Yoga Offers FFs Fitness, Stress Relief

June 22, 2010
Firefighter Blanca Alcaraz says it is her mission to teach yoga to first responders, dispelling all the myths surrounding it.
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.

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"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.

"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."

When that doesn't work, she's not even above pointing out the attraction of the obvious -- women in scanty clothes working out in a hot studio.

"I'm shameless when it comes to getting people to try it," she said. "...I love it when I get the biggest, toughest guy to try it and they say, 'No joke, this stuff is for real.'"

Now that she has a business, she can further entice firefighters, EMS and police officers to try it just by dropping by her studio and saying they serve the public and she'll let them try it for a day for free.

"You'll be confused and you won't understand anything that's going on but that's OK," she said. "If you stick with it even for a week, you'll be hooked and I can promise you'll have buns of steel or ABS of steel before you know it."

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