You might not think of the macho guys from FX’s Rescue Me doing upward facing dog in their spare time. But it is exactly what they’re doing at the firehouse in Newark, NJ where Fire Director Fateen Ziyad mandated yoga as part of his approximately 600 firefighters’ training.
Ziyad, a practitioner himself, understood the role yoga plays in anxiety reduction and fitness, so he hired Debby Kaminsky, founder of Newark Yoga Movement, who implemented the program this summer to 36 new recruits. “Initially we had a lot of skeptics,” Kaminsky recalled. “Once they tried a session many were surprised at how they felt, both physically and emotionally. Many found it more challenging than they thought.”
Thanks to these urban pioneers, yoga may be moving toward the mainstream as a tool for helping firefighters keep fit, manage stress, and improve their skills on the job. “My first class with the firefighters was on the training center’s concrete floor with endless sirens and car horns blaring,” Kaminsky recalled. “I focused a lot on the breathing to reduce stress and anxiety. These classes are simplified and slower than the standard vinyasa classes I teach since many firefighters have limited flexibility.”
Ziyad and Kaminsky are hoping to offer an ongoing firefighters’ yoga class after they finish their initial trainings with the Department. Kaminsky reported that based on initial informal surveys 84% of the trainees said they enjoyed yoga and 74% felt the fire department would benefit from a continued program.
Fireman Courtney Benjamin, one of Kaminsky’s initial trainees, found the breathing to be the most helpful take-away from the yoga classes. “With the breath control, I feel more relaxed, more focused, and have more energy. When you’re on a breathing apparatus you have maybe 10-12 minutes of air. If you’re anxious you’re likely to use it up a lot faster. The nose breathing technique helps me do more on one tank,” he said. “I didn’t think my physical abilities would be tested with yoga,” Benjamin remarked. “I under-estimated it, now I realize it’s as strenuous as running or lifting weights, and it uses your full body so it helps with maneuvering in confined spaces and some of the hostile environments we work in.”
Across the river in NYC, Felecia Kutch is endeavoring to make yoga consistently available for the F.D.N.Y. with a voluntary class that firefighters can seek out on their own. She received her yoga teachers’ certification from Laughing Lotus in 2008, the same year as she married firefighter Kenny Kutch - so it was only natural that she would begin sharing the practice with some of New York’s Bravest. She began teaching the class through the organization Friends of Firefighters. The class helped the firefighters release chronic tight spots like upper and lower back, shoulders, chest, and neck. Many of the men lifted weights and did intense cardiovascular exercise, but were unaware of how to stretch correctly.
“I teach them a systemic calming breath to release their tension and show them how to lengthen their muscles effectively,” Kutch said. “Sitting on the floor is difficult for many of them, so we start with something like cat and cow or a variation of Sun Salutations for a warmup. I include a variety of standing poses like half moon and warriors, plus a lot of shoulder stretches. I keep the environment warm and relaxed, and tailor the sequences to their individual problems. The breathing techniques help them remain calm through stressful situations,” Kutch said. She is now starting a new class for both active and retired firefighters at Limitless Fitness Studios in Staten Island (family and friends also welcome).
Firefighter Kenny Kutch is both her husband and her student. He raves about her classes and what yoga has done for him. “She brought a lot of things together for me, most importantly how to coordinate the movement and the breath. When I use the breathing techniques on the job I get less winded and less anxious. When we go ‘on air’ [using a breathing apparatus] in smoky environments, it’s a limited supply. Controlled breathing helps me with that; it probably gives me a longer operating time,” said Kutch.
Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington DC worked with NYC firefighters post-9/11, offering yoga as part of the program. He described how participants journeyed from initial skepticism to see yoga as something beneficial for their lives. “This is the kind of experience that everyone should have in their life,” Dr. Gordon said. Thanks to Ziyad’s forward-thinking mandatory program in Newark, hundreds of firefighters will be exposed to yoga and experience how it can help them
“Most firefighters including myself wouldn’t have taken up yoga without this program,” remarked Benjamin, one of the first to take part. “I’ve become a yoga advocate after experiencing this class; it opened my eyes to the benefits of yoga, and how it can help us become better firefighters.” Perhaps Ziyad’s program will spark more interest here in NYC so our yoga community can do more to assist those who sacrifice so much to serve us so bravely.