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PODCAST: Firefighters and Stress with Shannon McQuaide

Updated: Apr 5

Shannon McQuaide on Firefighters and stress with John MacAdams.

Functional movement trainer, certified yoga teacher, behavioral health coach, and daughter of a 34-year-firefighter veteran, Shannon McQuaide, shares her FireFlex Yoga work with firefighters, using science-based yoga techniques to de-escalate stress and to support peak performance in high-risk environments. Curated functional movement and yoga practices for healing common occupation injuries experienced by firefighters. Emotional and mental health benefits of practicing yoga for firefighters and other first responders. The importance of developing interoceptive (internal) awareness for firefighters to monitor and sustain overall health and wellbeing.


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John MacAdams: 

Hello. Welcome to this session on Day One of the Global First Responder Resilience Summit.  My name is John McAdams, from the Center for Mindfulness in Public Safety. I'm your cohost  for this session, and I'm really excited to welcome Shannon McQuaide to the summit. How are  you, Shannon? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

I'm doing great, John. Thank you so much for having me. 

John MacAdams: 

Great. Well, I want to start with your bio to let our audience know a little bit about your work  and background, and then we'll jump into the conversation. Does this sound okay? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Yeah, that sounds good. 

John MacAdams: 

Great. Shannon McQuaide is an entrepreneur, educator, and author with nearly 20 years'  experience creating empowering instructional programs for first responders, corporations,  municipalities, and public schools.  

Shannon created FireFlex Yoga, a data-driven wellness program for firefighters using  science-based yoga techniques to de-escalate stress and to support peak performance in high risk environments. She is a functional movement trainer, a certified yoga teacher, a behavioral  health coach, and an advisory board member for Cordico. Shannon is also the author of the  upcoming book, The Conscious Warrior: Yoga for Firefighters and First Responders

Shannon, this is going to be a valuable conversation for many folks in our audience. You  have been doing the work in the trenches, so to speak, for a number of years. To get things  going, I'm going to put you on the spot here just a bit.  

For all the firefighters listening to us right now, please talk about one of the prevalent  physical issues you're working with in an ongoing basis, whether it's low back pain or shoulders or neck or balance, what have you, and give us a thumbnail sketch of how you  approach treatment, recovery, healing, and resilience building for this particular issue. 

Shannon McQuaide: 

That's a very good question with a lot of parts, and I appreciate it. I would say that you could  imagine firefighters do a lot of heavy lifting throughout the day, both in training and taking care  of the station, and then of course, running calls. So, we run across a lot of back pain, back  injuries, shoulder pain, shoulder injuries, and also knees seem to be a pattern of injuries that  we come across quite a bit, myself, and my team. 

One of the things that I like to do before I begin working with a firefighter, primarily a  group of firefighters, because we deliver these classes into the fire stations, we're working  with the crew, either a one or a two-engine company crew, is I like to get a baseline and really  see how firefighters are moving before we begin practicing yoga together. 

And so, firefighters go through something called the Functional Movement Screen,  which is really designed to surface movement competencies or deficiencies and pain. We look  for things like low back pain in extension or flexion. We look for shoulder pain, especially  shoulder impingements in internal and external rotation of the shoulders.  

Then, I can take this information. I can really customize classes for that particular crew,  and then we collect data at the end so we can see change that's occurring through the data,  and then also just what I'm observing as a teacher and through the conversations that we're  having, both on and off the mat. 

Having collected a couple hundred screens, maybe even more than that. I've been  doing FireFlex Yoga for about seven years. I'm sure I've screened well over 200, maybe even  more firefighters. There are patterns of injuries that are precipitating out of the data. And  they're the ones I covered: back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain. So, at this point I feel pretty  confident that I could deliver a yoga class really customized for firefighters just having this  background knowledge and going through this process. 

John MacAdams: 

What I'm hearing is that we don't really have quick fixes, that this is a process that you come  in, do your assessment. To work with a back pain or a shoulder issue or knee issue, that you're  working with putting a program together, it's going to be a longer-term process of healing.

Shannon McQuaide: 

I mean, yeah, I think that's accurate. I was a studio teacher for many, many years before I  started working and bringing yoga into the firehouse. When you're a studio teacher and people  come into your class, you really are supposed to be teaching to just anyone who shows up. But  without having any sort of background information on what kind of injuries are they dealing  with, both physical and psychological, even unwittingly, even though best of intentions, I could  potentially do harm to one of my students.  

