3 Ways Yoga Can Make you Tougher, and Support Your Tactical Training
By Annie Okerlin, O2X Yoga Specialist (C-iRest, C-IAYT, Adaptive Yoga Therapist)
When I went back to visit a fire department after our first 4-day workshop, I was welcomed by the crew, out swinging sledge hammers and hurling sandbags. They were excited to tell me that after they cleaned up they would be sitting as a crew for their meditation practice. They had also implemented weekly yoga in the community.
Back when I began working in military settings, yoga was considered way too weird to even talk about. It definitely wasn’t something practiced among teammates… or even something to admit to doing. People thought it was for grandmothers! 15 years later, there are yoga clubs in our service academies, and at least one weekly yoga class on every base, military hospital, and VA.
It’s been years since someone has looked at me weirdly and asked if I was talking about yogurt! I love seeing the big brick s**t house guys roll in, wider than their yoga mats, and share after class, “Wow, I haven’t felt this relaxed in ages!”
So, no, you’re not too tough for Yoga. Let go of your preconceived ideas, and let’s look at how this ancient practice supports our military/first responder/tactical athlete family so well.
Why it works for tactical athletes
Yoga is quite sneaky in that it feels like a workout, yet the combination of focusing your breath with the movements of your body helps to regulate your nervous system. When we take an inhale, we are engaging our sympathetic nervous system, the side of our nervous system that kicks in to either fight or flee. When we exhale, we are engaging our parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest side of our nervous system.
As a tactical athlete you engage your sympathetic nervous system differently than most, multiple times a day for extended periods of time. You train constantly for your job, running to danger, and override your body and brain’s natural run away signals. Doing this as a career can make it challenging to settle down into the rest of life.
Yoga supports flexibility for performance, sleep, and connection in several ways.
Here are 3 ways doing yoga makes you tougher, and why you should incorporate yoga into your training routine right away:
- A yoga practice will help you feel good in your body and mind. The physical postures support you by lengthening the muscles, making space in the body, which is comfort. This gives you the opportunity to relieve tensions held in the muscles and joints. It also re-trains positive movement patterns after strain or injury. But more importantly it keeps you safer in your body as you go to help/support/save others. If you slip running to a burning vehicle you are less likely to hurt yourself if your muscles are more flexible. You don’t want to pop a hamstring bolting to the scene. If you have to reach further into the vehicle to release someone trapped inside, you’ll have more range of motion to make that last extension. With the muscles longer and more comfortable, there is less discomfort while performing tactical jobs. If we are in physical pain it keeps our mind very busy, which is exhausting. And at the end of the day, with greater flexibility and comfort in your body, the mind has a chance to rest too.
- It helps you harness your breathing to regulate your nervous system. What feels more esoteric are the breathing practices. So remember you already regulate and focus your breath when you workout, especially when you lift. And you have felt how powerful the exhale is to complete a lift. In yoga, we harness the breath in a similar way, but for longer periods of time. We can focus the exhale to down regulate our nervous system after a shift, a particularly stressful day or best yet as a daily practice to stay balanced. When you settle down for a nap during a shift, or to sleep, or in the driveway at home, try 10 rounds of breathing, where you take a normal fuller inhale and extend the exhale. Notice any tension in your face, jaw, shoulders, or hips. It down-regulates your nervous system to settle and rest and harnesses the focused concentration you use at work, to succeed in resting and sleeping. The main thing is that there is no force needed. It’s a form of training too. To harness the focus for an extended period of time takes practice. You’ve proved you have focus at work, so try it here for greater equilibrium.
- It helps with flexibility (and we don’t just mean reaching your toes). The flexibility in the mind that yoga will help you achieve will give you a more focused and concentrated ability to stay with the task at hand, both at work and home. That flexibility is helpful when you are in unpredictable spaces. I remember a firefighter sharing that it was easier to be at work than at home. At work, the training is deeply ingrained, so you react to what is needed in the moment. The amount of sustained stress and trauma you work with makes it hard to “dust off’ work and transition home. Yoga practice and breathing techniques will maintain a sense of flexibility for home life too. And you can share the practices with your family. You don’t want to shoot off into a strong reaction with your family, you want to be more responsive to the needs of the moment. If you feel relaxed after a yoga class, imagine how fun that would be with the family. A relaxed family is a gift! And from there we can create, expand, and maintain healthy connections to those we love. We eat, sweat, thrive so we can be our best in all aspects of our lives.
Ready to give it a try? Check out the O2x app and portal for breathing, meditation, and yoga recordings. And stay safe and thrive for your whole life!