By Amber Diagostine, YFFR Ambassador
Have you ever listened to a vehicle pursuit on the news? Imagine being the person in charge of that on the police radio. Officers yelling out location changes, requests for street closures, traffic speeds, and then you hear screeching tires and shots fired on the radio. What do you do?
I am a Police Dispatcher for the Denver Police Department. On any given shift, I handle vehicle pursuits, gang shootings, and domestic violence calls. There is no end to the amount of graphic details I hear. It is a difficult job, but an important one because I am the first point of contact if an officer needs help. I also give officers vital information from people in emergencies. How do I handle it? By focusing on my mental health with Yoga for First Responders.
I finally get yoga. I used to be like others in the law enforcement community, who thought it was just about stretching and chanting. YFFR taught me that yoga is based on a warrior practice and can be an very hard workout. It also made me see how important my mental health is, because yoga is a caring, mindful practice. When was the last time you thought about the health of your mind?
The culture of the fire service and law enforcement is tough. You work harder than you ever have before and are more tired than ever before. You push your brain and body to their limits. All while having to be the best, because any situation could quickly become life or death. It is necessary to be hard-core, because we have to be ready at a moment’s notice to handle emergent situations. The last thing a police officer wants to hear is that your mental health is at risk, or that you need to stop and be mindful. They are an action-based group that resists any weakness.
These public safety departments have been traditionally resistant to mindful practices such as yoga. To them, being mindful and connecting your mind and body through yoga is too invasive. They are also a private group, tending to stick together. They may feel uncomfortable about being so open in a yoga class. In addition, many police officers and firefighters see doing yoga as “too easy” or indicative of being incompetent. Because their jobs are so difficult and high-stress, officers and fire fighters want coworkers who are up for the challenge. If they think you are doing “easy” workouts like yoga, they may assume you can’t handle the intense physical requirements of their jobs. Police officers and firefighters rely on each other to protect them, or back them up in a dangerous situation, so they all need to be in tip-top shape. These people need to be fit, so they may only like doing hard workouts. Some individuals may see yoga as a female-only practice, which clashes with the male-dominated environment. The mental aspect of yoga may also be foreign to many public safety types, because they don’t spend much time training on mental health.
YFFR works to combat these concerns. YFFR looks at the “why” behind yoga, which is vital for Type-A personalities in law enforcement. If you explain to telecommunicators that if they sit facing forward all day, cat/cow is beneficial because it allows them to move their body in opposite, restorative ways. Law enforcement responds to practical and logical explanations, so tell them why a certain YFFR pose is helpful to them. The science behind YFFR goes a long way to showing telecommunicators why yoga is much more than just about flexibility.
A lot of people tell me they are not flexible, or too old to try yoga. I tell them about all the different types of people I know who do yoga, and that I am not very flexible either. I can’t even touch my toes! By making YFFR relatable and accessible to everyone, it encourages more people to try it. In addition, YFFR does an excellent job of offering alternative poses for injuries or trouble areas. Many yoga poses can also help prevent future injuries. Chair yoga is a huge draw for telecommunicators, because it shows people how you can do YFFR in 10 minutes while sitting at your radio console. There is a misconception that you can only do yoga lying down on a mat, which YFFR does a good job of disproving. Telecommunicators work long shifts, all inside the same building everyday. YFFR gives them a chance to move around and release tension from sitting for so long.
The breathing techniques are very beneficial during prolonged events, like during a vehicle pursuit. I was working a special event on Cinco de Mayo where Denver detectives were trying to apprehend a suspect on a motorcycle. They chased the motorcycle for over an hour, all the while I assisted them on the radio. What could I have done in the moment, without leaving my radio channel, to help myself stay calm? Tactical breathing. The Denver 911 Director even talked about using tactical breathing during de-briefs, when we review critical incidents, to help people come down off an adrenaline high. Some people within law enforcement scoff at yoga breathing, because it makes them feel silly or awkward. I start out by saying that the breathing exercises are just another tool they can use to better prepare their body for trying situations. Next, I remind them how taking a deep breath is what people are told all the time to calm down. So many people call 911 and either talk too fast or just yell at the calltaker. Telecommunicators tell 911 callers to stop talking and take a deep breath all the time! Tactical breathing can help anyone, because it almost instantly lowers your heart rate and helps you calm down. Telecommunicators also need to remain cool and collected during every call, from a CPR in progress to a plane crash. Their tone of voice and rate of speed is never supposed to waver. Wouldn’t it help if they took a few seconds to breathe?
In addition, telecommunicators take pride in their careers. They take their jobs seriously because police officers are depending on them. I explain how YFFR will make them better at their jobs, because it focuses on improving resiliency. Anyone who works in public safety does it to help people, so anything that makes them better at it will motivate them. Telecommunicators also rarely talk about the stress of their jobs, because they don’t want officers and other coworkers to think less of them. They want everyone to think they are excellent at their job, because they are so proud of working in public safety. I remind telecommunicators that it’s okay to talk about stress, and that they should actually look at stress in a different way. Kelly McGonigal says we should view stress in a positive way and that this will actually make us live longer, in her book, “The Upside of Stress”. I recommend people watch her Ted Talk to learn more about it. Telecommunicators are constantly under intense pressure and prolonged periods of stress. By showing them the benefits of thinking about stress positively, it no longer seems like a taboo topic.
I will continue to work toward making it easier to implement YFFR into these cultures. I am not afraid to ask for help at work, or to tell people that I need a moment to breathe after a tough call. By leading by example, I can help other telecommunicators focus on their mental health. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin talks about the emotional survival of law enforcement, which needs to be talked about more and more. I have been teaching YFFR to new telecommunicators for the past six months and have already seen an improvement in the public safety culture. Giving employees access to YFFR also shows them how invested the communications center is in their wellbeing. For many law enforcement departments where asking for help and admitting weakness is frowned upon, this is a nice change. I do cat/cow in my chair on shift all the time, and always do 3-part breath during crazy vehicle pursuits. YFFR has helped improve my perception of yoga, and I teach it to help other telecommunicators at Denver 911.