People often ask me, "Well, Shannon, what's different between FireFlex Yoga and if I  just want to take a class at my local studio?" It's this idea that we really get a sense of where  are your pain points, where are your deficiencies, and how can we bring yoga in to heal and to  increase better quality of movement. 

If I'm a firefighter who's dealing with, let's say, low back pain that really gets  exacerbated when I'm in spinal extension, a typical yoga class, especially one of the more  popular forms of yoga, something called vinyasa, could have anywhere from 25 to maybe 40  spinal extension movements. So, here you are, you go to a class, maybe your physical therapist  or your doctor has said, "Hey, go to yoga for your back pain." So, you go to a yoga class that's  close to you, and at the end of the class you feel a lot worse.  

I think really just having this knowledge and then getting really clear about what yoga  postures are going to benefit a person with a particular, let's say, spinal propensity versus ones  that are going to create more injury, more pain over time. The classes do change from class to  class, but we really start by working on mobility first. 

John MacAdams: 

I think what I'm hearing is a lot of experience. I know that you come from a fire family, and so  you have had familial and lifelong experience understanding some of the issues, physical  issues, the challenges around being a firefighter. When you first brought yoga into the  firehouse, how did you go about designing those initial programs? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

When I started bringing yoga into the firehouse, I really didn't have an intention to start a  whole program. FireFlex Yoga really wasn't on my mind. I was thinking, how can I bring yoga  into the firehouse that would be beneficial for firefighters? I was using my knowledge growing  up in a fire family with my dad, who loved to work out. But his workouts really included a lot of weight lifting and hitting the heavy bag. He had shoulder injuries and neck injuries, but that  really didn't stop him from doing the same type of workout. 

When I entered the firehouse, and coincidentally my initial program started at the exact  same firehouse that my father retired from, I was incredibly nervous. I thought, well, if I can  make yoga feel like a really tough workout, then these firefighters won't laugh me out of the  station, because even just seven years ago, John, yoga for firefighters was not what it is today.  It was still really relatively new. I didn't know anyone, and I had been a longtime yoga teacher  by the time I hit the firehouse, I didn't know anybody who was doing this work. 

I started out by leading really vigorous, strenuous, 60-minute yoga classes that were in  that style that I had alluded to earlier, that vinyasa style, which means that one posture leads  into the next, leads into the next, leads into the next, with very little break. I did that for about  55 minutes, and then I would typically give a five-minute rest period, what we call Shavasana  in a traditional yoga class. Firefighters would hit that mat, just panting and sweating. Their  department-issued T-shirts were sweat-stained, sweat running off of their foreheads and  whatnot. 

I was about just maybe four classes in doing this type of yoga, when the brave captain,  his name was Brett Maas, he knew my dad, he approached me, I think after class. He just kind  of said, "Shannon, what are you doing here?" I looked at him. I had no idea what he was talking  about. He said, "When we heard you wanted to teach yoga class to our crew, we thought that  you were going to bring in a style of yoga that helped us rest and recover and slow down and  focus on mobility and flexibility. What you're bringing to us, it's what we do all day long. We  know how to have a hard workout. We don't know how to relax, rest, and recover." That  conversation, John, just changed everything for me. I'm so glad that happened really early on. 

John MacAdams: 

I've heard you speak in the past, Shannon. I've heard you talk about listening and the power of  listening. That's what you were doing. You're listening to the firefighters, and you're  collaborating with them in developing impactful programs. So, I'm going to ask you to talk  about that process. That process of listening and really co-creating impactful programming. 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Yeah. I love that term, "co-creating," because as I mentioned in the previous story, I thought I  knew what I was doing, but I really had no idea what I was doing. I really wanted to do it. So, one of the decisions I made is to just really step out of being the knower or the expert and  moving into being a learner, right alongside with firefighters.  

Yes, I had this yoga background, but they had the need. They had the background of  what they were looking for. I think what's really important when you want to work with any  new group, is to really understand what are the pain points, what are the issues that they are  hoping to solve. In this case, through yoga. 

I knew about the injuries. I mean, injuries are something that are really prevalent in the  fire service. About close to 50 or 60,000 firefighters report an injury every year, across the  country. The most common injury reported by a firefighter happens to be a strain or a sprain,  which are preventable through programs that focus on developing good quality movement.  

