What I learned about yoga by fighting wildfires.
But in my defense, carrying a 30-pound pack and a 35-pound chainsaw around the woods all summer cutting fire line, e.g., a dirt path designed to deprive the fire of fuel, in some of the steepest, nastiest parts of the United States from Alaska to Florida while the forest burns all around you can wreak havoc with anyone’s ego. Let alone a silly little man like myself.
As the media alights with the fires currently tearing across the landscape, I am reflecting on what I garnered from my experience on the front lines. I worked for the federal government from 2003 until 2010 as a wildland firefighter. Six out of those seven years, I was part of the “elite” crews known as Hotshots.
Inevitably, the thought now crossing your mind is, “Oh, you jumped out of planes.”
My standard answer is, “No, I worked for a living. You’re thinking of Smokejumpers.”
But, all inside joking aside, Smokejumpers and Hotshots are really two sides of the same coin. Both are classified as National Type 1 resources by the United States Forest Service which means that the individuals who occupy these roles are available to travel anywhere across the country whenever the need may arise to combat any sort of national emergency. More often than not, these emergencies are of the type you see smeared on the front page of every newspaper in the country right now, but there were Hotshots and Smokejumpers who responded to both 9-11 and hurricane Katrina.
The difference between Hotshots and Smokejumpers really boils down to numbers and size. Smokejumpers work in small numbers on small fires during a fire’s initial attack. Hotshots, on the other hand, work as an integrated 20 person crew on what are often referred to as a “project fires,” e.g., everything you see in Colorado right now.
The life and work of a Hotshot is no laughing matter.
Essentially, the work season begins some time in the spring and typically ends with the first flakes of snow. So, a Hotshot works for roughly six to eight months out of the year during which s/he may travel to up to as many as 30 fires across the country, working 16 hour days for 14 to 21 days in row without a day off.
Living, eating, sleeping and working with your closest 20 friends the entire time under some pretty stressful and austere conditions. Needless to say, it is common practice to go two weeks without a shower and only changing your underwear once in the process.
If the conditions don’t get you, the work most likely will.
Hiking with up to 70 pounds of gear, working to dig fire line with picks, shovels and chainsaws in excessive heat, dodging fire and flames, sleeping in the dirt, eating standard army issue rations is a normal day.
And there ain’t no one around to take your glory shot either, no one to marvel at your accomplishment because everyone has their heads down and their butts in the air cussing, working and sweating. Hotshots are sent in to tackle the most difficult and dangerous assignments. They are tasked in many cases with attempting to pull off the impossible, and believe it or not, they have a remarkable success rate.
There are other types of crews besides Hotshots. These resources are designated Type 2 crews. They are composed of lesser trained and experienced firefighters. Sure, there may be some old salty dawgs in their ranks, but as a whole, they lack the leadership, experience and skill of the Hotshots.
Needless to say, in the adrenaline, testosterone, competition filled atmosphere of the fire world there is a well-established hierarchy and the Type 2 crews, somewhat derisively known as “baggers” (derived from the tendency of these crews to be sloppy in their appearance and conduct), are low down in the pecking order. As I mentioned, when you work on an hotshot crew it is easy to become impressed with yourself. I believe there is good reason for this, but the unfortunate thing is that it is often misguided.
Sure, Hotshots are the lean, mean firefighting machine, but they are not the be-all and end-all of what actually stops a fire.
In fact, the job of the Type 2 crews is just as crucial to the endeavor as anything pulled off by a Hotshot crew. Due to their lack of experience and what have you, Type 2 crews are often tasked with the dirty job of mop-up.
Mop-up is what happens after the main fire front has passed and you left with a smoldering landscape. This smoldering landscape has to be secured because if you work around fire long enough you will quickly realize that fire is alive and it will take full advantage of any opportunity you provide it to get up and run and play across the landscape some more.
So, all those smoldering spots and chunks of debris have to be extinguished. This is a thankless, monotonous, meticulous and filthy job, but it has to be done and Type 2 crews (at least the good ones) are great at it.
Different strokes for different folks, or should I say, different strokes for differently focused folks?
Enough about fire. What does any of this have to do with yoga, you ask?
The answer may surprise you.
There is little room to argue that since it arrived on the shores of America that yoga has undergone some serious transformation(s). Good, bad or indifferent, like it or not, it’s happened and it continues to happen.
I am of the opinion that in the end it all makes little difference. Yoga has been around for a really, really long time and I don’t necessarily think that a bunch of silly westerners, no matter how much money and influence they have, are going to come to appreciably bear on this ancient science of self-realization. In the end, yoga will be just fine.
And here’s why. Yoga will survive because in its universality it can handle anything you throw at it simply by giving you what you want. If you come to yoga looking for a great body and tight abs, it will give it to you. If you come to it looking to get flexible to impress your friends with stupid human tricks, no problem. If you want to be a superstar, that’s an option too. Yoga will give you what you want all the way up to and including union with the Divine. The issue comes down to where you set your sights.
Personally, I have my eyes set on the highest prize. I want the big one. I want Yoga, union with a capital “Y.”
Sure, I don’t know if I will get there. Hell, I don’t even know if I will like it once I do, but that’s where I’m headed. This requires a serious focus, a complete orientation of my life to the practice. Yoga is not something I do. It’s how I live. It’s how I make my choices. It’s my compass, my guide, my rock for the ages. This is not an easy thing.
It requires discipline.
In our day and age of fly by night, instant gratification, discipline gets a bad rap. We don’t like to be told what to do. And when we are, we often look for a way out, for a way to make the rule fit us so that in the end we don’t really need to change. We offer up our interpretation to bring the principle closer to where we are instead of striving to reach toward it. It’s a twisted approach and one which ensures our status as the lowest common denominator.
I want more and I don’t mind falling in line. Thankfully, my years fighting fires have shown me another, dare I say the real, side of discipline. Discipline isn’t about limitations.
Discipline offers you an avenue to freedom.
Following the rules, listening to the guidance of those who have achieved more than you, walking in line (literally and metaphorically) opens you up to a realm of possibilities and experiences you can barely imagine.
Through discipline you are free to go where it is too dangerous for others to follow. The real difference between the Hotshots and the “baggers” boils down to this. As a Hotshot, i.e., a highly trained, disciplined “soldier,” I was free to travel in and out of the most dangerous, precarious and deadly situations with little more than a blink of an eye. In return, I was awarded with opportunities, insights and spectacles that my fellow firefighters were left to merely dream about as they rummaged through the ashes.
In my humble opinion, yoga is the rabbit hole. How far you want to go down that hole is limited by only two things; how much you want it and how much you are willing to do to get it. My experience has shown me that the answer to both these lies in your relationship to discipline.
So, my suggestion, stop whining about what yoga says you should and shouldn’t do and either do it, or don’t. In the end, the choice is yours. I’ve made mine and my hope is that you’ll make it out onto the lines with me. Until then, you know where to find me.