Breath and Mindfulness for Tactical Training

In Tactical Skills, Training by Howard Sweeney

I believe the proper breathing that occurs with the practice of Yoga can directly influence Tactical Skills required by Law Enforcement on a daily basis. After I journeyed into a deeper understanding of Yoga during my week-long Yoga for First Responders (YFFR) class I found a new appreciation for breathing. Before that week of training I knew breathing was important because of my grappling class but I didn’t understand exactly how important.

At my day job as a Police Corporal and Physical Training / Control Tactics Instructor,  it’s become quite repetitive and mundane constantly telling recruits to breathe while performing job-specific training procedures. Yoga breathing, or “tactical breathing” as it’s referred to in law enforcement and YFFR protocol,  allows you to automatically change responses your body creates.

The first tactical skill that’s at the forefront is close quarter hand-to-hand combat. When an officer is engaged in a

Basic DT Skills are taught in Level 2 YFFR Teacher Training Intensives

physical fight and holds their breath they are going to slow themselves down and their brain function will also suffer. If their brain function suffers this can cause the officer to possibly underperform, which could lead to serious injury or death of the officer. The opposite is also true, if the officer overreacts and is breathing to heavily, this could lead to the subject being injured through excessive force. If an officer is breathing properly while moving then he or she is being mindful, which can also lead to less stress and an optimal outcome for both the officer and the subject. Proper breathing while in a fight to gain control of a subject could be the difference between an officer lasting 20 seconds in a ground fight or a few minutes. Not breathing or improper breathing could also cause an officer to lose focus, possibly spiking your blood pressure and causing dizziness as well as faster muscle fatigue. Breathing is what gives your body most of its oxygen, if you don’t inhale you are not providing a steady supply of oxygen to your muscles and other vital organs such as your brain or eyes. Every officer needs his or her brain and eye-sight, along with other organs, to be operating at high levels of functioning.

The second tactical skill set requiring proper breath work is firearms training. I remember someone once saying, “Just hold your breath prior to shooting and that’s the breathing you need to worry about.” Boy, were they wrong! I’ve learned throughout the years that proper shooting requires relaxation and you cannot relax while holding your breath or for that matter breathing improperly. For example, one breathing technique is to simply count to four while inhaling deeply, count another four while holding your breath and then exhaling your breath for a final four counts. Relaxing and breathing properly throughout pulling the trigger will result in easier target acquisition and ease of maintaining a good sight picture.  “Tight muscles redirect energy and can end up redirecting the most careful of targeting. “What does it take to actually be a yogi? Not spiritual attainment or asana (physical posture) performance, but the beautiful embrace of your own reality.” (Whitwell 1505)

Yoga and Firearms Skills can be cross trained. Pictured: One Day In-Service Training at Rochester PD with Rick Largesse from SSV Concepts

The third and final tactical skill set I’ll discuss is mental toughness. Yoga helps build mental toughness by providing aid toward becoming more reflective and calm, by positively managing stress and by building resilience. This is the main objective of Yoga for First Responders. The focus, concentration and stillness required during the practice of Yoga helps you remove clutter in your life. Also, the practice of Yoga’s physical postures, meditation and breathing helps reduce an officer’s heart rate and lowers their blood pressure. This can increase an officer’s sense of well-being and decrease their level of stress. Yoga helps officers develop good posture, officers without good posture can convey self-doubt leading to poor self-esteem. Having good posture increases their self-confidence and their projection of competence to the public.  Mental toughness, a.k.a. mindfulness, is a practice and continual process. It may take a while to develop this skill set, but once developed regular practice can help officers pay closer attention to their thoughts and to learn to take a step back from them. Practicing mindfulness can also help officers develop more compassion and empathy in life, both of which are needed in job performance.

Overall, I believe that officers can build resilience in their weekly practice of Yoga by moving through the postures while properly breathing and holding postures past their usual comfort level but stopping at the point of injury or unnecessary pain.

Officers can learn to become one with themselves through proper breathing to lessen shaking, wobbling or stumbling about the mat which, in turn, allows them to learn more about themselves by challenging themselves as they progress in their practice.  The challenge that comes with performing yoga teaches your brain how to be flexible when adapting to change because the repetition and holding postures makes for a stronger connection throughout the rest of the body.

After Action. Self Deescalation is taught as part of our One Day In-Service Training and Yoga and Tactical Skills

I believe the practice of yoga is beneficial to officers because when faced with real life challenges on the streets they will be better equipped to be in command of the situation and not reactionary. Yoga can also aid officers in building resilience to handle the trauma that occurs in their daily lives. Trauma results in how the brain and mind manage perceptions, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint life by experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has on-going consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.” (Kolk 21)

In my opinion, officers without a personal yoga practice will not have an effective way to manage the daily stresses of their occupation. Law enforcement agencies around the country aim to build resilience amongst officers but as of now it’s just a concept, without action, a non-solution is a disservice to all.

I think that over time more agencies will begin to realize the importance of yoga in the public safety community. I certainly hope so as we have lost many of our co-workers, friends and family members to stress related illness and suicides. I believe this is the optimal moment for the leaders of our agencies to add to the officer’s tool belt the gift of proper breathing techniques and the practice of being mindful on-duty and off-duty. It would benefit law enforcement agencies around the country by drastically lowering mental health separations, lessening time taken off for stress leave and greatly reducing citizen complaints.

Detroit Police Recruits Practice YFFR Protocol

Works Cited:

Whitewell, Mark. Yoga of Heart. Lantern Books, 2004. Digital Book

Kolk MD, Bessel van der. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 2014. Digital Book