So, I thought, okay, that's something I can do. We'll talk about this in a moment, but  entered the Functional Movement Screen. I can really start looking at yoga postures from a  functional movement perspective, rather than maybe a spiritual perspective. And then the other thing that I learned, not right away, and this was really surprising to  me because even though I grew up in a fire family, my dad never talked about any calls he  went on. Really, what happened in the firehouse stayed in the firehouse.  

My father was part of the generation where you sort of bounced around to different  firehouses until you found a crew and a captain you really loved, and then you stayed. He  really wasn't interested in promoting. My dad worked as a firefighter for 35 years, and he was  always a firefighter. He didn't promote to engineer or captain. He had very, very strong bonds. 

When I started teaching yoga in the firehouse, and this is an important point John, all  firefighters, when they were taking yoga with me, were also available to take calls. I quickly  learned the kind of calls that they saw and experienced. It created a lot of stress in their body  and also were traumatic and reoccurring.  

Then I said, aha. I had two really important objectives that I could now focus on through  yoga, and that was the physical fitness but also the mental fitness. That took time. That took  conversations, developing relationships, trial and error, asking lots of questions.  

Here's kind of a humorous story, but as a studio teacher in the style of yoga that I was  taught, there's a ton of time and energy spent on alignment. This foot goes in 45 degrees. This foot goes out 90 degrees. Knees stacked directly above ankles. Different postures. There's just  a ton of conversation or what we call cueing.  

And so, of course, I brought that right into the firehouse, just giving all these cues. I  once asked a firefighter. I said, "What's the best way to explain how to get into a yoga  posture?" He said, "Shannon, in as few syllables as possible." Got it! 

So it was that. And these only occurred really, for me, by getting in there, having  conversations, developing relationships that are based on trust. And then, things get revealed  to you. Of course, I did a lot of studying about the culture, I read a lot of research papers, I did a  lot of interviews. But John, there's really no substitute for experience. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, I really love this, Shannon. I really love this because in our work with the Center for  Mindfulness in Public Safety, I think our approach is very much the same. We know that the  first responders we're working with are experts in their field. They are the content experts,  right?  

We have the expertise, you have a lot of expertise that you're bringing in there, but we  need to be in dialogue. We need to have a really clear understanding and respect for the fact  that these people have been doing this work for a long time. They have their coping skills.  They're working with what they've already got, and we're here to augment and hopefully bring  something that can be helpful. So, I love that. 

What are you hearing? What are you hearing from the firefighters that really are the  most impactful aspects of FireFlex Yoga? Both during their yoga sessions, like right when  they're there on the mat, but more broadly, when they're out working and in their general life. 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Yeah, so many stories. I think it's the aha moments, the insights, the healing that firefighters  are experiencing through yoga that have really kept me so passionate about this work year  after year, class after class.  

I would say that the benefits go along with self-awareness. For instance, initially,  almost everybody can report on experiencing less pain, right? That's sort of the foundational  level. After a single class, it's like, “Oh God, my hips aren't so tight.” “Oh, thank you. My back is  feeling better.” “Oh, my neck is not so stiff.”

There are those kinds of things that happen right away, which are wonderful because  you want these kinds of experiences to be felt directly. Otherwise, if you can't feel them  directly, what are we doing? So, it's beautiful that yoga and meditation are things that can be  felt directly, and then sometimes in just a couple minutes. 

Sort of the next thing I tend to hear about after feeling better in your body, is how the  breathing is changing the way in which they're experiencing stress, or the fact that they get  their best night's sleep the night after we've had a yoga class.  

I hear a lot of reports of learning how to regulate their breath making their air bottles  last longer. And then, of course, using breathing to go back to sleep if they're woken up in the  middle of the night because they have to take a call, or if they just wake up. Our minds wake us  up in the middle of the night. How do we get back to sleep? Well, through breathing  techniques.  

Then the longer we practice together, I start to hear some even more amazing stories. I  mean, that to me is enough. If people can just feel better in your body, and it's your body that  you need to do your job, that's fantastic. But we know that in yoga the benefits accumulate if  you can stay in the practice over time. And so, getting out of pain in order to practice is like the  number-one priority. 

And then next, I've heard some gorgeous stories. Like, I was teaching a group of  firefighters in the San Jose Fire Department. Their fire station was adjacent to downtown San  Jose, so they get called all day long and all night long to really deal with people who are  homeless or have mental illness issues, or drug issues and things like that, and don't have any  resources. Our firefighters become their first resource.  

I was teaching a class. It was a two-engine station or two-company station, so a truck  and an engine. The engine is much, much busier at this particular station. A call comes in,  everybody on the engine jumps up and leaves. I continue to teach the class for the truck crew. It takes about 20 minutes or so for the engine company to come back, turnouts come off,  they're back in their department-issued T-shirts and shorts.  

One of the paramedics on the call just turned to me and said, "Shannon, your classes  are not only helping me, but they're really helping our community." He went on to tell me how he got the call. It was for one of their frequent fires. It was for a homeless person who was in  front of a hotel. 

He found himself in the call, dealing with a person he's dealt with many times before,  being very patient and compassionate rather than the story inside his head just being like, "I  can't believe you interrupted my yoga class. I can't believe I have to go on this call again," He  found himself being more kind, more compassionate, taking more time for this person. So, that  was a beautiful call. There are things like that. 

And then, I've heard stories where firefighters are telling me they're becoming better  parents. What is that related to? Well, that's related to this whole idea of having that  experience of breathing practice and meditation practices taking us out of our habitual  responses to challenging situations.  

So, you're a firefighter, you just get off a 48-hour shift. You come home, you're walking  in the door, your spouse is walking out the front door because they have to go to work. It's now  time for you to take care of the kids. You haven't slept, you've been running calls for 48 hours,  your kids are fighting.  

Maybe the habitual response would be to just yell. What I heard is rather than yelling,  taking a deep breath and then responding in a way that we, as parents, don't feel guilty about  later. I mean, I can go on and on and on, John, with story after story after story about how yoga  is benefiting firefighters on all these different levels. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, that's great to hear. Great to hear. It must be very rewarding for you.


Shannon McQuaide: 

Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

John MacAdams: 

We alluded to this earlier. I think this is tying in. I'm going to ask you to give us an understanding of interoception and how it applies to functional movement. You're also talking  about self-regulation. When you're talking about these breath practices and skills that people  are developing and are at the ready when they need them, we're talking about self-regulation,  of course, which can regulate the physiology but also our mental state and cognitive state. So, if you could give us an understanding of interoception and how it's working with functional  movement, and really situational awareness, like at a fire. 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Interoception. It's interesting to see that it's becoming more mainstream. Some people call it  your sixth sense, right? We have our taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing, but we also have the  ability, or really the capability to feel and identify sensations in the body. That capability is  called interoception.  

The way that FireFlex Yoga works is we actually measure interoceptive changes over  time. So, in addition to using the Functional Movement Screen before I start working with  firefighters, or people on my team start working with firefighters, we also have them answer a  32-question questionnaire about their interoceptive capability. 

They answer these questions. And then through FireFlex Yoga, we really spend a lot of  time asking firefighters to get out of their heads and into their bodies, pay attention to what's  going on inside their bodies. So then, rather than overriding pain, which as you mentioned  earlier, it can be an effective coping strategy, especially in a crisis situation.  

On the yoga mat, you don't have to override pain. You can really begin to pay attention  to which postures feel good in your body, which postures don't. You can also get a sense of  how well you're doing with stress. You can get a sense of, for instance, being able to feel your  heartbeat. That is an instance of interoception. 


And through yoga practice and breathing practices, you can begin to regulate your  heartbeat and increase something called heart rate variability. Being hungry. Being able to  discern, “Am I really hungry? Is it time to go eat or am I just stressed and I want to grab some  comfort food?” That's an instance of interoception.  

I'm really tired. I better go get some sleep rather than keep pushing myself because I  get really irritable. All of these kinds of self-awareness clues and understanding is instances of  interoception. 

John MacAdams: 

Great. So then, can you apply that to functional movement? It sounds like it's directly related to  functional movement. But then, also, I've heard you talk about how this stimulates greater situational awareness. We're working on internal awareness, but how does that then relate to  the environment, the situational awareness, particularly at a fire? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Yeah. I think one of the things that we really recognize, especially when one of our coping  strategies is to override pain, we tend to live in our head and not in our body. By getting back  into the body and noticing the way in which you move, some of the feedback that I'm getting  from firefighters is that they're paying attention to how they step in and out of the rig, which is  something they could do 18 to 20 times a day.  

