Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Allyson E.T. Conroy and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Anderson.
The Coast Guard’s Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team members scale cargo ships, dig through the holds of fishing vessels and board unsteady go-fasts bobbing in the ocean. They seize narcotics being smuggled into the United States – more than two tons of cocaine already this year – and combat piracy near Somalia.
To perform these demanding missions – often conducted near the equator where temperatures soar above 100 degrees – the team must be in top physical condition. For the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team that meant employing the use of a powerful tool – the yoga mat.
The mirror-lined, hardwood-floored yoga studio was dimly lit in the early spring morning; a stark contrast to the team’s deployed working environment. The contagious energy of 25 military men, dressed in Coast Guard workout attire, bounced off the small studio’s walls. As if on cue, their conversations gave way to serenity as soft, faint notes floated into the air. This was their call to attention – the tranquil music emanating from the speakers let them all know class was about to begin.
“Welcome, thank you for coming today. Meet me in the center of your mat and let’s begin,” said L.t. j.g. Shannon Hickey, the team’s assistant operations officer. Her calm voice guided the men to their yoga mats. Hickey, a certified yoga instructor, has been leading yoga classes for the unit since November 2011.
“Our law enforcement detachments operate in demanding environments and must maintain advanced law enforcement, tactical and weapons qualifications,” said Hickey. “A major component of successfully conducting our mission is to endure the physical challenges of boarding vessels at sea. Our unit is always looking for ways to hone our physical fitness program and improve our ability to interdict narcotics and pirates. Yoga offered something different that could compliment our current exercise regime.”
While yoga benefits mission preparedness, it also allows them the team to exceed standards on their physical fitness test. Twice a year they are required to pass one of the toughest physical fitness tests in the Coast Guard. It includes a vertical jump, sit ups, push ups, a mile and a half run, sit and reach and a 300-meter dash.
“We were experiencing a lot of sports injuries as we were getting ready for the test,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Milcetich, a maritime enforcement specialist and one of the team leaders. “I began to think we needed to incorporate some sort of flexibility training.”
Hickey knew of the problem the team was facing and believed proper yoga instruction was the answer.
“Yoga offers a number of different benefits to athletes of all kinds,” Hickey said. “These guys are constantly running and lifting weights, but they rarely stretch or work on core strengthening. Yoga stretches the body and provides an intense full body workout.”
Milcetich was excited about Hickey’s classes and understood the yoga would offer him and his team. However it took a little cajoling to get his team interested. He prevailed, and his team attended the first class.
“I think the first class was more of a side show,” Hickey said. “There was a great turn out, but for the most part they really didn’t know what to expect. There was a lot of laughing and joking for the first couple of minutes but then they all started to take it very seriously. They were sweating and really applying themselves to the postures. By the end of the class, it looked like they were sold!”
Milcetich and his team attend class as often as they can and have already experienced yoga’s benefits. The team “smoked” the biannual fitness test. Some were able to reach three more inches than before on the sit and reach and others shaved two or three seconds off of their time for the 300-meter dash.
Everyone brings a different skill level to the class, and Hickey is able to tailor her instruction to each person. She offers them the ability to try something they may not have otherwise explored on their own. The law enforcement team now incorporates the option of yoga into its physical fitness regime.
“The light in me sees and honors the light in each of you,” Hickey said at the conclusion of the class. “Namaste.”
“Namaste,” the team members responded in unison as they bowed forward, their hands brought together at their third eye center.