How those in law enforcement can take charge of their mind-body wellness
June 17, 2022 By Julia Long
Policing is a very stressful occupation.1 Various studies show that first responders experience five times more musculoskeletal disorders than general workers, suffer from sleep disorders due to shift work, experience anxiety and inability to relax or “let go”, and 30 per cent develop depression and PTSD. These statistics are from before the pandemic began.
Yoga has been proven to help overcome these concerns. Yoga is more than just movement2; many people think yoga is only bendy twisty poses, but poses are but one of eight “limbs” of yoga3 that form the essence of how yoga increases mental and physical wellness. These “limbs” include:3
“Restraints towards a compassionate life”
Hold to non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing and control of sexual energy. Paying attention to these restraints can bring peace and calm. Set a positive intention each morning for each of these restraints.
“Cultivating habits or observances for a healthy and happy life”
Internal and external cleanliness, practicing contentment, self-control, feeding the mind with uplifting studies and surrendering the ego are habits to cultivate. Set goals and time to nourish the mind. Pause and think of something every day for which you are grateful. Cultivate gratitude; it can be as simple as that ideal parking spot, the warmth of the sun, or even that first sip of coffee.
Are you a chest breather or a belly breather? As adults, we forget how to breathe naturally. Breathing shallowly causes the diaphragm’s full function to be reduced.2 The lower area of the lungs, in which many small blood vessels are stored, is imperative for carrying oxygen to the body’s cells. Hemoglobin, contained in red blood cells, serves as the oxygen carrier. These small blood vessels never get full use, as shallow breathing does not allow the lower areas of the lungs to completely fill with air. The result is feeling anxious and short of breath.
Deep abdominal breathing encourages a complete oxygen exchange: all the outgoing carbon dioxide is traded for incoming oxygen. It slows the heart rate and manages blood pressure. When we breathe, the diaphragm naturally lowers into the abdominal organs. When inhaling, the diaphragm pushes on the spleen, pancreas, liver and stomach, and these organs in turn push on all our other organs. When we exhale the pressure is then released until the pattern repeats again. Whenever we practice deep abdominal breathing our organs receive the benefit akin to a much-needed massage, allowing them to be filled with the fresh blood supply to function their best, and increasing our overall wellness.
There is significant scientific research supporting the benefits a regular practice of breathwork brings, of which those in law enforcement can benefit. Studies reported in the US National Library of Medicine – National Institute of Health, report that breathwork is beneficial for combating stress and improving cardiovascular functions. It calms the nervous system, which improves your stress response. The authors of the study linked these benefits to the increased oxygen uptake during breathwork, as the oxygen is energy for your vital organs, including your brain and nerves.
“Withdrawal from the senses”
We are often limited by our habits, tendencies, impulses and weaknesses. We let our senses over-influence ourselves, generating a reaction.
This yoga element suggests we acknowledge yet distance ourselves from the over-stimulation of the world around us. How? Pause and give time to relax the body and mind. Try taking a few minutes to “talk”2 your body into relaxation.
“Concentration or steady focus”
Concentration or steady focus binds the mind to one place, idea or object, calms the “busy-ness” of the mind and permits us to focus and be present. It overcomes the “monkey-mind”, where the mind swings from one thought to another. Remember, the quality of our day depends on the quality of thoughts.2
To calm the distractions in the mind, acknowledge what comes to mind; never suppress the images, thoughts or emotions because that may eventually lead to an eruption as they boil to the surface. Release the distractions from the mind by writing them down and by taking control. Acknowledge the distractions, record them, but tell them this is not the time for them, especially if we need to pay attention to a situation.
Meditation leads to mental and physical wellness.4 It is often described as finding a state of awareness and single thought, withdrawing the mind from the automatic reactions we tend to follow when stimulated.
Science has proven the benefits meditation provides for mind-body health.5 We exhibit different types of brain waves, which are produced depending on our emotions, thoughts and actions. These waves affect how we feel and react: high-frequency waves make us alert; low-frequency waves make us calm. When we are awake our brain exhibits predominantly fast-moving beta brainwaves; when asleep we are in slow, high amplitude waves called delta brainwaves.2 There are two other identifiable waves in between these two: alpha and theta. The alpha brain waves are produced as we attempt to go into a deeper meditative state and calm our minds. These waves calm the nervous system, reduce stress hormones, lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate and promote relaxation.6 The benefit of theta waves is that they promote creativity and an uplifting mental state. They not only keep us balanced and calm7, but they also improve memory and problem-solving skills.8 These waves are between wakefulness and sleep and relate to the subconscious mind; therefore, a very healing state. The theta brain waves are also the learning state.
