Separating Fact From Fiction, Continued

This month, I continue the theme of last month’s article: separating fact from fiction in firefighter culture. The following comments were derived partly from my conversations with Travis, a firefighter/paramedic with the San Jose (CA) Fire Department. Travis and his crew have been practicing yoga with me for more than 18 months.

Lesson #1: Playing Telephone

I recently heard this from a fire captain at the Kansas City (MO) Fire Department: “Telephone, tell a friend, tell a firefighter.” When I inquired about this statement, I learned that fire departments have both formal and information networks of communication. The formal communication networks are generally organized by fire administration and disseminated through the ranks by battalion chiefs and captains. But the informal network is more like a web–it’s flat, nonhierarchical, and connects each station in an invisible and chaotic pattern.

These informal communication webs are important for fire departments, especially one the size of San Jose, where firefighters rarely congregate as a department and communication is typically limited to those firefighters working together face-to-face. As a result, each firehouse is somewhat insulated from events at other firehouses–that is, until a firefighter arrives from the outside. These firefighters are like messengers, carrying with them tales from beyond the fortress walls. Over a cup of coffee, they share information and, for the most part, digest it without serious scrutiny or investigation. But instead of remaining a story or hearsay, this information now becomes the facts about what’s actually happening at a neighboring station. So fact or fiction has little to do with the information web that glues the stations together. This information continues to spread while, simultaneously, other news is circulated as firefighters cover shifts and fill in vacancies at firehouses that are not their own.

Lesson #2: Who’s In, Who’s Out

When I asked Travis if this is how firefighters are finding out about FireFlex Yoga, he agreed: “Yeah, this is why people know we do yoga at 30. When they come through they can see we are serious about practice and that news travels.” Travis reported that he also receives flack from some of the firefighters who fill in on his shift. Travis thinks that the reason some firefighters tease him about his commitment to yoga practice is they don’t understand how challenging yoga can be: “If you come to our station for the day and practice once, you might just go through the motions, thinking this practice is not that hard. But over time, if you stick with it and learn how to do the breathing, and pay attention to alignment and try to focus your attention on what’s happening, it’s more demanding than people can get in the beginning.”

News about yoga also spreads through the web because people are surprised to find out who’s willing to step onto the mat and who thinks practicing yoga is like wearing skinny jeans. I once asked a firefighter who was standing by and watching us practice why he wasn’t willing to join us. “Someone around here has to do the heavy lifting,” he said.

Lesson #3: Firefighters Are Competitive? Really?

I’ve been told that firefighters are extremely competitive, and that even though yoga is not designed to be a performance-based practice, firefighters will try to outdo each other on the mat. Having taught yoga to firefighters at a number of different departments, I would agree that there is some degree of comparing going on. And frankly, this kind of competition happens inside yoga studios all the time. Looking at what the person is doing next to you and trying to keep up with them is pretty universal. However, even if we start out with a competitive attitude, there’s an opportunity to relax our tendencies to outdo our friends during yoga practice.

Travis explained how yoga practice has helped to relax his competitive nature at least on the mat. At the station, he said, he tends to do really tough workouts with his crew. And generally, someone in the group will be naturally faster and stronger. When this happens, Travis tries to keep up. But during yoga practice, Travis explained, he isn’t paying attention to anyone’s performance: “Someone in our group is probably holding the poses longer and doing them better than I am, but I wouldn’t know because during yoga practice I am only paying attention to what’s happening with me.”

Stereotypes, myths, lessons learned. As I progress from being a rookie teaching yoga in fire stations, I’m so grateful for the enthusiasm, support, and commitment from the many firefighters who have participated in FireFlex Yoga programs. The most important lesson of all is this: Given the chance, most firefighters understand why it makes sense to stop, drop, and roll out the mats!