Carmen George

Yoga brings flexibility, stress relief to Fresno police

Fresno police turn to yoga to relieve stress, improve health

Yoga instructor Katie Flinn talks about the importance of leading yoga classes for Fresno Police Department employees to help officers relieve stress and improve their health and mobility.
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Yoga instructor Katie Flinn talks about the importance of leading yoga classes for Fresno Police Department employees to help officers relieve stress and improve their health and mobility.

Fresno police detective Lloyd Flores wasn’t too keen on the idea of yoga a year and a half ago.

He envisioned people turning themselves into human pretzels during some kind of religious thing.

But Flores, who also coordinates workers’ compensation for the Fresno Police Department and does patrol and investigative work, was looking to solve a mystery. He noticed many physically fit officers were getting injured on the job, and he wanted to know why.

One answer: Strength without flexibility is a problem.

Searching for a remedy, he started researching yoga, and decided to give it a shot. He reached out to Katie Flinn, owner of COIL Yoga in Fresno, who started leading weekly yoga classes at the police department in January 2015. The classes (funded by the Fresno Police Officers’ Association and reduced fees from participants) also help officers meet physical fitness requirements. Flores says the department doesn’t have mandatory physical training.

The yoga benefits have gone beyond improving flexibility.

They aren’t just machines out there with guns. They are human beings. They are dealing with stress and tension like we are, but to a different scale.

Katie Flinn

Flinn immediately noticed officers’ tension. She said many had their “fight or flight” response switched on all the time. The condition, triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, can wear the body down. She wanted to help them switch on their parasympathetic nervous system – that more relaxed state where resting and digestion can happen.

In ancient teachings, these states are known as “yin and yang.”

“They don’t have any yin going on in that job, it’s all yang,” Flinn says. “I’m trying to find a way to bring a little bit of yin energy to balance that out. I was up for that challenge.”

I want to help the culture to find some balance in the way they deal with this very stressful, intense job.

Katie Flinn

The weekly yoga classes are held in a small basement room in the police gym. It’s a “jail-cellish” space to Flinn, but she’s done her best to spruce up the place.

During a recent class, calming music and aromatherapy fills the air, and a small cup in the center of the room holds bright flowers from Flinn’s 2-year-old daughter, Sienna.

“She said, ‘Mommy, they need flowers,’ ” Flinn told the class. “So she picked these for you.”

Flinn leads a half-dozen people through an hour of stretches and poses with all kinds of exotic names, including sphinx, lotus and cobra. It’s apparent early on that the class is as much about the mental/emotional body as the physical one.

Flinn recognizes that the members of this class have dangerous jobs. After asking the group to take some deep breaths, she says that she understands why they can’t always maintain a relaxed state. “It’s not like you are going to say to the bad guy, ‘Let me take a deep breath before I put this gun in your face.’ 

The techniques can be used later, she says, when the body can’t differentiate between a “bad guy” and a stressful conversation at work.

During one stretch, Flinn tells the class, “You are wringing out that tension.”

To help, she sprinkles in some humor and fun.

“Beam energy through your fingers!” she says, then references a “Star Wars” villain with this talent as an example. During another pose, she says, “Feel the sparkly joy sensation in your groin.” One man confirms the feeling, calling out with a laugh, “Yes, sparkly joy!”

I can tell you, Katie’s made a believer out of the men who have come to the class, from the rank of even non-sworn to officer to deputy chief.

Capt. Lydia Carrasco

Flores says that while the yoga class is not a religious exercise, he can see how people can use it to center themselves. Flinn wrapped up the recent class on a more spiritual note, with a reading of “Now Is the time,” by Hafiz:

“My dear, please tell me, why do you still throw sticks at your own heart? What is in that sweet voice inside that incites you to fear? Now is the time for the world to know that every thought and every action and every deed is sacred. Now is the time for you to deeply compute the impossibility that there is anything but grace.”

Flinn ends the session with this wish: “Namaste, and may the Force be with you!”

“I try to include strengthening poses so that they feel empowered,” Flinn says of the yoga classes, “and I also try to teach them how to soften and notice how much tension they are holding, because that contributes to injuries they have that maybe are pre-existing or related to their jobs. They are not aware of how much (tension) they are holding, and they go to jump over a fence and catch a bad guy, they can strain their back or shoulder because they don’t have that agility and mobility.”

Flores says the yoga has helped him relieve stress, and pain from back issues and a pulled hamstring have been alleviated. Now, he sleeps “really well.”

Flores says the yoga classes are growing, and he plans to start spinning and tai chi martial arts classes later this year. Apart from yoga, Flores says there are also some body sculpting classes being offered.

“Everyone thinks you have to hit the weights and get all big,” Flores says, “but those guys get hurt the most. You can still work on weights, but you need to bring that lubrication (of the joints) in with yoga.”

And yoga is a workout, Flores says. He liked the challenge so much, he’s now also taking another yoga class outside the department.

Sitting on a yoga mat after a recent class, Bruce Mitchell also shared his praise for the newfound exercises.

“I consider myself one of the stiffest, tensest people that I know,” Mitchell says with a smile, “and doing this I see that my body is meant to stretch and move with grace.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge