By Ed Staskus
It’s never easy working on the slopes of a live volcano. There’s molten lava, debris-flow avalanches, volcanic gases, not to mention pyroclastic density currents, which are gravity-driven, rapidly-moving, ground-hugging mixtures of rock fragments and fluid as hot as 1700 degrees That’s why most volcanologists study either dormant or dead volcanoes.
They don’t go hiking up into harm’s way.
Policemen don’t usually work anywhere near volcanoes, either, except when some excitable dumb-ass with one of America’s 357 million guns goes trigger happy. At that point the arm of the law might as well be on the lip of Mt. Vesuvius, staring down into a maw of lava.
Your body armor best be fire-proof, your aim true.
Since 1784, the year the Revolutionary War ended and the United States became the United States, there have been 708 volcano-related deaths in the country. In that same time 21,541 police officers have been killed in the line of duty. Policemen put their badges on in the morning not being completely sure they’ll be taking them off that same night at home.
Even though only a small percentage of the nation’s nearly one million police officers are ever killed by criminals, nearly one out of every ten are attacked every year, for one reason or another. There’s a reason they wear bullet proof vests and carry guns.
It’s a dangerous beat. It comes with a lot of risk and hazard. It’s not just punching a clock. There’s a load of stress built into it. It’s a wonder more cops don’t blow their tops. Even still, the suicide rate among policemen is one-and-a- half times higher than the general population.
The thin blue line can get thin ragged worn out.
Recruits train like nobody’s business at police academies to learn their trade. They study state and national laws, computers and patrol procedures, first aid, cop car driving, and drill with firearms. They get physically fit. Contrary to the myth of the boys and girls in blue stuffing their faces with donuts, because police work is physically demanding, almost all officers routinely work out their capacity for the work.
They ain’t flatfoots, if they ever were.
Policing in the real world is physically and mentally demanding. Officers have to enforce the law of the land, but have to be flexible, as well, when serving the public. Yoga is a mind-body practice based on strength and flexibility. That’s why some police officers have been turning to it and meditation as a kind of continuing education.
It’s yoga mats in the squad room, calming down the cops.
“Police officers are suffering,” said Richard Goerling, a lieutenant on the Police Department in Hillsboro, Oregon, outside Portland. “There are so many stressors to being a police officer today. The job is incredibly complicated. The organizations are complicated. The legal climate is complicated, and our relationship with our public is complicated.”
He started a meditation and mindfulness program for his department in 2013.
“We’re driving fast, we’re riding with sirens. It’s game on. Mindfulness teaches us to mitigate the stress response. I started looking at what professional athletes and what elite performers in the military do. That led me to yoga.”
It works, which is why professional athletes from the NBA’s LeBron James to the NFL’s Travis Benjamin to the NHL’s Jared Boll have added yoga to their fitness regimens. Except when it doesn’t work. When Shaquille O’Neal, a former NBA all-star, got on the mat he wasn’t able to down dog it, much less slam dunk it.
“I’m the worst yoga student in the history of yoga,” he admitted.
He’s still trying to touch his toes.
On the yoga mat at the floor level, the practice brings together physical and mental disciplines in one place at one time. It is physical postures breathing being aware of the moment without judgment. It is improved strength range of motion fitness and reduced stress anxiety blood pressure. It’s multifunctional.
It is an ice cream swirl that feels guaranteed good.
It might be the silver bullet lawmen need in their holsters, to serve, protect, and breathe, shifting from police officers to peace officers.
“It is meant for them,” said Olivia Kvitne of Yoga for First Responders. She founded and directs the program, addressing common problems policemen face. It has been estimated 30 percent of police officers have stress-based physical health problems and 40 percent suffer from sleep disorders.
“Why is it meant for them? It’s because the original and true intents of yoga are to obtain a mastery of the mind and achieve an optimal functioning of the entire being, from the subtle nervous system to the whole physical body. They become more resilient in the face of adversity.”
When it comes to policework, adversity isn’t a question of whether it’s going to get in your face, it’s when and where. Even though crime rates are at historic lows, policemen on the street deal with people who have mental problems, people round the bend on drugs and drink, and people crazed by anger or desperation and carrying weapons that are dangerous.
The daily tour of duty can be a front row seat to despair.
