Although yoga has not traditionally been found in the firehouse, Blanca Alcaraz, a career firefighter with the Somerville, Mass. Fire Department, is doing everything she can to let her brothers and sisters know that yoga is kick-butt exercise that can have even the most buff firefighters working up a sweat in minutes.
Her department is among a number around the country where responders are taking an interest in the practice for both fitness and stress relief.
"Yoga is amazing," said Alcaraz, 42, who has a mission of teaching yoga to firefighters and emergency responders, and spreads the word far and wide, dispelling all the myths surrounding yoga. "It is the most physically taxing exercise going."
Her practicing of yoga has enabled her to routinely get 45 minutes to an hour out of a 30-minute SCBA bottle. It has also made her "flexible like Gumby," making her a very popular firefighter for confined space rescues and operations.
"The guys are always saying, 'Blanca, this is a job for you. Get down in there,'" she said. She's been a firefighter since 1997, serving exclusively with Somerville, and currently working with a truck company.
Yoga is even gaining popularity with its inclusion in a wildly popular workout video called P90X that many firefighters are using. Alcaraz said firefighters who are following the P90X regimen come to the yoga section and suddenly become enlightened to the qualities of yoga.
"They come in and say, 'This stuff is for real. It's the real deal,'" she said.
Yoga, according to Alcaraz, is all about breathing effectively and using one's own body weight to produce physically demanding exercise that includes all the best of cardio and weightlifting exercises with virtually no equipment.
Alcaraz wasn't always a fan, having fallen prey to the misconceptions about yoga fostered by the endless early morning television programs of the '70s and '80s showing women contorting their bodies in unnatural and freakish ways and chanting strange sounds.
"That's one of the hardest challenges to getting firefighters and police officers to practice yoga," said Alcaraz, who has become such a devotee of yoga she opened her own studio, "Be in Union Yoga," in Somerville last October. "The hardest challenge I face is actually getting the guys through the yoga studio door. Once they come in and practice they're hooked."
While there may be no one certain thing Alcaraz can point to that made her do a 180-degree turn on yoga, she says the events of Sept. 11 went a long way to helping change her mind.
Like many firefighters, she found herself in a funk post 9/11 and was looking for an outlet and a way to make sense of the incomprehensible.
The events of 9/11 came on the heels of the tragic Worcester, Mass., cold storage building fire that claimed six firefighters less than 50 miles from Somerville. That combined with the death of her father, made her turn to something, anything, to deal with the stressors in her daily life.
She could have turned to alcohol, but that wasn't her style. As a self-acclaimed sports nut and "tomboy," she looked for something that was physical.
Yoga provided that solace and more.
"I was needing something that was physically challenging and I found that yoga kicked my butt more than anything else I tried," she said. "It turned out to be the best therapy in the world."
Alcaraz said yoga can be just about anything the practitioner wants.
"I found that it calms my demons down," she said. "...There can be a cleansing emotionally, physically, spiritually. You can take away anything you want from yoga." She said people who just want the physical exercise can take just that away too.
"You don't have to take away all the yoga mumbo jumbo," she said. "You take away what you want."
Alcaraz said yoga is all about taking care of one's body on many levels, making it a natural fit for firefighters and EMS workers who are always taking care of everybody else. She said fire, police and EMS workers are all about serving others and yoga is more about taking care of one's self.