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Who Takes Care of the Sheepdogs?

The yoga teachers do and they may just be the shepherds that can help lead them out of the darkness.

Here’s how..

LTC Dave Grossman’s Sheepdog philosophy has become a mainstay in modern military and first responder culture. According to his book On Combat there are three kinds of people,

  • Sheep, the kind, innocent people that do not have a propensity to hurt others.

  • Wolves, the type of person that wishes to do harm to the flock, and

  • Sheepdogs, who are willing to do whatever it takes to protect the flock and is willing to give his or her own life in this effort.

The sheepdogs are our modern day warriors, our society’s first responders. They are the ones that run toward danger when others run away from it.

Every day our first responders are challenged with the things they witness from horrific car accidents to domestic violence and everything in between. The amount of trauma a first responder witnesses in one month may often surpass what a normal person will witness in a lifetime. All of this takes a toll on the mind and body.

There is a missing skillet for how to process stress, build resilience, and optimize performance. Most first responder training is focused on tactics. Often, great mental health training opportunities that teach first responders how to deal with trauma don’t give opportunities to continue applying the skills through experiential learning.

Yoga may be the able to fill this gap if we can get first responders to understand the benefits and we can “demystify it.” Grossman said in his book On Combat that “Yoga, Zen, and the martial arts may have some mystical connotations, but when you strip away the mysticism, all that is left is a simple process that allows you to gain conscious control over your unconscious nervous system, and then put it to work for you.”

It is common knowledge that we are seeing higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, and heart disease in our first responder population than the general population. We have been made aware of the problems, and those of us that care about first responders are working hard to find solutions. Yoga gets overlooked because of common misconceptions that we are working hard to address through Yoga for First Responders. I don’t want to focus on the data or the problem. I’d rather focus on the solution.

Yoga has nothing to do with being able to touch your toes. Rather, it builds resilience by training tactical breath work, not just for high stress situations, but for life. Yoga teaches us to self-regulate, to take control of our own nervous systems, and to bring the body back to homeostasis more quickly after a stressful situation, which in turn can help first responders more effectively manage their energy expenditure.

Yoga works through an integrative model that allows participants to change their response to stress from the inside out through

  • taking control of the breath and

  • changing how stress is perceived in the brain.

Regulating the breath. After my first yoga class I remember feeling incredible. I felt balanced, and somehow different than before. I didn’t understand why I felt so good, I just knew that I wanted more of that thing. What I learned after a few years when I started digging into the science of the practice is that the feeling I had was a balanced nervous system. What separates yoga, Thai Chi, and any ancient martial arts practice from most any other type of exercise is the strong focus on integrating breath with movement. Regardless of how much time you have, when you regulate your breathing for even one breath you create a change in your physiology to include:

  • Lowering Blood Pressure

  • Reducing Heart Rate

  • Improving Digestive System Functioning

  • Reduce Perspiration Rate

  • Increased Heart Rate Variability

  • Improve Mental Clarity

As Olivia Mead, founder and CEO of Yoga for First Responders states, “your breath is the keyhole that gives you access to your Autonomic Nervous System.” When we practice yoga, we learn techniques that can be used to improve performance, lower the intensity of an emotion, or self-regulate after a stressful situation. Simply said, breathwork can be used before, during, and after a stressful encounter.

Changing how stress is perceived. Kelly McGonigal, PhD. States in The Upside of Stress, “Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It is not a sign to run away – it is a sign to step forward.” This is a mindset that first responders inherently understand…to run toward the threat, rather than away from it. Through yoga practice, we learn about our own mind, our own response to stress and we face it head on.

If you have ever been in a plank position and your body started to shake, think about what happened in your mind. Do you remember what thoughts started running through your mind? Quite often this is when the brain starts to say things like, “put your knees down, this is hard.” Or “you are weak” or “ you don’t have this…” or “Blah, blah, blah….”other negative thoughts that our subconscious brain are surfacing. Through a yoga practice, we can watch these thoughts and start to change our mindset. Yoga for First Responders incorporates Cognitive Declarations such as “I’ve got this!” or “I am strong.” When we start reframing the stress on the yoga mat, we are training the brain to do this in other challenging situations.

Mindset is the key to human performance. Great golfers often lose on the short put. Basketball players lose games at the free throw line. First responders have a lot more to risk than a game or championship. It is truly life or death in many cases and having the ability to stay focused and a growth mindset, which we build through practice, can be the key to a long healthy career and well deserved retirement.

LTC Grossman said, “we need our protectors now more than ever.” Our sheepdogs are suffering due to the many challenges of our modern environment (public perception, mass casualty shootings, shift-work, repeated trauma exposure, etc.) Yoga teachers that are trained in specific protocols through Yoga for First Responders are willing to take yoga to the sheepdogs because many of them will not seek out this practice. This yoga is different because it is culturally informed and job specific. It can be practiced in the squad room, court room, bay floor, or anywhere else that there is space.

Training is great, but if there is no application of the skills the behavior will not change. That is what makes yoga different. Participants are experiencing the change and learning to apply skills for themselves. Breathing techniques are great because they can be applied anywhere because you always have to breathe. Mindset tactics that we learn on the yoga mat drill into our own psychology and can have a profound impact on how we see the world.

Yoga teachers are here and willing to help take care of the sheepdogs. Obviously, they are not the only shepherds. There are counselors, peer support teams, resilience trainers, suicide prevention experts, and many organizations deeply committed to improving the health of the first responder communities. Yoga is not meant to take on any of these roles, rather to complement them and integrate into the fiber of first responder organizations.

All it takes is a growth mindset from senior leaders to give it a chance. It works.

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