Her nerves were rattled as the adrenaline rushed through her body, but Kansas City police Officer Mikki Cassidy quickly reminded herself to take a brief moment to calm down and breathe.
The minutes seemed to slowly drip away as Cassidy and her partner maintained their position outside an East-side house where an armed criminal refused to surrender and waited for the cadre of tactical officers to arrive.
Cassidy consciously slowed her breathing. She took in a deep breathe followed by a series of slow breaths out — methodically pulling the air from her belly up to her chest and then to the top of her ribs.
“I slowed my heart rate down, stayed calm, and stayed centered,” she recalled. “I was mindful instead of getting caught up in an adrenaline dump and engage in the call. I knew how to center myself.”
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She knew how to center herself because of a weekly yoga class offered to police officers, firefighters and other first responders at downtown police headquarters to help them deal with the lingering trauma, numbing stress and debilitating hyper-vigilance that they experience in their jobs.
Through various stretching poses and breathing techniques, participants learn how to lower their heart rate, tone their bodies and keep their minds calm. It helps them embrace the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, which data shows is a healing practice for secondary trauma.
The public also benefits from the yoga sessions.
“You want officers or dispatchers to quickly triage a situation for safety and then, from a place of focused intention, find out how to help you navigate your situation,” said Sgt. Michelle Hon, who oversees the yoga program.
The yoga helps officers calibrate their adrenaline to deal with the spikes and then necessary drops that can come within one call.
“The public has an expectation of a 10 upon our arrival, with lights and sirens, and then a two when the threat is in the back of the wagon and we are sitting with a crying victim. The victim deserves empathy and compassion, yet our adrenaline dump lasts 20 to 30 minutes within our bodies,” Hon said.
Cassidy was one of the instructors who was trained in December 2015 by Olivia Kvitne, founder of Yoga for First Responders, a nonprofit that promotes yoga for public safety workers.
The sessions, taught by volunteer instructors who are first-responders themselves, usually attracts between 10 to 12 participants and are open to public safety agencies, retired Kansas City police officers and their families. From time to time military veterans from the local Warrior’s Ascent program will attend a session.
Hon said the yoga sessions are critical to the overall wellness for police officers and other first responders who routinely deal with a number of stress-related health problems. They suffer from sleep disorders, alcoholism, high divorce rates and suicide.
“We may see more trauma, loss, death and destruction than the average person will see in a lifetime and we see how it is avoidable and senseless; we see how cruel humans can be to each other,” Hon said. “It is a heavy burden to carry.”
During a recent yoga session Essie Titus, a Kansas City firefighter, takes the class through their paces. Dressed in loose-fitting workout gear, a group of uniformed officers and civilian employees position themselves on mats in the rear of the spacious community room inside police headquarters.
The lights in the room are darken to promote a relaxed, warm and soothing mood.
“Start to be aware of how you are breathing,” instructs Titus, who began practicing yoga several years ago to manage her post-traumatic stress disorder. “At first, take nice deep breaths, through your nose and out through your mouth.”
Participants follow her commands.
Since its launch in July 2016, the yoga sessions have gained new converts.
“I had always heard about the physical benefits of yoga and wanted to give it a try,” said Merrell R. Bennekin, executive director of the Office of Community Complaints. “I also realized that I need to change up my usual workout routines as I get older and can no longer just go into the weight room and lift like I used to.”
The yoga sessions are geared specifically for first responders. For example, instructors are careful to position participants in the room so that they face the door. First responders are taught to be mindful of their surroundings and situational awareness.
Sgt. Jake Becchina, who has practiced yoga for four years, agreed that the sessions have been helpful.
“It is like you have been carrying around a weighted vest with thoughts of what had happened before or what may come ahead,” Becchina said. “Yoga kind of gives you that opportunity to take that vest off for a while. And you feel lighter and freer and you can better tackle those things that come if you train your brain to take things on as they come.”