A masked assailant points a gun towards a group of journalists who are blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs, as part of a Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT) administered by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). The training is designed prepare participants for situations that they could potentially deal with on the job.
“It was just terrifying,” said reporter Amaris Castillo, one of the IWMF fellows at the time, in a video about the training.To relieve participants from the physically taxing and stressful HEFAT experience, Claudia Gonzalez, senior program coordinator at IWMF and a yoga instructor trained to teach trauma survivors, led a yoga class the morning after the kidnapping scenario.
“It grounds them,” she said.
According to statistics compiled by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, between 80 and 100% of journalists have been exposed to traumatic incidents during the course of their work, such as car crashes, homicides and natural disasters. Journalists may experience trauma being present at the scene, or from secondhand exposure from viewing disturbing images or interviewing subjects.
Recent events such as COVID-19 and the widespread protests against police brutality and racism exacerbate challenges for journalists, especially as there have been increasing attacks on the press.
These experiences are not without consequence. A 2019 examination of journalists who covered Hurricane Harvey in the southern U.S. revealed that 90% of them dealt with a degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to their work.
Other journalists may experience anxiety, depression and burnout as a result of exposure to traumatic events and stress from the job. It’s important for journalists to create mechanisms and seek care to deal with these challenges, and yoga is one tool that can help.
Assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, who directs research at major yoga centers like Yoga Alliance and Kundalini Research Institute, mentions many different types of pranayama — or breathwork — that can help journalists relieve stress. These include belly breathing, alternate nostril breathing or Ujjayi breathing (during which the throat is partially constricted).
“There are many variations on the theme,” he said, “The predominant practice, in general, is slow breathing.”
Research shows that some areas in the brain are directly synchronized with breathing, said Khalsa, and slow breathing leads to a calmer mental state and reduces emotions like anxiety, anger and fear. Over time, it can improve one’s capacity to cope with stress.
“Why restrict yourself to using slow breathing alone,” he said. “Why not use all of the yoga practices?”
Many journalists might be deterred by the time commitment to slow down and practice yoga, especially when working on a tight deadline. But Khalsa suggests that the benefit outweighs the time commitment.
“Although you’re taking an hour of time away from work, over the long term you’re increasing your efficiency and productivity such that there’s likely to be a return on investment that leaves you further ahead,” he said. The alternative — plowing through work to meet a deadline while stressed — impedes cognitive performance and creativity, he added, both of which are essential to producing good journalism.
Even if you don’t have an hour, you shouldn’t discount the practice. Start with one minute, said Maya Breuer, vice president of cross-cultural advancement at Yoga Alliance. She advises her students to begin by sitting in stillness for one minute with a timer. When you’re ready, advance to two minutes. During that time, breathe with intention by repeating “I am breathing in,” and “I am breathing out.”
For journalists who are confronting challenging circumstances like the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and covering anti-police violence protests, Breuer suggests implementing these practices. “It doesn’t change the situation, but there’s always that pause,” she said. “If one can breathe — if one can pause — that changes your reaction to what is happening.”
Taking a moment to be still and breathe might enable journalists to separate themselves from what they are reporting on, Breuer noted.
Free or low-cost digital classes like those offered by Yoga Alliance and the IWMF make it possible for many people all over the world to explore the different facets of yoga, such as pranayama (breathwork), meditation, asanas (poses) and yoga philosophy.
Gonzalez points out that online yoga courses might have the added benefit of creating meaningful connections. “I think another strategy for managing stress is building community,” she said.
Dr. Elizabeth Welty of Flow Studios Belfast designed a morning and evening yoga practice specifically for conflict journalists participating in a Surviving in Body and Mind retreat, which was developed by IWMF grantee Angelina Fusco.
Challenging yourself through yoga sequences like these can help increase your “dynamic range,” said Khalsa. “That means improving your functionality and your ability to tolerate adversity.”
It’s unlikely that the challenges journalists face will disappear anytime soon. One difficult area of coverage will give way to the next, and journalists need to develop meaningful ways to cope.
“Journalists are still essential workers, and they continue to be on the frontlines,” said Gonzalez.
There is no easy solution to withstand the challenges, but yoga is one tool to get through it.
Main image courtesy of the International Women's Media Foundation.