Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
For the past four weeks, 36 Newark Fire Department trainees have been practicing sun salutations and warrior poses.
It’s all part of a new yoga initiative the department has launched to help keep firefighters calm and centered when they battle blazes.
So far, it’s getting a thumbs up from the recruits, and the department plans to expand the wellness program in the fall. All 600 of the city’s firefighters will have the opportunity to learn how to clear their minds and balance their chakras.
Courtney Benjamin, a member of Newark’s inaugural yoga class, said he was skeptical before he rolled out the mat.
“A lot of us underestimated what yoga could do,” said Benjamin, 35, of Newark. “Once you start taking the class, you realize that you were sweating from just stretching and breathing and you realize that it encompasses using your whole body.
“When you’re doing firefighting, you’re in confined spaces and you have to contort your body and relax your body to go through small spaces, so with this, it teaches you about moving your body.”
The yoga program is the brainchild of Fire Director Fateen Ziyad, who said he has been taking classes on his own for years. Ziyad teamed up with instructor Debby Kaminsky, founder of the community program Newark Yoga Movement.
“I like to try new and innovative things,” Ziyad said. “The reality of what a firefighter does is going from zero to 100 miles per hour. You’re laying in bed at 2 a.m., the alarm rings, you jump up and now you’re in a high-blaze fire saving somebody’s life. Yoga is one of those things that helps the body and mind handle that stress.”
Kaminsky said yoga boosts strength, flexibility and, most importantly, focus.
“Firefighters on the job … need to be completely calm,” Kaminsky said. “But just as important, off the job, when they leave that fire and they’ve just been in this horrific situation, they have to go back to civilian life — whether they’re a parent, whether they are a husband or a wife. Practicing yoga helps to settle yourself. It helps you to become more present so you can just be focusing on the current moment instead of thinking about the past.”
There are other fire departments around the country that are offering yoga classes for first responders but they are in smaller cities like Somerville, Mass., and Alexandria, Va. Ziyad said Newark’s program could start a trend.
“A lot of our men in the fire department tend to be a little bit more traditional in their exercise regimen, so that’s one reason we wanted to introduce it to the fire service,” Ziyad said. “We’ve got a lot of old-school guys who look at yoga as more of a women’s exercise, but they’d be surprised how much exertion it takes stretching and doing slow movement. I think this could be something revolutionary. I think it’s something that other departments may pick up on.”
Kaminsky hopes the firefighters will set an example and dispel the myth yoga is for women.
“Yoga is beneficial for every living human being,” she said. “That’s the bottom line. Years ago, I did a workshop and I said, ‘Real men do yoga.’ I love teaching a group of men because there’s camaraderie, and I think having the fire department will definitely elevate the awareness that men practice yoga.”
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