Yoga Offers FFs Fitness, Stress Relief

Firefighter Blanca Alcaraz says it is her mission to teach yoga to first responders, dispelling all the myths surrounding it.

"You don't have to be a vegetarian," she said. "You don't have to listen to Yanni. This is more about how you walk through life. It's about keeping your shoulders back and your heart open."

Alcaraz is a practitioner of Vinyasa yoga which is a slow movement form of the exercise. It is focused on striking poses and breathing while concentrating on a single point. The practitioner uses his or her own body weight to tone, sculpt and tighten muscle.

And one doesn't need more than a pair of cheap shorts and a T-shirt to participate effectively. Sure, there are specialized yoga outfits, and if those make the individual feel better and think they're exercising more effectively, she said go for it, but they are completely optional.

She also said some of the benefits for firefighters include weight reduction, increased stamina, better balance and agility.

Plus, there's a calming and stress release benefit too. As a firefighter, she knows the need for peace and calm in the midst of chaos and disaster.

"Yoga trains not only the body but the mind and if the mind is settled, so is everything else which naturally allows one to remain calm under pressure," she said.

She said there's one exercise she teaches that focuses just on breathing and in five minutes, she can have the students working up a sweat.

"You wouldn't think you could work up a sweat just breathing, but you can," she said, noting that many yoga routines are just as stimulating and perhaps more invigorating as the equivalent time working out in a gym.

As much as yoga may be an anomaly to firefighters, Alcaraz is as much to the fire service.

Born to Mexican migrant workers in California, Alcaraz was brought up to respect the United States, learn the language, go to school and to fully participate in all the opportunities the greatest nation on earth had to offer. That was the advice her father, who was a smoke jumper in California, gave to her and she followed it. She describes herself as a poor kid who grew up in the shadow of the gangs of California, but made it out on the grit of her family and a personal drive to succeed.

As the youngest in a family of girls, Alcaraz said she became the "tomboy" of the family and learned electrical work, plumbing and mechanics from her father.

"From the time I was little I wanted to be a firefighter," she said, noting that teachers discouraged her from her dream.

A horrific car wreck she witnessed when she was six years old cemented her resolve even more to become a firefighter. Kids that she had been waving to in a passing car were ejected and killed in the wreck she and her family came upon it seconds after it happened. She watched her father jump into action and try to help the victims of that terrible crash. From that moment forward, she knew she wanted to be a firefighter.

The route was long and included college and a graduate degree from Harvard, which is how she ended up on the opposite coast from where she was raised. She's modest about her graduate degree in romance languages and her stint as a 19th century French literature professor.

After six years in the academic setting, she realized she was no longer happy with her career path and followed her dream of being a firefighter, enrolling in the Massachusetts Fire Academy where she excelled in her courses and became president of her class at the academy, a feat having never been previously achieved by a female.

"The guys are all like brothers I never had," Alcaraz said. "They're all great. They don't care if you're blue, or pink, or don't know what you really are as long as you can do the job. That's all they care about."

Alcaraz had another honor bestowed upon her and that was being named firefighter of the year three years ago, a distinction she shared with one of her son's godfathers.

"The union president said that, in his recollection it was the first time a woman had been named firefighter of the year," she said.

It's that level of acceptance which has allowed Alcaraz to push firefighters in her station to try yoga.

"I do anything I can to get them to try it," she said, adding that she even challenges them with shame. "I tell them they can't even take it for one day."