Namaste: Tallahassee firefighters de-stress with yoga

Tallahassee By: Julie Montanaro | WCTV Eyewitness News
April 4, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- Firefighters battle flames, smoke, heat and the clock as they try to save property and more importantly, try to save lives.

They have one of the most stressful jobs there is. The latest ranking by Careercast shows firefighters second only to active duty military.

The stress can take its toll on their health, both mental and physical.

So Tallahassee is rolling out a welcome mat for morning yoga class.

"It goes from zero to 100 in just a matter of seconds," firefighter Gavin Dickinson said of his job at the Tallahassee Fire Department.

"There's a certain amount of anxiety because you never know what you're going to encounter," firefighter Jessie Lockhart said.

"They see some of the most horrific things in life and you have to have a way to channel that stress and deal with it appropriately," said Tallahassee Fire Chief Jerome Gaines.

Yoga is now offered twice a week.

"Nice strong balance, keeping a focus on the breath," yoga instructor Lizzie Kelley said as she guided a group of firefighters through a morning practice.

"It's actually very challenging," Captain Mike Bellamy said.

"Feeling that nice stretch," Kelley continued.

Classes started here at Fire Station 16 and have since spread to other stations across the city.

"I'm loving it so far. It just warms your body up and warms your mind up so you can get right for the day," firefighter Gavin Dickinson said.

“It helps relax me, center... kind of channel my mind," firefighter Jessie Lockhart said.

"Where the focus is, the energy will go. That can help you find a little bit of openness, a little bit of ease," Kelley said.

The guys on B-shift are about 12 hours in to their 24-hour day.

They’ve had four calls already. The last one was a signal seven, a patient who passed away.

"The guys had multiple call outs overnight and they still show up on the mat,” yoga instructor Lizzie Kelley said. “ I've asked 'Why?' and they're like, I need that calm. I need that moment to disconnect from the call and relieve a little bit of that stress."

The city has offered yoga classes at city hall for years but recently expanded them to first responders.

"What do you think about this crazy idea to do yoga with our firefighters?" City of Tallahassee Wellness Coordinator Brian Smatt said.

It's a decision Smatt says was cemented when veteran firefighter Jeff Atkinson died of a massive heart attack the same day as a two-alarm fire at the Book Mine.

"It kind of resonated with me,” Smatt said. “He's about my same age, kind of the same age children, and I called Chief Gaines. Chief what can we do? And yoga just kind of resonated out of that."

"Press the heart toward the mat a little bit," the instructor told the firefighters gathered on the second floor.

The postures and poses are trying to counterbalance some painful statistics.

As many as three out of four firefighters suffer with PTSD, according to the American Psychiatric Association. According to the United States Fire Administration, firefighters are three times more likely to die of stress-related causes than in car crashes.

Yoga is not only helping Tallahassee firefighters de-stress. It's helping to improve their balance and flexibility.

"That will come in very handy when they're out doing the hard work that they do every day, lifting and pulling," Kelley said.

Their radios and boots are never far away.

"If a call goes off, what happens?"

"We head down those stairs right there, jump on that truck and haul butt," Captain Mike Bellamy said.

"A little micro-bend in the knee might feel good here," Kelley said.

This one hour of peace amid a steady flow of fires, car accidents and medical emergencies is creating some new converts to this ancient practice.

"I encourage you to take kind thoughts, kind words and kind intentions with you throughout the week. Namaste," Kelley said as she wrapped up the hour-long class.

"Namaste," the firefighters responded with a bow.

The city's wellness coordinator says they are planning to expand classes to more fire stations in the year ahead.

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