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A Mindfulness Program Made for First Responders

This uniquely focused yoga retreat in the Berkshires offers more than just Downward Dogs. Teaching invaluable mindfulness and stress reduction skills, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health is putting first responders, well, first for a change.

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Contributing Writer

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health is exactly the type of place you’d expect to visit when searching for zen. Perched on a hill in Massachusetts’ breathtaking Berkshires, overlooking Lake Mahkeenac, the sprawling yoga retreat covers 160,000-square-feet, making this facility the biggest of its kind in North America. Inside, you’ll find a staff dedicated to meditation, yoga, and the ancient medicinal practices of Ayurveda. Outside, depending on the season, you’ll see people hiking, jogging, or snowshoeing.

“As I was walking around Kripalu, I was saying to myself, ‘There’s no way I’m fitting in here‘,” remembers Dan O’Sullivan, the metro regional director of the Department of Youth Services, the agency that operates Massachusetts’ juvenile justice services.

O’Sullivan had never meditated a day in his life. And at first glance, mindfulness and juvenile corrections didn’t seem to go hand-in-hand.

“In this business, you’re taught, ‘I don’t need any help; I can get it done.‘ You stuff everything down and keep moving. That’s how we’re wired. A lot of people don’t ask for help,” he says.

But O’Sullivan wasn’t there for a cushy yoga retreat. After hearing positive reviews from some members of his staff, he opted to join a five-day program called RISE—a scientifically-based mindfulness program out of Kripalu that teaches resiliency, situational awareness, and decision making to those in high-stakes jobs.

Ten years ago, RISE began as a research initiative studying the impact of yoga in a variety of populations, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or who worked in frontline professions like law enforcement, says Edi Pasalis, director of RISE at Kripalu. “Since then,” she adds, “we have been building evidence-based programming to serve the real world and have published about 24 articles.”

The results have been outstanding. “We have seen tremendous increases in resilience, a 24 percent decrease in perceived stress, a 13 percent increase in mindfulness, and a 10 percent increase in empowerment,” says Pasalis.

One study published last November in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine also found that RISE improved people’s psychological health and healthy behaviors two months after participation.

Those are important stats considering that chronic stress can lead to a host of consequences, everything from acute physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, headaches, and back pain, to chronic conditions, like diabetes, cardiac problems, and potential mental health problems, warns Pasalis. Folks like O’Sullivan, who may not be able to successfully manage stressors on their own, may see issues arise both on a work and personal front, too.

On any given day, O’Sullivan’s stressors might involve dealing with gangs, violence, or murder. “It’s all the seriousness you see on the news every night,” he says of his job. “In my position, I’m trying to balance the kids, the staff, the programming, and keep everything moving.”

But when equipped with the skills RISE offers, Pasalis says: “If someone notices that they are not skillfully handling situation, they will have to have tools to re-engage or get themselves out of a risky situation.”

How Does RISE Work?

One of the first lessons taught at RISE is how to “ride the wave.” It’s a simple way to think about stressors. In life, there are big, little, long, and short waves. Every experience has a beginning, middle, and end, says Pasalis. The trick is to stay centered as intensity, or stress, increases or decreases. This model is especially relevant for frontline workers like O’Sullivan whose lives are filled with intense waves.

RISE is built around three main points:

1. Embodying calm.

This teaches you to use deep breathing to step out of the stress response of fight-or-flight mode so that you can make a good decision instead of just react. “Using your breath can help you regain a sense of balance,” says Pasalis.

Related: Why Does the Breath Heal?

2. Cultivating clarity.

The technique is all about having control of your attention and being clear about what is happening in the moment so that you have the right data to make that choice. “We think about these practices in two ways,” says Pasalis: crisis management and cultivating capacity outside of the moment.

Crisis management is your tool belt: controlled breaths and a quick body scan—both of which can help you find the present moment. “First responders and law enforcement are trained to pay attention and scan a situation, but they are less likely to pay attention to themselves,” Pasalis explains. “We add a layer of noticing where you might have tension and if you’re holding your breath or holding anger.”

Outside of the moment, and when practiced over time, tools like meditation, yoga, mindful eating, and mindful listening can help root us in the present, too, building our focus.

“We know cultivating capacity for mindfulness and focus can change the brain. The prefrontal cortex grows with these mindfulness practices,” she says. Research shows as much.

3. Deepening connection.

The objective here is to reconnect with your aim in any given moment. Before you act, what’s your goal? Maybe it’s to create a safe situation or to find a way to diffuse someone’s emotions, for example.

How to Apply RISE in the Real World

Since his time at Kripalu, O’Sullivan has changed his ways, fully-adopting the techniques and practices of RISE. “It doesn’t feel like asking for help, but rather taking care of yourself,” he says.

He’s also started to walk the talk. “Every morning, I do my own 10 to 15-minute relaxation routine, then I meditate. It helps with just starting my day; it’s exposure to a different piece of the world,” he says.

Small changes, like taking three deep breaths in the middle of a stressful situation or when he gets in his car at the end of the day, put him in a different place. “If we can slow ourselves down, we can make better decisions,” he says.

Using his newfound knowledge, O’Sullivan has also been assessing and shifting current policies in the facilities that he manages.

“We’re still in the infant stage of development,” he admits. Some improvements, including larger yoga sessions with more kids, starting mornings relaxation techniques, and prioritizing mindfulness practices for both staff and kids during stressful times of the day, have already been implemented.

Since many of the children O’Sullivan works with on a daily basis will rejoin society at some point, he believes in sharing with them the value of these life skills, specifically stress-relief and mindfulness. Having the kids practice these techniques in highly stressful situations—like when they’re confined to their rooms during a shift change or after witnessing a fight or altercation—can teach them healthier coping strategies.

There’s also a trickle-down effect on the training staff. “Exposing not only myself, but also our workforce helps people recognize there’s a way for them to take care of themselves, which leads to the kids getting better care because we’re not getting burnt out. Our wellness leads to their wellness,” he says.

Strength truly does come in numbers, too. “At Kripalu, we always say community is stronger than willpower,” says Pasalis. “We work with organizations and teams so that there is a critical mass of people who can be self-reinforcing.” To that extent, O’Sullivan says he’s working toward a goal of getting 20 percent of his staff to Kripalu.

“This is reaching people and as people take a little piece of it, it spreads. In this building, I’ve always operated under the idea that if we change one person, it’s worth it. And I think we’ve changed more than one,” he says.



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