You're doing that on autopilot. You can start to develop knee pain, hip pain, something  called a hip hike, especially if you're stepping up with your dominant leg all the time. What's  another aspect of interoceptive awareness? 

I think what would be really helpful, this is kind of top of mind for me, is a couple of  years ago, I went to a talk with the president of Leadership Under Fire. His name is Jason  Brezler. He not only is the president of Leadership Under Fire, but he also is a special  operations firefighter in the FDNY. He also was a veteran in Afghanistan.  

The room was packed with firefighters. Once a year, they spend money on bringing  someone to firefighters, really to just create some more leadership skills to just download  some more information. 

I was in a room with a group of firefighters of all different rank. Jason Brezler was  talking about leadership and asking everybody, if you're rolling up on a two or three-alarm fire,  and you're the first engine company there, who is the person that you want standing right next  to you before more firefighters come to the scene? What are the qualities that you want?  

And so, this group of firefighters in this room was rattling off a bunch of different  qualities, things like experience. But pretty much the number one quality that everybody  wanted was calm under pressure, leadership under grace. And this is directly related to  interoception, because what interoception can teach you is really how your body responds  when you're stressed. Like, what behaviors show up. 

And when you get a sense of that, you can start to use things like breathing practices or  mindfulness practices to regulate your nervous system, because the ability to make critical  decisions when it counts requires that the prefrontal cortex of your brain doesn't go offline. 

For instance, your body's alarm system, the part of your brain, the limbic system, that's  responsible for signaling the alarm. You don't want that to be in charge. By using mindfulness  practices, by seeing yourself starting to get to that place where you're feeling ungrounded or  you no longer have that situational awareness, you can then use practices like breathing and  mindfulness to find that calm under pressure, that leadership under fire.


John MacAdams: 

This is so great. This is so great. It syncs up so well with a lot of the work that we're doing.  Mindfulness, interoception, situational awareness, self-awareness, resilience; how do these  interconnects and strengthen each other? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

That's a great question. I have a master's degree in spiritual psychology. And so, we really talk  about how inner experience is a reflection of outer reality. And what I think of is that these  practices help us respond versus react in life. 


It's not what happens to us that really characterizes our life, but it's how we respond to  it. I feel like all of those practices that you just named, through becoming more self-aware,  through being able to choose our responses to situations, and to have practices that help us  stay self-regulated even under the most difficult circumstances, really engenders or increases  what we call resiliency. 

And the way that this happens on the mat, and I think this is really important, we  haven't touched on this but I really would like to touch on this, is that in yoga practice, we can  simulate stressful experiences on the mat. Most postures, I think, especially if you're new to  yoga, can be challenging, can be difficult, can stimulate a stress response. So, in yoga class,  right on the mat you start to regulate that stress response.  

That is a very empowering experience when you know that when things get  challenging, you know how to regulate, you know how to stay calm, you know how to stay  grounded. You can start to handle and take on more. And so, I think that that's how these  practices are related. They're related to moving us out of a reactive place into a responsive place. 

They also allow us to really know who we are and what we value, and to begin to  organize our lives around what we value. That sets up a much more meaningful, fulfilling life.  they're also very empowering. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, I think that's brilliant. The way you described the ability to create an experience in the  environment, in the moment, where people are starting to get stressed, and you can do this in  a very controlled, very safe environment. Their stress response is activating, so all of that stuff,  the sympathetic branch is starting to upregulate.  

And then, to be able to, by choice, through self-awareness and self-management, to be  able to regulate through breathing and through other techniques to be able to regulate that  response to what is a physical stress. What a beautiful way to teach, and what a powerful and,  as you say, empowering and very direct experience. This goes back to what you said way back, right? 

Shannon McQuaide: 


John MacAdams: 

If we're not having experiences in these trainings, what do you get, right? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Well, and not only that, but if we're not really trained for internal awareness, I mean, it's just  very difficult. When the world is so ambiguous and changing all the time and we need to grow  and adapt and constantly course-correct, you've really got to understand who you are, what  tools you need to develop to be able to do that. Which thoughts are no longer serving you? Which thoughts you want to grow and develop? Which behaviors, which practices, which  workouts? 

Just to go full circle in our conversation, I talked about the fact that my dad, even  though he had surgery on both shoulders and he had bulging disks in his neck, he really didn't  adapt his workout for where his body was at the time. What did that result in? Chronic pain for  him. Just really chronic pain. 

