Law Enforcement Turns to Yoga for Officer Wellness

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A New Approach for Chicago and San Francisco Police Officers

The benefits of yoga are widely-known amongst regular practitioners. However, for folks outside of the yoga community, yoga seems to be just another way of working out. But a few police departments around the country have discovered that yoga isn’t just exercise. For officers in Chicago and San Francisco, it’s a way to deal with deep-seeded stress and trauma.

In the last three months, three officials working for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) have taken their own lives. And since last summer, there have been six suicides in the department. As such, CPD has been exploring new avenues to encourage both wellness and mental health for officers.

Now, CPD is the first major police department in the United States to provide yoga as a means to handling stress.

Police recruit Henry Capparroso said, “This is the first time I was ever introduced to yoga.”

As usual, when it comes to yoga, there were skeptics among the beginners. It isn’t “tough.” And often the practice is stereotyped as “feminine.” As Alexander McCaskill suggested, “Of course guys aren't crazy about yoga. Like ohhh yoga, ok.”

However, according to CPD, officers are embracing the practice for both its challenges and benefits. McCaskill continued, “But yoga is actually challenging”

Sgt. Liz Schultz, who oversees the “Yoga for First Responders” program at CPD remarked, “It's not a weakness, it's actually making them stronger. Making them mentally resilient, physically resilient. They've taken yoga - the essence of it - and sort of translated it into the sworn world.”

On top of the physical benefits, CPD’s officers are finding that yoga offers an outlet for dealing with long-term trauma.

I found that this was different than anything else I had done before. I started, frankly, feeling a release from, well I’d call it trauma that had been built up for years.
— Richard Rice, Chicago Police Department

Officer Richard Rice, a 20-year-veteran of CPD, stated, “I found that this was different than anything else I had done before. I started, frankly, feeling a release from, well, I'd call it trauma that had been built up for years.”

“It's no longer appropriate to bottle up what you're seeing and what you're dealing with, that there's resources to help deal with those stresses,” said Commander Daniel Godsel. “It's something that we need to confront and deal with.”

And it’s not just Chicago police officers who are realizing the benefits of yoga. In San Francisco, officers have been partaking in regular pranayama (breathwork) practice. Or as the San Francisco Police Department calls it “tactical breathing.”

Once a week, yoga instructor Stephanie Snyder, guides officers through a tactical breathing practice. But rather than sitting on a yoga mat in Lululemon attire, these officers are in folding chairs wearing bulletproof vests.

Guiding law enforcement officers through pranayama isn’t quite the same as teaching a group of traditional yogis. Snyder, founder of Love Story Yoga, says she has modified her teaching style to make the practice useful for and relevant to SFPD’s unique needs.

"I want to sort of meet them where they're at and, as much as possible, use language that's sort of familiar and accessible," said Snyder. "I don't want to alienate anyone either by going woo woo with all of this, because it's very straightforward," she continued.

And her methods seem to be working. "It helps you forget about yesterday, which is something that we all need," said Officer Isaias Cubas. "It's useful for this job to leave yesterday behind and to start today a new day. Not just for us, but for the public as well too,” Cubas explained.

Not only are officers finding wellness and mental health benefits. They have also discovered that pranayama can help them in stressful situations.

The class is the brainchild of Sgt. Mike Mitchell. And he says that officers are seeing results— not just in personal wellness, but on the also on the job.

One officer shared with Mitchell that he used the “tactical breathing” practice while handing combative protestors.

Mitchell explained, "You can't move. You're there. People like to hurl all kinds of stuff at us.” "So, for a few moments, he was able to concentrate on his breathing and calm himself the best he could during that situation,” he continued.

Officers have seen such benefits from the practice that they awarded Snyder with a Certificate of Appreciation.

“I’m so honored to just be there every week and take a deep breath with them,” she wrote on an Instagram post. "It’s a powerfully rewarding and super humbling full circle moment that I’ll never take for granted. And I love everyone of these guys (and gal).”

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