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Teaching Yoga

3 Lessons I’ve Learned From Teaching Yoga to NYC Firefighters

These takeaways from working with the most hard-working and exhausted of students may help you as well.

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It’s a Monday afternoon and I’m standing—alone—in the yoga studio, having already set up mats, blocks, and meditation cushions. The only thing missing: students. It’s my first time teaching a class to New York City firefighters via Friends of Firefighters, a non-profit organization that provides wellness services such as counseling and yoga to active and retired Fire Department of New York (FDNY) members and their families. And I’m a little nervous that no one will show up.

No one does—this time. But fast forward a few weeks and each class brings a regular group of students who would tell me what was going on with their bodies and even request specific poses.

More firefighters are turning to yoga to balance the extreme highs and lows they face during their work day. It allows them to tackle common trouble spots—hamstrings, back, neck, and hip flexors—which can be tight or sore due to the weight of the gear firefighters have to carry, the tools they use, and the physical demands of spending 24-hour shifts battling flames and responding to emergencies.

I had the idea to teach yoga to New York City firefighters after noticing that many of my friends who were working as first responders had similar physical aches and pains as well as difficulties managing stress. After an intense disagreement with my firefighter ex-boyfriend, it occurred to me that his emotionally charged behavior actually had little or nothing to do with me. Rather, it could be traced least in part to his inability to process the baggage, stress, and trauma of his work.

I connected with Friends of Firefighters via social media to present my idea to teach a class in Manhattan. Fortunately, we were able to collaborate, and my Yoga for the FDNY class began to place, free of charge, every Monday afternoon at Lululemon’s Hub Seventeen, which generously donated space, mats, and props for the 90-minute class.

I’ve learned an untold amount by teaching this brave, hard-working population of students, and several of these lessons can help all of us recharge and rest. I’ve also learned the types of poses that most help them improve their strength, flexibility, and focus.

3 lessons I’ve learned from teaching yoga to NYC firefighters

Lesson 1: Breathwork helps firefighters balance the highs and the lows of their jobs

Dramatic fluctuations in adrenaline and the nervous system are a fact of life for firefighters, and a sudden, extreme surge in stress hormones can occur in mere seconds. However, after the sympathetic nervous system onslaught that happens when firefighters are called to action, there’s a parasympathetic crash that follows, which can leave firefighters feeling exhausted, apathetic, and even irritable. This is where the importance of breathing becomes crucial: Proper and focused breathwork bridges the connection between mind and body, slows the body’s physical reactivity, and calms the mind.

What’s more, proper breathing can mean life or death when on a call. Firefighters use a mask and a Scott Air-Pak for their air supply during a blaze; these units only contain a certain amount of air. Which means the ability to regulate and control proper breathing can help ensure they have as much oxygen as they need—and that heavy, stressed-out breathing doesn’t jeopardize their supply. This is why I usually begin class asking my students to keep their eyes closed while lying down, and to notice the rise and fall of the body. Each inhale brings in new air, creating expansion; and each exhale is another opportunity to release and let go of tension, tightness, and stress.

Lesson 2: Humor lightens the mood

I quickly learned to adapt to this very specific student population by shifting my “traditional” teaching approach in favor of a more relaxed, humorous one. In class, for example, I tend to stick with English names for poses rather than Sanskrit. I avoid any “hippie” add-ons such as incense or spiritual mentions (I was nearly laughed right out of the room the one time I referenced the monkey god Hanuman). And humor, even my cheesy jokes, can usually get them to smile even as they’re suffering in that full split. (Surprisingly, Hanumanasana is one of their most frequently requested poses. Our version incorporates the use of several blocks, cushions, and blankets to support their tight hips, hamstrings, Achilles tendons, and heels.) If all else fails to make them laugh, I’ll usually remind them to force their faces to relax by smiling, because grimacing isn’t going to make a pose easier.

