In our modern world, it is widely understood and accepted that the practice of yoga makes us feel good. You may have taken a class at a gym or a local studio and left with that “floaty” feeling and summed it up to feeling stretched out and relaxed. Many people don’t know that that feeling is a result of the fact that they spent an hour consciously breathing, accessed and hit the calm button on their nervous system, and released tension and stress from their bodies and minds through a combination of breath paired with physical postures.
As we explore a little deeper into the healing benefits of yoga, we find that most yoga programs for stress eradication focus only on the winding down and decompressing of the nervous system after a stressful event. While this is effective and beneficial, there is another component of yoga which focuses on enhancing performance on the job, in relationships, and in life in general. This is what we refer to in the Yoga For First Responders (YFFR) approach as resiliency.
Resiliency has been receiving more attention in recent years. What determines resiliency? How does one become resilient? Can resiliency be learned? Resiliency is defined as 1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position etc. after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity, 2. ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.
The New Yorker published an article in February 2016 in which Maria Konnikova explains that resilience “is like a constant calculation: Which side of the equation weighs more, the resilience or the stressors? The stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed. Most people, in short, have a breaking point. On the flip side, some people who weren’t resilient when they were little somehow learned the skills of resilience. They were able to overcome adversity later in life and went on to flourish as much as those who’d been resilient the whole way through. This, of course, raises the question of how resilience might be learned.” (Konnikova)
When discussing resiliency, it is useful to look at some of the following benefits of exercise and yoga.
- Exercise and yoga are behavioural interventions that enhance brain health and plasticity.
*Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. As we learn, we acquire new knowledge and skills through instruction or experience. In order to learn or memorize a fact or skill, there must be persistent functional changes in the brain that represent the new knowledge. The ability of the brain to change with learning is what is known as neuroplasticity.
So how does the brain change with learning? According to Durbach (2000), there appears to be at least two types of modifications that occur in the brain with learning:
- i) A change in the internal structure of the neurons, the most notable being in the area of synapses.
- ii) An increase in the number of synapses between neurons.
“The environment plays a key role in influencing plasticity.
In addition to genetic factors, the brain is shaped by the characteristics of a person’s environment and by the actions of that same person.” (Chudler)
- “It is now clear that voluntary exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors, stimulate neurogenesis, increase resistance to brain insult and improve learning and mental performance.” (Cotman and Berchtold, 295)
- “Some of the beneficial aspects of exercise act directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself,” (Cotman and Berchtold, 295)
- BDNF supports the survival and growth of many neuronal subtypes . . .[and is] a key mediator of synaptic efficacy, neuronal connectivity and use-dependent plasticity.” Cotman and Berchtold, 295)
- Studies have shown that “exercise and behavioural stimulation can . . .improve brain plasticity. Learning, a high-order of brain plasticity, increases BDNF gene expression and BDNF, in turn, facilitates learning. This predicts that mechanisms that induce BDNF gene expression, such as exercise, can enhance learning.” (Cotman and Berchtold, 295-296)
- Exercise activates molecular and cellular cascades that support and maintain plasticity – significantly occurring in the hippocampus where learning and memory occur. It also recruits use-dependent plasticity mechanisms that prepare the brain to encode meaningful information from the environment. By inducing BDNF and other molecules, exercise strengthens neuronal structure and facilitates synaptic transmission, thus, priming activated cells for encoding.” (Cotman and Berchtold, 300)
- Exercise and yoga reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
Stress and prolonged exposure to the stress hormones is harmful for neuronal health and survival and this has a negative impact on brain plasticity. Yoga reduces or relieves stress, depression and anxiety.
- “Relaxation is considered as the physiological opposite to stress enabling regeneration and recuperation after stress. Complete or differential (partial) relaxation is also considered as the integral component of various yogic practices.” (Nespor, 73)
- Pain is a result of depression, but is also often a cause of it. Feelings of helplessness and depression go hand in hand. Yoga can be used to relax painful areas by “the activation of antagonistic muscle groups . . .gradual and gentle stretching . . .strengthening of some weakened muscles and correction of unhealthy postural or kinetic patterns.” (Nespor, 76)
- “Breathing and meditative practices may directly influence the central nervous system and increase [pain] tolerance and control.” (Nespor, 76)
- Yoga is a pain management technique.
- Pain is something that many first responders deal with on an ongoing basis, and pain has a powerful impact on human feelings and behaviour.
- “There is a neurophysiological basis for the modulating effect of the central nervous system on the perception of the pain with a clearly identified somatic origin . . .yoga and psychotherapy are effective in pain management.” (Nespor, 72)
- “Self-awareness has a protective effect . . .[and] is also one of the basic principles of yoga . . . Meditative techniques based on increased self-awareness were successfully used in the treatment of pain.” (Nespor, 72)
- Partial and complete relaxation are pain relieving.
