It was our first date, on a New York City spring afternoon, at an al fresco dining table perched high above Second Avenue, when I saw Brian’s jaw go slack, his handsome firefighter’s profile tightening as he scanned the crowded bar scene. “Crystal, the first thing I want you to do any time you’re in a crowded place is find the spot where you can exit easiest—not the emergency exit,” he told me.
He wore an inexplicable look of concern on his face as he pointed out a corner of the balcony (not the fire escape) that I never would have noticed. From that terrace, he said, we could access the scaffolding of the building next door and climb down to the sidewalk.
As our relationship progressed, I realized Brian’s experiences as a firefighter and 9/11 first responder were responsible for much of his personal turmoil—his tendency to startle at loud noises; his susceptibility to spin into sudden, deep rages; and the challenges around being forced into retirement at age 37. My connection with him, our eventual split, and the friendships I forged with other first responders helped me understand just how much people in this profession can benefit from the calm and focus of a yoga practice.
Studies show that first responders are at an increased risk for mental health conditions such as depression, stress, PTSD, substance abuse, and suicide. And those who were on the ground during 9/11 face a slew of additional health issues. In fact, the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program reports that 13,427 firefighters and EMTs who were at Ground Zero (out of 15,661) have been treated for a World Trade Center–related illness—1,100 with cancer and 10,600 with respiratory diseases. Additionally, a study of nearly 13,000 9/11 rescue workers led by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Monteﬁore Medical Center, in collaboration with the FDNY, found that on average, all participants had lost about 10 percent of their lung function in the year after the attack and 5,000 had persistent symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
I felt driven to help these heroes, so in 2015, I contacted the nonprofit Friends of Firefighters, which provides free mental health and wellness services to New York City’s active and retired ﬁreﬁghters and their families. Soon thereafter, I began leading weekly yoga classes for the FDNY in Manhattan.
Build Mindful Breathing
For all of us, breathwork is key for regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and maintaining a healthy immune system and optimal respiratory function. For first responders, an increase in stress hormones can take hold in mere seconds. Focusing on breathing can soothe reactive bodies and minds, and promote faster recovery from the dramatic fluctuations that nervous systems experience when being called into emergency duty on a moment’s notice.
Breath awareness can determine life or death for firefighters. The self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) they wear in a blaze contains only enough air for 30 minutes to an hour, and when factoring in the exertion from working, those times can get cut in half, meaning firefighters may have only 15 to 20 minutes to get in and out of a burning building. So a first responder’s ability to regulate and control their breath can help ensure they conserve oxygen—and that heavy, stressed-out breathing doesn’t jeopardize their reserves.
Stretch with Awareness
For first responders, hip- and heart-opening poses are useful to help unravel blockages and create openness in these tender spaces that tend to tighten during stress. Spinal twists and stretches target the back, respiratory tract, and shoulders to release clenching and make breathing easier. The following sequence has helped me and my first-responder students heal and find solace.
Marjaryasana and Bitilasana (Cat-Cow Poses)
From Tabletop, exhale, and round your spine toward the ceiling. Gaze between your thighs and gently tuck your chin in toward your chest. Inhale, and dip your belly down and reach up toward the ceiling with your head and chest. Repeat 5 times.
Three Legged Downward-Facing Dog, Variation
From Tabletop, come to Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana), pressing your hips up and back and drawing your navel toward your spine. Bending at your knee, lift your left leg to hip height, and, if possible, rotate your left hip up and out. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
see also Three-Legged Dog Dissected
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
From Downward-Facing Dog, step your left foot forward between your hands with your ankle directly below your knee. Straighten your right leg (maintain a soft bend in your knee if there’s any hyperextension) with your toes tucked under. Lift your arms alongside your ears and send your pelvis forward. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
see also A Sequence for Feeling Empowered
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), Variation
From Downward-Facing Dog, bring your left knee forward and place your shin on the ground on a diagonal. Keep your left hip directly behind your left wrist. Extend through your elongated right leg. You can place a block under your left hip for extra support and to help you release into the stretch. Gently walk your hands forward and lower your elbows to rest your forearms on the mat. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Try this yoga block for more support in Pigeon Pose.
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Agnistambhasana (Firelog Pose, or Ankle-To-Knee Pose), Variation
Come into a comfortable, cross-legged seat. Place your right ankle on top of your left knee. Keep both feet ﬂexed. You can place a blanket under your right knee to help your top hip settle into the stretch. Sit tall or slowly fold forward by hinging at your hips and extending your arms in front of you. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Ustrasana, Variation (Camel Pose)
Come to kneeling with your knees directly below your hips. With your hands on your low back for support, gently guide your pelvis forward, arch your spine, and drop your head and neck backward. With one hand at a time, reach toward your heels or toward blocks that you’ve placed near your heels, and continue breathing evenly. Hold for 5–10 breaths.
See also 7 Steps to Master Camel Pose
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet planted into the ground. Place your hands next to your hips. Press evenly into your hands and feet to lift your pelvis toward the ceiling. Interlace your hands underneath your back as you draw your shoulder blades closer to your midline. Hold for 5–10 breaths.
Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Spinal Twist)
From Bridge Pose, pull both knees in toward your chest. Drop them to your left side. Place a blanket in between your knees for support and to ease your lower back by keeping your sacrum more level. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Try this yoga blanket to experience extra support in this pose.
Model Eric Brenneman is a retired firefighter, a yoga teacher and chief financial officer of Yoga for First Responders, an organization that brings yoga to first responders and military personnel throughout the United States. Learn more at yogaforfirstresponders.org.