Did you know that the brain waves we enter while meditating become more prevalent in our everyday life? A study of Buddhist Monks at Princeton University10 found that prior to entering a meditative state, the monks already had a preponderance of ideal meditative brain waves, which increased sharply during meditation and stayed high following meditation. This indicates that meditation has lasting effects on the functioning of the brain and suggests that regular meditation can create sustainable changes to brain function outside of a meditation session.
This is a state of intense concentration beyond sensory experience, time, and space. It is an extreme awareness of the reality of the world around us. Many yogi masters strive to achieve this state and many yoga students work towards this goal when they practice all the eight limbs, or elements, of yoga.
The eighth element is the one that everyone always associates with the definition of yoga: the asanas/poses. The actual meaning of yoga means “to join” or “to unite” and this is viewed in many ways. It can mean the joining of all aspects of yourself, the joining of all eight “limbs”, or in the spiritual sense, the joining with a higher force.
Most people look for an energetic movement practice such as going to the gym, running, lifting weights, doing any kind of power/strong yoga. This is because those activities are so close to the way we live our lives: always on the go, always pushing to be competitive. We forget what it is to simply be. Most of the injuries, mental and emotional issues people live with nowadays are a consequence of that fast-paced-way-of-life. In fact, a 2016 collaborative study between researchers from the University of Toronto and Waterloo11 discovered a correlation between back injuries and more fit police officers, which suggests that training intensity may have been a factor. Police work has bursts of intense physically demanding work requiring high levels of fitness, or capacity, and movement competency. If muscles are tight and compressing the joints, an over-trained police officer may be more likely to suffer a back injury during an unexpected trip, slip or fall.
We need a balance in our lives of a calmer element, a more passive movement. We need to slow down. Bring in that balance between strength and relaxation, muscle-building and deep tissue stretching, and competitiveness and ability to let go; balance the yang and the yin, in our movements and in our lives. This balance is the way your life needs to be for optimal health.
- Cooper CL, Davidson MJ, Robinson P. Stress in the police service. Journal of occupational medicine.: official publication of the Industrial Medical Association. 1982 Jan 1;24(1):30-6.
- Long, J., Cacace S. F.R.Y. First Responders’ Yoga: The Book. 1st ed. Amazon; 2020.
- Satchidananda S. Integral Yoga: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Buckingham, Virginia: Integral Yoga Publications; 2012.
- National Institute of Health (NIH): National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health, “Meditation: In Depth” April 2016. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth
- A beginner’s guide to meditation [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. 2020. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858
- Larson J. Alpha Brain Waves: What Are They and Why Are They Important? [Internet]. Healthline. 2019. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/alpha-brain-waves#benefits
- [Internet]. Science Daily. 2010. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100319210631.htm
- KC K, SK N. A study of electroencephalogram in meditators [Internet]. PubMed. 2021. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10846631/
- Perone S, Palanisamy J, Carlson S. Age-related change in brain rhythms from early to middle childhood: Links to executive function. Developmental Science. 2018;21(6):e12691.
- Lutz A, Greischar L, Rawlings N, Ricard M, Davidson R. Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2004;101(46):16369-16373.
- McGill S, Frost D, Lam T, Finlay T, Darby K, Cannon J. Can fitness and movement quality prevent back injury in elite task force police officers? A 5-year longitudinal study. Ergonomics. 2015;58(10):1682-9. doi: 10.1080/00140139.2015.1035760. Epub 2015 May 8. PMID: 25952105.
Julia Long (Dharma Gian Kaur) is CEO of F.R.Y. First Responders Yoga Canada. She is co-author of the self-help book “F.R.Y. First Responders’ Yoga. The Book.”. She is also co-creator of F.R.Y. The APP, bringing the F.R.Y. Tools to First Responders anywhere, anytime, when needed, at the push of a button.
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