- “Decreased anxiety and depression by relaxation techniques influences the emotional component of pain . . . Relaxation techniques were successfully utilized to treat the pain in various conditions: Surgical distress, tension and migraine headaches . . .” (Nespor, 73)
- There are common features among various relaxation techniques including breath awareness, muscle awareness and relaxation, imagery – and these elements can all be found in Yoga for First Responders classes in the form of various breathing techniques including the foundational breathing of 3 Part Breath (complete yoga breath), Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana), Darth Vader sound breath (Ujjayi), long holds in physically challenging postures paired with conscious breathing and Cognitive Declarations (positive affirmations), tension and release exercises for neurological reset, and through the use of intention setting and visualization techniques.
- Breath awareness is very important in reducing pain and anxiety, since “pain modifies frequency, depth and patterns of respiration . . .[and] voluntary change of respiratory pattern, like lengthening exhalation . . . may induce more relaxation and may also decrease pain.” (Nespor, 74) In yoga, individuals are encouraged to “breath into” the areas where pain is felt as a method of relieving it. Simply observing the breath alone will lead to calmer, slower respiration.
- The idea of being a witness or detached observer in yoga practice can also change the context of pain, allowing self-understanding and inner experience to take over feelings of pleasure or pain. (Nespor, 74)
- Yoga allows for freedom from rigid perception patterns and encourages self-analysis to eradicate strong negative emotions. (Nespor, 75)
- Yoga classes encourage community re-integration, building of self-confidence and self-awareness, improve lifestyle and quality of life, and open the door for personal growth.
- “Yoga combines activity with recuperation and rest in an integrated way . . .[and] regular practice makes the lifestyle less chaotic and better organized.” (Nespor, 76)
- Personal growth can occur through yoga’s ability to aid in the process of acquiring self-knowledge, discover sympathy and kindness towards self and others – a “new personality center is being created [as in other therapies], which is able to become open even to negative emotions, to repressed traumatic experiences, and to frustrated needs.” (Nespor, 77)
- Yoga influences somatic and psychological subsystems, and social systems due to the use of various physical, mental and nutritional practices. It is necessary to choose suitable yoga practices for each individual based on health, personality, values, motivations, family, time, previous experience, and perceptions either positive or negative. (Nespor, 78) This is why YFFR follows a specific protocol, to meet first responders where they are and within their culture.
- “Independence and self-confidence of suffering people” may be protected by practicing yoga. (Nespor, 78)
Yoga facilitates building mental and physical resiliency. Through the use of tactical breath work, such as the 3 Part Breath, YFFR teaches first responders how to access and reset their nervous systems, to effectively hit the calm button and return to homeostasis. Yoga teaches us to be adaptable to change, and how to remain centered and grounded in the face of challenge. Trauma and stress are eradicated from the body through yogic practices, or tapas. Through YFFR’s use of positive affirmations, or Cognitive Declarations, paired with challenging physical postures, the ability to find stillness within chaos is demonstrated and physical strength and resiliency are built. New thought patterns are taught, and new neural pathways are created. According to Konnikova, “you can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.” Finally, yoga teaches awareness. Through the practice of mindfulness, attention to alignment in physical postures, attention to breath, attention to sensation in the body, and plenty of opportunities to check in and assess, self-awareness is taught which translates to situational awareness off the mat.
Each posture within the framework of a YFFR class presents an opportunity to challenge one’s resiliency and ability to adapt. Participants are purposely “stressed out” via challenging postures, and then moved directly into neurological reset via breath work and affirmations. They are guided back into neutral. First responders are taught to find strength and flexibility of mind, rather than simply of body, a form of neurological fitness. Over time, participants learn that physical strength, power and flexibility come with the re-connection of mind and body that yoga teaches. Therefore, “the cognitive skills that underpin resilience . . . seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.” (Konnikova)
Yoga is a practice and the Yoga For First Responders approach is no exception. It serves to meet first responders where they are culturally, physically, mentally and emotionally. Through its use of specific breath work, mindfulness exercises, and physical postures paired with conscious breathing and positive affirmations all from a trauma-sensitive approach, first responders experience a positive shift in their physical and emotional well-being. They are more resilient to the stressors that come with the job and they enjoy a happier, healthier life outside of work. This practice provides first responders with the tools to eradicate stress, but also builds the necessary body armour for them to go back in for the next shift. Yoga for First Responders demonstrates that “resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught.” (Konnikova)
Konnikova, Maria. “How People Learn to Become Resilient.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
Chudler, Eric H. Ph.D. “Brain Plasticity: What is It?” Neuroscience for Kids. n.d. Web. http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html
Cotman, C., Berchtold, N.: Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Trends in Neurosciences, 25: 295-301, 2002.
Nespor, K.: Pain Management and Yoga. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 36: 72-78, 1989.