Namaste: The Most Important Tool in a Firefighter’s Toolbox?

Namaste: pronounced nah-ma-stey. Inside yoga studios, Namaste is a word you often hear at the start and end of yoga classes, typically paired with hands together at the heart. Namaste means to greet another person with honor and respect, unconditionally. As a yoga teacher for firefighters, I generally leave many studio rituals at the studio, bringing into fire stations only those practices particularly beneficial to balance the demands of firefighting. Namaste is not one of the practices I leave behind. As I explain below, yoga practice that includes Namaste has both physical and psychological benefits for firefighters.

Out in the world, we all see immense suffering. Suffering is an inevitable aspect of life. First responders know this truth unequivocally. They are exposed to considerable pain, trauma, and suffering on a routine basis. It is a natural human response to feel moved by the distress or suffering of another, and recent research shows that our brains are hardwired for compassion as well as aggression. But over time, the desire to empathize or provide a compassionate response to people in need can leave firefighters feeling drained and diminished.

Without appropriate interventions to address firefighters’ reactions to loss, tragedy, and premature death, they are in jeopardy of a type of burnout called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is described as the “loss of the ability to nurture.” It also has serious physical and emotional consequences. Physical symptoms might include exhaustion, lack of energy, and lack of endurance. Emotionally, compassion fatigue might leave firefighters feeling cynical, desensitized, and irritable. There are also social consequences, including loss of interest in enjoyable activities and the need to isolate or withdraw.

Firefighters can turn to yoga practice to help recover from compassion fatigue. Here’s how: Yoga fosters emotional regulation through paying attention to bodily sensations. For instance, many of the firefighters I work with complain about tightness in the hips and shoulders. I address this issue by teaching postures that assist in opening and stretching muscles surrounding hips and shoulder. This can feel pretty uncomfortable, even intense, and the intensity will be felt emotionally as well as physically. Why? Because every emotion also has a physiological component.

During deep hip opening postures, a firefighter might suddenly feel anxious, sad, frustrated or angry. But on the mat, firefighters can learn to skillfully work with emotions by experimenting with different yoga practices. For instance, how does lengthening the exhalation produce a feeling of calm? Or does attending to the stretch shift its intensity?

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