How yoga is helping first responders in Texas

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PFLUGERVILLE, Texas — Peyton Perrier immediately felt the physical and mental benefits of yoga when he first started practicing in Pflugerville Fire Department’s firefighter recruit academy. Two years later, he’s hoping to deepen his practice.

“I think the benefits of yoga — with being on shift working on an ambulance, working on an engine — and being able to do yoga coming off shift just kind of sets your mind for the following day,” he said. “Whether you didn’t get any sleep the night before or you got some sleep and you need some extra energy for the rest of the day, either way, the yoga is going to improve your sleep when you go home or it’s going to improve your day, your attitude and your physical body.”

The Pflugerville Fire Department started incorporating yoga into its fitness offerings a few years ago because it recognized how it improved strength, flexibility and mobility. But now, the department wants to focus on the neurological benefits of yoga and how firefighters can use the ancient practice to increase their resiliency.

“It’s not uncommon for them to be woken up three or four times in the middle of the night,” Pflugerville Fire Department’s Health and Fitness Coordinator Vanessa Frost-Piedrahita said. “We already know they’re going to have some disrupted sleep, so how can we get them the best sleep possible, both while here at the station and also at home, because those habits translate.”

The non-profit Yoga for First Responders is leading its largest training in central Texas this week at the Pflugerville Fire Department through Sept. 28. First responders who are participating are from agencies within and outside of Texas. Perrier was on his mat practicing alongside other firefighters Tuesday morning. An instructor was guiding them in breathwork and alignment in different poses.

“The mentality we’re trained in, we’re strong,” he said. “We fight against insurmountable odds sometimes. Yoga’s hard, OK? Your body wants to give up. But her being deliberate, you having to follow exactly what she says, not giving up before she says it, those are really good strength building techniques, not just for the body but also for the mind.”

Yoga for First Responders brings yoga philosophy and applies it in a way first responders can use in their daily routines. The goal is to help them use the aspects of mindfulness when managing stress.

“We hear all of these awful statistics about high suicide rates in first responders, of post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep problems, alcoholism and addiction problems,” said Rachel Peterson, public information director with Yoga for First Responders. “There are a ton of tools that can be put in place after a problem is identified, but there aren’t a lot of proactive tools that are really tailored to the first responder community.”

Peterson says first responders can use breathwork while on the job, which can “help reset their neurological system.”

“That’s doing yoga,” she said.

Perrier says addressing mental health with movement shouldn’t be perceived as weak.

“Prior to yoga, even some of these days, because it’s just a part of the job, depression was a huge, huge problem — not just in my life, but in a lot of our first responders,” he said. “Anxiety and depression — it’s a big deal. It affects a lot of us. Our mental health can be garbage. You may not notice it, but we take it home. Sometimes we even take it into the station.”

A white paper published by the Ruderman Family Foundation analyzes various factors that lead to mental health issues among first responders and what leads to the high rates of suicide.

“Police and firefighters, when compared to the general civilian population, are at heightened risk for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide,” the paper explains. “These findings are also relevant for EMS workers, but since many EMS workers are also firefighters, these two professions are often undistinguished in research.”

In addition to the classes they take on their yoga mats, participants will also be involved in lecture sessions during each 10-hour day.

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