from The Conscious Warrior: Yoga for Firefighters and First Responders
War and Peace on the Mat
The reason yoga fits so naturally into the warrior culture is illustrated in the story of the Bhagavad Gita. Thousands of years ago, yogi warriors in India found themselves on a battlefield of epic proportions. As he prepares to fight, the hero of the story struggles to understand the central question of dharma: How do we perform our duty in the midst of great suffering?
Centuries later, the Bhagavad Gita remains a profound description of how to perform our duty, both in the literal sense of actions on the battlefield as in the figurative sense of how we approach the inner struggle—the war within ourselves. Yoga is about both. The West is more familiar with Hatha yoga, the popular series of poses and breathing exercises, but yoga is also about mastering the mind.
In one of my favorite interpretations, Steven Pressfield explains how the Bhagavad Gita takes the warrior ethos and directs it “inward, employing the same virtues used to overcome external enemies—courage, patience, will, selflessness, the capacity to endure adversity—but enlisting these qualities now in the cause of the inner struggle for integrity, maturity and the honorable life.”1 Pressfield’s book Gates of Fire is required reading at West Point and Annapolis and for all officers in the U.S. Marine Corps. It provides training tools for developing the conscious warrior.
Yoga, roughly translated as to yoke, means conscious union of mind, body, and spirit. When we intentionally support the body and mind working together, we can harmonize our internal struggle more skillfully and then bring this balance into our work and our relationships with others. In more subtle interpretation, yoga means being on the path to self-knowledge and understanding the pain and suffering in life from a wiser perspective.
This is why yoga belongs in the firehouse. We can’t expect first responders to see the level of human tragedy and violence day in and day out without some long-term consequences. They need a framework to process their experiences, one that is tangible and not solely based on faith or religion or requiring allegiance to any other particular belief system. They need a framework that is tactical, visceral, and scientific.
Of course, I don’t want to oversimplify. There certainly are differences in the yoga and first responder cultures. The fire service, on the one hand, is very results and outcomes oriented. Their training is a means to an end—fighting a fire, extracting a vehicle, pulling hose, and so on. Yoga, on the other hand, is more process, rather than product. That is, we practice yoga for achievement of greater self-awareness, which is an ongoing process.