Ten people in sweat pants, athletic shorts and T-shirts inhaled and exhaled, the blinds drawn, lying supine on yoga mats. The only sounds other than breathing were occasional trucks on the highway or footsteps in the hallway.
“We’re imagining the sky, blue, clear, spacious,” said yoga teacher Jeannie Laslo Douglas. “Any thoughts going through the mind are like little clouds that come and go.”
This peaceful moment came at the conclusion of a 45-minute noontime class taught not to lithe lotus lovers , but to employees of the Bend Police Department.
Douglas and her co-teachers, Amy Weinsheim and Christina Davenport, of Bend’s Yoga Indigo, have been teaching the class four times a week since September, which Douglas said focuses on hatha yoga and “very basic postures.”
“We realized that a majority of the officers had never done yoga before,” said Douglas after class on Tuesday, which led the group to develop a special curriculum for the specific needs of cops, who endure irregular sleep patterns and high stress on the job. During the class, Douglas, Weinsheim and Davenport roamed around the room, correcting and adjusting positions from downward dog to child’s pose.
Participants on Tuesday included Bend Police Sgts. Brian Beekman and Devin Lewis, who have spearheaded a pilot wellness program in an effort to reduce stress endured by the force.
The program aims to develop mental focus, resiliency, physical health and well-being in a variety of ways, Beekman said. He compared police work to working at a nuclear power plant — technical, dangerous and possibly life-threatening.
“This job just fights against you,” said Beekman. In 2004, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the University of Buffalo undertook a comprehensive study of the Buffalo, New York, Police Department and noted the cops they studied demonstrated nearly twice the prevalence of symptoms of depression than the general population.
“It’s kind of a consistent flow of toxicity and suffering and I think it’s problematic,” said Beekman. “The public wants mentally well, physically well, balanced officers.”
Although Bend’s yoga program is in a trial run, Beekman and Lewis hope to make mental wellness a priority with consistent and routine access to resources, such as embedding a mental health professional in the department.
“It’s traditionally been a reactive model … you wait until somebody breaks,” said Lewis. Instead, the department is trying to take a more “proactive” approach, he said, especially in light of traumatic events officers are bound to witness, such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. “We see so much opportunity to get ahead of that.”
Chief Jim Porter and the department’s captains approved the idea, said Lewis. Funding for the class comes out of the police department’s training budget, which for 2013-2015 is just shy of $800,000. The class, slated to run until January, cost the department $6,500, about 0.08 percent of the total training budget.
The program also rests on the notion that investing in employee wellness — regardless of profession — pays off in reduced medical costs later, Beekman said, citing a 2010 study in which researchers at Harvard discovered employers received a return on investment after implementing workplace wellness programs. On average, medical costs fell about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, and absenteeism costs fell about $2.73 per dollar spent.
While researchers have measured the dollars, measurements taken over the past few months of officers’ functional movement — how far the budding yogis are able to stretch, rotate and twist — show a range of 2 to 5 inches in flexibility improvement, said Beekman.
Although only one patrol team participates in the class, which isn’t significant enough for scientific results, officers who have taken part in the midday yoga have reported better sleep, improved mood and less pain, Beekman said. They’ve also said they’re better able to “process stressful incidents.”
There’s potential the exercise could have a positive effect on police interactions by limiting the wear and tear of chronic stress and encouraging self-awareness, according to Hillsboro Police Sgt. Richard Goerling.
Goerling has spearheaded a mindfulness training program for police that in part inspired the pilot program in Bend. His aim is to “build battle-ready, empathic police officers” through mindfulness, which he believes can have a profound effect on police behavior — even on implicit bias.
“We all have biases, and currently the model in America is (to) indict those biases instead of acknowledging them,” Goerling said. “We’re not going to condone them. We’re going to say, ‘You have them, be aware.’”
Bend Police Officer Kevin Uballez, who had never done yoga prior to the program, said doing yoga has been beneficial when he goes on duty. “You’re doing something positive and going to work with a good, clear head.”
Uballez joined the force in January after several years of police work in Kansas City, Missouri, a place where police doing yoga is not exactly routine.
“In the Midwest, yoga and police work do not go in the same sentence,” Uballez said. But he’s pleased with the outcome: “I’m touching the ground (while) standing up? That’s crazy.”
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