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Yoga for long haul travel

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 by Marianne Elliott

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On my flight from Honolulu to San Francisco last night I got talking to Joey, the Purser on our flight. He’s been flying for more than 40 years and he looks fantastic. His secrets, he told me, are the gallons of water he drinks every day and his yoga practice.

He asked me to suggest a few yoga poses he could do in his seat, or in the tiny galley on the plane, while he is flying. A few years ago he broke his back, which is what got him started on yoga in the first place and now, if he doesn’t keep up the yoga regularly, his back is quick to complain.

I gave him a few ideas, and it inspired me to write about this here again. I have written about long haul travel before (see here and here), but just as my body keeps changing, so does my yoga practice. These days I need a lot more stretching if I’m going to recover from a long haul flight quickly. On the other hand, travel makes me less anxious than it used to in my Afghanistan days, so I need less in the way of practices to calm my nervous system and help me feel safe.

Here are some of my favorite ways to use yoga practices to help me get through long haul travel healthy, calm and with enough reserves in my tank to be kind (and helpful) to the woman who is traveling alone with a small child.

1. Do what you need to feel safe. 

These days, travel doesn’t feel especially dangerous to me. But I know what it’s like to feel uncertain and insecure when you are traveling and it undermines our ability take care of ourselves in any other way. So start with what it takes for you to feel safe. 

When I was experiencing travel anxiety, I used breathing practices (like alternate nostril breathing), meditations (especially guided meditations like this yoga nidra practice) and visualisations (I would imagine myself inside a protective bubble before I went through security checks) to help me find a sense of calm and safety.

2. Water yourself regularly and well

I know, it’s the most obvious thing I could possibly say, but that’s because it’s almost as essential as feeling safe. Drink lots of water! I’m not going to tell you to avoid all coffee, tea, soft drinks and alcohol because – unless it’s already the norm for you – that’s probably just going to feel like a rule you’ll break and then feel bad about. Instead, take a leaf from Purser Joey’s book: go easy on the diuretics and double your water intake.

3. Move regularly

Again, this is obvious and it might seem to you barely even yoga. But in many ways, this is what my yoga practice comes down to: do what I need to feel safe and grounded, and then move (while breathing).

What this means for me is that when I’m in transit, wherever possible, I choose to climb up and down stairs, and to walk rather than ride on those moving pavements. If I have a layover between long flights, I’ll treat myself to a massage if there is one available. This is fantastic for circulation, massages with oil in particular are also very good for balancing the ‘airiness’ of travel and it just feels good to treat my body to some TLC. I also make good use of yoga rooms wherever I find them. So far my favorite is in Terminal 2 at San Francisco airport – it even has mats, blocks and straps!

If I can’t find a private spot to practice yoga in, I do a series of poses that won’t freak out my fellow travelers too much (or expose them to more of me than they want to see). My favorites are:

  • Standing forward bend (If the cabin crew will let me stand in the bulkhead for a few minutes I like to rest my butt against the wall of the plane and and fold forward into a simple forward bend)
  • A mini-salute (from standing up to forward bend, come up half-way, fold over and then come all the way up – repeat 6-12 times)
  • Standing side bends (Inhaling, extend your right arm up towards the ceiling. As you exhale stretch your right arm over to the left, bending sideways and opening up through the right side of your body. Keep your right foot firmly grounded. Inhale and exhale fully for four to six breaths and then repeat on the other side.)
  • If you are not too self-conscious, try Breath of Joy (maybe without the loud ‘ha’ if you are worried about drawing attention to yourself) to blow the jetlag cobwebs from your body and reconnect to the joy of travel.

4. Stretch in your seat

This one feels more and more important with each year that goes by. My body just doesn’t bounce back from extended periods of stillness with the same vigour it did twenty years ago. So I stretch in my seat. Some of the adapted yoga poses I do while I’m in my seat include:

  • variations on legs up the wall (If I can pull it off without banging the seat against the head of the person in front of me, I like to extend my legs up to rest against the back of their headrest so my feet are elevated – for most people this will be a pretty intense stretch for the entire back body as well)
  • seated forward bend (Simply folding forward over your knees, letting your chest rest on your thighs and your head hang between your knees)
  • seated pigeon (While seated, cross your right ankle above your left knee, opening your right knee away from you towards the floor. If you are flexible through the hips you may also be able to fold forward in this position. Switch to the other side)
  • seated twist (place your left hand on your right knee, inhale to extend through your spint and then on an exhale gently twist around to the right. Inhale and exhale fully for four to six breaths and then repeat on the other side.)
  • seated side bends (Inhaling, extend your right arm up towards the ceiling, as you exhale extend your right arm over your head to the left, bending sideways to the left and opening up through the right side of your body – keep your right buttock firmly grounded. Inhale and exhale fully for four to six breaths and then repeat on the other side.)

5. Be kind

Anyone who’s done one of my 30 Days of Yoga courses will know that I call the style of yoga I practice and teach ‘kind yoga’ and so this last suggestion won’t be any surprise to you.

Here’s the way it works: if you take good care of yourself as you travel, there is a much better chance that you’ll be in good enough shape to take good care of the the other people whose paths you cross as you move around the planet.

So be kind to yourself, and the more compassion you can bring to yourself as you travel, the more you’ll have to share.

Travel safe. Travel easy. Travel kind.



PS: Yesterday I opened registration for the Spring/Autumn round of my 30 Days of Yoga courses (Standard, Beginners and Busy people editions, Curvy Yoga and 90 Days of Yoga for graduates are coming soon) – featuring a new look and new platform.



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