Resilience 101: Yoga for First Responders

When I ask my students (first responders and military) what “resilience” means, I typically get answers that are a variation of “bouncing back”. I want to challenge that common definition of resilience so that we may use it to its full potential. If we were to simply “bounce back” from adversity we would maintain only one level of ability.   We would never learn, evolve or improve. Resilience must be more than just “bouncing back”. What if resilience allowed growth to be an outcome of adversity? What if every difficult situation you found yourself in you had the tools to become better and stronger than you were before?

Resilience is a skill that is susceptible to training. Yet resilience is commonly brought up in a conceptual manner and never introduced as a tangible or necessary skill set required for a high-stress job. Therefore, the concept of resilience may be agreeable, but the method of achieving it remains unknown or dismissed. Both stress and trauma, as well as resilience, are experienced cognitively (the mind), somatically (the body), and neurologically (nervous system). Therefore, all 3 of those areas must be addressed in a training model for resilience. The training model must include the 3 principles:

  1. Proactive Training – Although it is never too late to begin your training in resilience, ideally the training must begin before the stressor occurs. When our backs are against the wall, we all fall back on our training. If we want to be able to access resilience at any time, the skill must already be in place. Start now.
  2. Growth from Adversity – Changing the perception of stress from a threat to a challenge begins the process to an outcome of post-traumatic growth versus post-traumatic stress. This mindset will turn daily experiences into opportunities to become stronger. For more on this, check out Captain Tom Chaby’s Ted Talk
  3. Effective Recovery – You are only as resilient as your ability to recover.

Effective recovery does not necessarily mean a long night’s sleep. Uninterrupted, deep sleep, of course, is ideal. Yet in a profession like the fire service, that is not always accessible. High stress reduces the body’s ability to produce Melatonin, a vital hormone needed for sleep cycles. If one experiences cumulative stress, the brain waves remain in high Beta and the body cannot regulate brain waves and hormone levels back to “rest and digest”. It is nearly impossible to find sleep when the body and brain are in this activated state, therefore many turn to alcohol or sleeping pills for help. These substances may allow you to pass out, but that does not mean effective recovery is taking place. There are ways for your body to recover and replenish without a full night’s sleep. 

A study published in 2010 concluded that, “Meditation appears to provide at least a short term improvement in reaction time performance, and may also provide a longer term reduction in sleep need roughly equal to the time spent in meditation.”

Meditation and breathing techniques allow the brain and nervous system to move seamlessly between activation and regulation, resulting in high levels of performance and effective recovery. At its essence, this is resilience. Meditation can be off-putting for many people who believe the practice requires a lot of time or unreasonable tasks such as sitting still or clearing the mind. The good news is, neither of those things are required. Yoga can be classified as a moving meditation and “mindfulness” is a practice where you observe how you perform certain tasks. Discipline and consistency are more critical to the effectiveness of meditation than length of time within the practice. Twelve minutes is ideal, and if you can only practice 5 minutes a day, that’s fine, just do it as often as possible.

Meditation asks your mind to concentrate on one point of focus that you consciously choose rather than allowing your mind to spiral with thoughts uncontrollably. The point of focus can be your breath, observing the flicker of a candle flame, repeating a phrase, or even a teacher’s voice that guides you. Here are two guided practices to start your training immediately. Take the breathing technique in the first recording and practice it on your own when you find pockets of time throughout the day you can use for recovery. 

Here is a guided practice to start your training immediately. Take the breathing technique in this recording and practice it on your own when you find pockets of time throughout the day you can use for recovery.

Foundation Breathing Technique: Three Part Breath

For a full library of online audio and video recordings from Yoga For First Responders, please visit: YogaShield Cyber Academy