Why Bartenders and Firefighters Are Practicing Yoga at Work

A handful of programs aim to bring mind-body awareness to grueling urban jobs.

Shannon McQuaide launched FireFlex Yoga at the fire department in San Jose, California around two and a half years ago. Since then, it’s expanded to six different fire stations and reached over 100 firefighters and policemen. “Most fire departments and police departments are tuned into the physical demands of the profession,” McQuaide says. The psychological toll, however, is a whole other matter.

McQuaide grew up with a firefighter father, but she says he didn’t bring home too much of his suffering. It was all about camaraderie with the guys, and “lifting weights and eating meat,” McQuaide says. Once she got involved with yoga around 20 years ago, she began to wonder if the meditative practice might break through the tough exterior of the notoriously demanding career.

In her first class with the firefighters in San Jose, McQuaide led them through an intense vinyasa practice, thinking that if the workout was difficult, they’d be less likely to reject it. But over time, her slower, more meditative classes grew in popularity. “Their mind has to be ready for peak performance at all times,” McQuaide says. Just a few moments of deep breathing in between calls, she adds, has helped firefighters remain relaxed and collected going into their next assignment.

Both McQuaide and Polas feel that there’s a push against keeping personal needs under wraps in these industries. While both of their programs are small, they’re expanding gradually across their respective regions; McQuaide, when CityLab spoke to her, was en route to meet with fire departments in Marin County, and Polas is fielding requests from bartenders in New York and Pittsburgh.

The tips that Polas and McQuaide bring to their clients are not complicated, but they make a difference. “The primary message I try to spread,” Polas says, “is that it shouldn’t hurt to do your job.”

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