“Not everybody likes police officers,” observed Oskaloosa, Iowa, Police Officer Blaine Shutts. “We see them at their worst times and we are used to that. But we have to watch out so that they can’t take a swing, punch, kick, or hit us with anything.”
Safety is the number one priority of all lawmen.
“We say everybody comes to work and everybody goes home,” said Officer Shutts.
The training intensives of Yoga for First Responders focus on tactical breathing, physical postures for fleshing out muscular stability, and “neurological reset exercises to return the system to a balanced state.”
Everyone is in a safe spot when they’re balanced, their legs under them, stretching out into Warrior Pose.
Resilience is a trait shared by all warriors. It’s a necessary aspect of the breed. But a lack of empathy is not. Policemen are prone to expecting the worst and becoming cynical, given the day–to-day rough-and-tumble they encounter every day and night.
Police officer Richard Goerling found himself questioning his approach to encounters with the public almost ten years ago. “I’d leave a radio call thinking, ‘Hmm, I probably could have been more kind’ and really questioning whether or not the abrasive approach was an appropriate response,” he said.
When he proposed a yoga program for his Hillsboro department it was because he wanted “to cultivate an empathetic warrior culture that allows a police officer to see someone holding a sign that says ‘I can’t breathe’ and instead of responding with some defensive statement, it’s really an interrogative, tell me more about that.”
Yoga is about showing up when you fit the description, about fitting the bill, standing out in the line-up. It is about listening to your body, listening to yourself, and listening to others. It is about opening your heart a little and lending an ear
“I wish the community had a greater understanding of why the police do what we do, and sometimes we have to do a better job of putting ourselves in their shoes, as well,” said Don De Lucca, the chief of police in Doral, Florida, and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“We’re at a crossroads, and we both need to be willing to listen.”
Yoga fosters mindful listening. Police are trained to sort out, advise, and clean up things that have gone wrong. Yoga trains us to listen with openness and your whole attention. When policemen listen actively they get things right more often than not. When they practice buddhi, which is witnessing, mindful listening, they are able to listen with less judgment and more understanding.
The same goes for members of the body politic.
“As much as police need to learn to listen, listening to police is the simplest way to avoid conflicts with them,” said South Florida Law Enforcement Officer Jay Stalien.
Listening to what the other side has to say is good all around. It is a sincere kind of respect. The opposite of talking shouldn’t be waiting for your turn to talk. It should be about being present, not rummaging around in your bag of tricks for what you’re about to say next. Listening is active. It’s about paying attention. If you’re not listening, you’re not looking at what is right in front of you and you’re not learning.
“Officers are faced with life-and-death situations daily,” said Shayleen Halloran, a yoga instructor and wife of a Chicago-area patrolman.
They are always being confronted by bad ideas gone wrong. “That kind of stress can have a huge impact on their emotional and physical health. Yoga can help even out the roller coaster.”
Whether you’re writing out a parking complaint, running after a suspect, picking somebody up for shoplifting, pointing your firearm at somebody else, you’re on the incident coaster, sharply winding trestles, steep inclines, and speedy plunges.
“It’s a good way to limber up and to bring you back down from that hyper vigilance,” said her husband. It’s packing handcuffs and yoga mats.
Lawmen often drive alone in police cars working 10-hour shifts. Sitting and driving all day is not good for your back. Not only is yoga a proven remedy for stress, it’s great for lower back pain. Rolling out your standard issue peacemaker mat at the end of a long day is like Car 54 to the rescue.
“There’s a holdup in the Bronx, Brooklyn’s broken out in fights. There’s a traffic jam in Harlem, that’s backed up to Jackson Heights. There’s a Scout troop short a child. Car 54, Where Are You?”
“As an officer, you’re supposed to go in and do your job, handle the call and leave,” said Michele Garcia, an Arizona policewoman for more than twenty years. “After a few months of doing yoga, I noticed I was nicer to the people I was dealing with every day.”
It’s like karma lawmen on the beat. If yoga makes cops better lawmen, there’s no reason for them to cop out on the next yoga class.
The next time you’re involved in toil and trouble, have need of assistance out in the wide world, or just scratched the surface of lawbreaking and are pulled over for something, like turning on red when you haven’t seen the sign saying not to, and the peace officer lets you off with a warning, try saying “Namaste” as he walks away.
If he’s a policeman who shapes himself, personally professionally, whose beat is in his head as much as it is out there, he might know what you’re talking about.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”