma Sensitive Yoga” practices for anyone who suffers from and is affected by trauma. These classes use trauma-sensitive language, gentle breathing and body-based somatic practices to help reconnect the disembodied experience that trauma can cause. While this may help sexual trauma survivors and combat veterans, it presents a major challenge for the first responder population.
So now what? How do we help first responders gain, sustain and practice the skills of resilience? How do we penetrate the “suck it up, buttercup” culture and encourage first responders to stop looking outside of themselves for relief and instead to turn inward? How can we present an effective skillset in a culturally specific manner that resonates with all stages of the first responder career? How do we appeal to both the “brave warrior” mentality and nurture the “caring savior” mentality they need to do their work? How do we remind warriors of their need for self-care practices in order to do their jobs better? How can we prepare and arm first responders with the knowledge about their nervous systems, habits, patterns and brains in a way that makes sense and doesn’t cause them to call it bullshit?
Yoga For First Responders is different
Through the foundation of awareness and breathwork, YFFR can help first responders gain access to their nervous systems to self-regulate during times of stress and build resilience and the ability to bounce back no matter what life presents. The approach is consistent and targeted to be both meaningful and practical to the warrior mindset of the first responder.
For example, the use of 3-part-breath can serve as a very practical exercise in learning to control and regulate one’s own breath. This practice builds awareness of habits, thoughts and bodily sensations. The breath can anchor the person in times of high stress. Often, the breath is the best indicator between a person’s outside and inside world. If they hold their breath, their muscles will tighten, just like a tight fist. This will set of a chain reaction or domino effect of stress accumulation and can lead to injury, fatigue, burnout and illness.
Physical postures or “drills” are used in YFFR to intentionally place the first responder in a stressful situation, and to train them to breath and focus at the same time. When the body is placed under stress, the breath quickens and becomes shallow, the heart might race, and the mind might send signals to get out of danger. Through the calculated and purposeful use of tactical breathing techniques while under duress, first responders can counteract this stress response or at least lower it, helping them gain control over their bodies and minds even during uncomfortable or unwanted situations.
From Nowhere to “Now Here”
The unfortunate news remains that many first responders are not taught how to take care of themselves from start to finish of their careers. Illness, substance abuse and suicide wreaks havoc on the men and women who dedicate their lives to helping others but don’t know how to help themselves.
This can no longer be ignored. Many cities and agencies have implemented wellness programs for their first responders. Agencies and officials have started to speak out about the need for a whole-person approach to wellness, both on and off the job.
There is still so much more to do. Much of the current efforts we see in law enforcement are done to triage the cumulative effects of stress and trauma that has already occurred. This is a good start, but it is not enough to make a difference in the careers and lives of our men and women who bravely walk into danger on our behalf.
A movement is needed that starts at the academy level. Stress management and resiliency-building skills are imperative to teach to recruits if we are to instill a career and life-long habit of wellness in mind, body and spirit. Once on the job, first responders require reinforcement and support in their cultivation of self-awareness, self-regulation and self-care techniques. As the career comes to a close, first responders need more support than ever. It is not uncommon to see an onset of complex PTSD present itself after one has retired and lost their identity. First responders need help shifting from victim mentality to a survivor mentality.
Yoga For First Responders can help. It is the goal and mission of programs like Yoga For First Responders to bring vitally-building training to foster the health and well-being of first responders from the beginning of their careers through retirement. Serving and protecting those who choose to serve and protect us, is a powerful way we can all work together to build resilience, foster compassion and perform better at our jobs and lives. Health insurance claims and critical incidents and lawsuits may decrease. Performance enhancement will help them remain alert and able to fight crime and face disaster. It is just as important for them to find purpose, connection, meaning and enjoyment in their life outside of work, and to realize they are not alone to immune to the side effects of prolonged exposure to trauma.
Van der Kolk unknowingly changed my life by sharing that he admired young girls who cut their bodies as a way of expressing their pain. This simple, yet powerful statement gave me permission to not be defined only by my scars and mistakes. It reminded me that I am a survivor and a warrior. I have a voice. I have the right to be here. I have to right to speak my truth and to not be ashamed of being human.
It has taken many years for me to go to a police district, fire station or jail by choice. Going in, on purpose, has given me new hope that I will not be defined by my scars alone. It has also allowed me to share yoga and the power of breath with the kind, fierce, forgiving and brave first responders who protect and serve us every day. This work is a privilege and a joy but is not without challenge. Side-by-side we may not look alike, but inside we are all the same. With hearty laughter and a dark sense of irony, we are all traveling the same road. No matter what, we keep going. We keep bouncing. From Nowhere to Now Here.