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LR grad student offers free yoga classes for first responders
LR grad student offers free yoga classes for first responders

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person yoga classes were canceled mid-March through the end of May. They have been offered online through video presentation beginning in June and for the duration of summer and fall terms.

Sharon Johnson knows first responders will do everything in their power to help her should the need ever arise, so she's trying to return the favor.

An MBA student at Lenoir-Rhyne University School of Business in Columbia, South Carolina, Johnson developed an idea to help firefighters and other first responders destress from their job by participating in her yoga program on campus —Yogi Bears.

"Since we're working with the community in so many aspects, why don't we think about doing something to help our community that helps our campus?" she said. "What about people who help others, who may not have time to help their own needs? First responders are individuals who, at the drop of a dime, will come help me. I wanted to see how I could help them."

Johnson had originally started the yoga program on the Columbia campus as a support system for students, faculty and staff.

"Our campus has four disciplines focused on being a health professional or in a service profession," she added. "If we're not hands on with someone in occupational therapy, then we're helping with mental health spiritually (at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary)."

The program began with Johnson becoming certified to teach yoga classes for faculty and students. As campus interest and support grew, so did the program.

Good turnouts

Johnson held class in Alumni Hall and Reinartz Hall, sometimes spilling over into the occupational therapy pediatric room. Additional yoga instructors came to campus for sessions held three times a week, and that led Johnson to contact first responders in the Columbia area.

"I connected with the firefighters in our area, and it was well received," she said. "They were overjoyed at the prospect of having 30 minutes to spend on themselves."

Johnson said the first time members of the Columbia Fire Department arrived, the level of their excitement was a pleasant surprise.

"Three fire trucks showed up, parked in front of the school, and guys piled out of the trucks with yoga mats," she said. "By the enthusiasm on their faces, they understood that we realize they do a lot for us and wanted to show our appreciation."

As many as fifteen firefighters have participated in the weekly sessions with members of the Richland County Sheriff's Department joining in for an eight-week program, too.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the classes have been opened up to include paramedics, emergency medical technicians and military personnel starting this fall.

"Our department appreciates Lenoir-Rhyne University for offering this wonderful program," said Columbia-Richland Fire Chief Aubrey D. Jenkins. "Each day our firefighters handle a lot of stressful situations helping the public, which can wear on their bodies and minds. Any opportunity they have to rejuvenate not only can help them but also the many people we serve."

Johnson said the benefits of yoga provide emergency responders with ways to handle the demands of their hazardous jobs.

"I see how yoga heals," Johnson added. "When you're dealing with a high-stress job and it's a life-or-death situation, and you're facing that day-in and day-out, there's a level of conditioning in the brain that you have to react so quickly. I've seen many times that an instructor will come in, play music to set the mood, and the responders can just pause."

Made to Last

Developed 18 months ago, the popularity of Yogi Bears has ensured that it's not going anywhere soon. LR faculty have worked with Johnson to support program growth.

"This is a very valuable opportunity for veterans and other first responders," said Ralph Griffith, Ph.D., LR associate professor. "Creative alternatives to relieve the stress associated with repeated trauma makes a huge difference in the lives of Sharon's clients."

Griffith started the Center for Commercial and Social Entrepreneurship and Innov828 Business Incubator programs at the Hickory campus. Both programs help students develop their ideas into viable ventures, and he's helping Johnson work toward developing Yogi Bears into a nonprofit organization.

"Her project overlaps both areas and is a great example of how innovation and hard work can make the world a better place," he said.