And so, I think the other thing that we want to just touch on really briefly is, what  happens when you think you're going to be good at something. We talked about how tactically ready and how professional firefighters are, and how good at their jobs that they are, and how  they're handled to show up in so many situations and problem-solve and take care of other  people. What happens when you show up on the mat and you think that you're also going to  be really good at yoga, and then it turns out you're not?  

Where in your place do you get to really confront disappointment in your own ego? I  just think there's so much. Maybe we won't get into all this, but the yoga mat really is a living  laboratory to really understand who we are and how we want to show up in the world. And  so, that's why we call it a practice, but it's also a really important training. 

John MacAdams: 

Great. I'm thinking maybe we'll shift gears just a little bit, because your work is data-driven.  Your work is data-driven. I think that you're absolutely accurate that certainly to get in the  door, we need to bring evidence-based datasets. So, tell us a little bit about how you're  collecting data. What's the data telling you? What are you doing with this data that you're  collecting? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Yeah, so thank you for asking that question. The way that we start in most of the agencies that  we work in is we have a program that's really 10 sessions long. I think 10 sessions is enough  time for an agency to really determine, like, are we getting the outcomes that we thought we  were going to get, and is this going to work for our culture.  

When we start, we take all firefighters through something called the Functional  Movement Screen, which is a screen, so it's not an assessment, and it's not diagnostic. But you  do need to be trained in order to administer this particular screen. It's a series of seven  exercises that simulate patterns like squatting, lunging, lifting, pulling, reaching, right? All  kinds of job function that firefighters are doing all the time. They go through these seven  exercises and they're given a score. And then, at the end of the seven exercises, they have a  composite score. 

We also administer something called the MAIA, which stands for the Multidimensional  Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness. This assessment also is in public domain. It was  created by a professor at UC San Francisco whose name is Dr. Wolf Mehling. I use this screen  as well for a couple of reasons. One, we know that when interoception goes up, the impact of  trauma goes down. We also know that interoceptive awareness increases movement quality. So, we do this at the beginning. Then, we deliver these customized classes based on the data  that we saw.  

Some postures may get into certain classes, some postures don't. We always start with  working on shoulder and hip mobility, and then we move into trunk stability, and then things  like balance, and then classes that integrate both mobility and stability. And then, we just  repeat those two screens at the end. 

Right now, I'm in a collaboration with UC San Francisco to publish a paper. We gave  them all of our data. All are de-identified, so no one's name was attached to the data. And so, they ran their statistical analysis on the data, and what they're seeing is that this particular  approach to yoga is increasing functional movement.  

In the functional movement world, there's a threshold number where if you can get  your athletes, which is where the Functional Movement Screen started, to a certain score, then  the likelihood of injury decreases. And so, we're able to do that. In 10 sessions, we're able to  make that difference. We're also seeing interoception awareness going up as well.  

So, this paper will be coming out, which I think is really awesome. I think there isn't a  lot of published research really demonstrating the efficacy of yoga for first responders, both to  support physical fitness, but also mental health, as well. 

John MacAdams: 

Great. You had mentioned a couple times that clearly this work and this chosen field for men  and women who are firefighters, they're choosing to go in, right? They're choosing to go in.  They are going to be exposed to traumatic events. There's going to be primary trauma, and  there's going to be a lot of vicarious and secondary trauma. I just want to acknowledge that. I want to validate that that is real and that there are so  many ways to work with and manage that as best we can. We know that the science is telling  us that this trauma is held in the body. 

I just really want to appreciate your work because clearly, and again, I've heard you  speak about this as well, that this is one of the ways that we can help to release accumulated  trauma, and a way to mitigate the accumulation of trauma as it appears in our lives.

Shannon McQuaide: 

Yeah. I mean, just really simply put, I think one of the things that I learned when I studied  trauma-informed yoga for quite some time under a teacher named Dave Emerson, who I think put trauma-sensitive yoga on the map and was also a contributor to Bessel van der Kolk's  book, Body Keeps the Score, what he talked about and what I learned is that if you can give  people who are experiencing traumatic stress or traumatic stress injury, if you can have them  come present into their bodies and really recognize that in this moment, they're safe, right?  

People who are experiencing trauma, their alarm systems have been dysregulated. It's  almost like the trauma can be occurring or can get triggered at any time. So, when we can have  firefighters come on the mat with their crews in their firehouses so it's comfortable, it's familiar,  if they can lay their armor down, leave their head, because trauma also is this constant  vigilance, relax enough to get down into the body and say, "In this moment, I am safe," it's one  method to begin to heal post-traumatic stress injury. 

John MacAdams: 

Wonderful. Well, so we're coming closer to the end of our time together. I'd like to talk about  the future. I just want to get a few comments from you, particularly for yourself. Where do you  want to go? Where do you want to go in the future as a first responder trainer? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Yeah. That's a beautiful question, and I've given it some more thought because my work was  one way before we hit the pandemic, before COVID occurred, and then now it looks very, very  different.  

And so, I have been thinking there's more freedom now. I was sort of stuck in a  particular model. I was hiring more and more teachers to go into more and more fire  departments, but that really wasn't scalable. So, what I'm thinking a lot more about, and what  I've tried a couple of times with great success, both in CAL FIRE and to a federal law  enforcement agency on the East Coast, is to start a train-the-trainer training. 

Right now, it looks like a three-day training. I'd like to see that. Obviously, to get first  responders feeling really comfortable to lead these classes for their crews, and who knows,  maybe even beyond, outside the firehouse, it's going to require more support. So, I'm thinking  along the lines of just having a launch weekend with some mentoring that goes on maybe for  about a year, and then a completion weekend. I think that would really give first responders  the confident to lead.

Let's not maybe call them yoga. They might be more mind, body, or functional  movement-based classes. You can see I'm really in process around that. I think there's many  things about the yoga world that are quite beautiful, but they don't exactly translate well for  the sort of modern fire service so I'm giving that some thought. 

I'd also love to see retreats. Annual retreats for first responders from around the globe with their spouses, immersing themselves in these practices. This idea came after I led a three day training at the CAL FIRE campus here in Northern California.  

I had one of the battalion chiefs come to me, who's been in CAL FIRE for literally  decades. He just told me after three days of being together and doing train-the-trainer, he just  said, "Shannon, this is the best I've ever felt, ever. How can I get more?" And I thought, well,  we could do retreats. So, those are a couple of things I'm thinking about right now. 

John MacAdams: 

Great. Well, very exciting. Very exciting. Okay, so to close it off, I've got one question for you.  And that is, what is your greatest hope for the future of first responder wellness and  resiliency? 

Shannon McQuaide: 

Wow! That's a beautiful question. I really, really appreciate it. Two passions come forward for  me. A trend I'm seeing in the fire service I don't like is that more is being asked of our first  responders with fewer resources.  

I would like to see communities, cities, counties, stepping up and offering more  resources to people in our community who don't have any. And so, that might be me taking  better care of my neighbor, as well as city managers, city councils doing more to support the  people in our community who don't have resources and are currently falling into the 911  system. 

The other thing I'd like is that when you have this passion to become a police officer or  an EMT or a firefighter, for all of us to consider you as the whole person. Not only your  capabilities, your ability to go out there and do your job, but also you as a mother and a father,  as a son or a daughter, as a person who has a heart. 

We need to tend to this. I think sometimes we think of our first responders as like  robots, but they're really human beings who have a capacity. They can only see and withstand  so much. Maybe you're rethinking careers that span decades without a break, and obviously  rethinking training, which is a lot of what I'm doing. How do we really support first responders  to do the job that we're asking them to do now? 

John MacAdams: 

Great. We want people to thrive in their careers, and thrive with their communities and  families, and thrive in their retirement. 

Shannon McQuaide: 

That, John, and also to just really say we can only ask so much of our first responders, right?  There needs to be more resources allotted, whether it's mental health agencies, addiction  programs, whatever it's going to be. Because I know my brother-in-law, who works in a busy  urban fire department spends a lot of his calls getting people to hospitals. People who need a  ride to the hospital but don't have anyone to call on, because they're elderly and they can't  drive will call the 911 system. So, really changing what we're asking our first responders to do. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, great. These are wonderful ideas, Shannon. Thank you so much for your work. I'm really  just so happy that you're out there, that FireFlex Yoga is out there, and you're doing the work  that you're doing. Just, thank you so much for coming to the Global First Responder Resilience  Summit. It's been great having you. 

Shannon McQuaide: 

It's been a really interesting and engaging conversation. Thank you for all of your thoughtful  questions. I really enjoyed it. 

John MacAdams: 

Take good care. 

Shannon McQuaide: 

You too.


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