Lesson 3: Flexibility and focus help them perform better on the job

In an intense environment where seconds can be crucial, agility and concentration are hugely important. Yoga helps firefighters increase their flexibility, which can help them handle the physical demands of the job while also preventing potential injuries and alleviating pain. Some students aren’t even aware of their aches and pains until they practice certain poses and mindfulness techniques. “I owe my successful recuperation from back surgery to yoga,” one of my students, Lieutenant Firefighter Dan (Daniel) Gardner, told me recently. “My favorite part about yoga is how it creates an awareness of my body, posture, and alignment, right down to individual muscles and joints.”

Yoga also teaches firefighters to be present and mindful, which gives them the focus they need on the job. “I’ve been [practicing yoga] consistently for a year, and my flexibility and balance have drastically improved,” says one of my “regulars,” firefighter Chuck (Chukwudi) Maduakolam. “I’m also able to focus better while doing physically demanding tasks [at work].”

Here are some of the poses I teach my firefighter students to help them relax and recover, both physically and mentally.

See also Yoga for First Responders: 5 Strategies for Stress + Trauma

5 yoga poses for firefighters (and all of us)

Man sitting and stretching tight hamstrings and low back
(Photo: Andrew Clark)

(Upavistha Konasana) Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend

How it helps firefighters (and the rest of us): Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend lengthens the hamstrings, spine, and neck, and works on the hip flexors—all common trouble spots for firefighters. Working with a partner deepens the intensity of the stretch although you can practice it alone.

How-to: Sit facing your partner, if you have one, with the soles of your feet and/or ankles touching. Grasp your partner’s forearms as they hinge forward at the hips.

Woman in Reclining Bound Angle Pose
(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

2. Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)

How it helps firefighters (and the rest of us): Reclining Bound Angle opens the hip flexors and allows both the mind and body to relax.

How-to: Lie on your back with your knees bent and the bottoms of your feet touching. Close your eyes allow your hands to face upward alongside your body or rest them on your chest or abs. Press the bottoms of the feet against one another to help the hips open. (Feel free to use props, such as blocks or rolled blankets or towels, beneath your knees. This allows your back body to feel supported as your front body begins to open up and expand.) Notice how your muscles relax as your focus turns toward the act of simply inhaling and exhaling.

Woman practices Supported Headstand
(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

3. Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand)

How it helps firefighters (and the rest of us): Inversions alleviate pressure on the legs and help calm the nervous system even while you’re in an unfamiliar perspective. It is also said to stimulate the pineal gland, aka the command center of the brain, to bring balance.

How-to: We typically practice Headstand using two stacks of blocks underneath the shoulders to eliminate any compression or pressure on the head and neck.

See also 6 Steps for Teaching Headstand Safely

Woman in Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose
(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

4. Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose)

How it helps firefighters (and the rest of us): This pose is ideal for calming for the nervous system. The support of the wall for the legs and the ground for the back allow the body to accept the benefits of the inversion without having to rely on muscular strength or physical effort.

How-to: Come into Legs up the Wall Pose. Close your eyes, and face your palms upward, allowing the front body to be open and expansive while the back body is supported.

See also 4 Must-Try Restorative Poses—& How to Get the Most Support from Your Props

A person demonstrates a variation of Savasana (Corpse Pose) in yoga, with a rolled blanket under the knees
(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

5. Savasana (Corpse Pose)

How it helps firefighters (and the rest of us): This final resting pose is an opportunity to be still, present, and connected with your breath. Focusing on the moment and observing without reacting is essential for creating mental clarity, relaxation, and ease.

How-to: Lie on your back with your limbs splayed open and apart, feet falling away from one another and palms resting upward. Allow your entire back body to rest against the support of the ground below you. Keep your eyes closed if that’s comfortable for you. Notice your muscles fully relax. The only movement in your body should be the subtle rise and fall of each inhalation and exhalation. Observe any changes that have occurred during your practice—whether physical, mental, or energetic—without judgment.

Know that this space and expansiveness, along with the slow and steady rhythm of your breathing, is always available to you.

This article has been updated.

About our contributor

Crystal Fenton is a yoga teacher and writer based in New York City. She is the author of The Healing Power of the Pineal Gland: Exercises and Meditations to Detoxify, Decalcify, and Activate Your Third Eye Chakra.