Have you ever descended from a transatlantic flight feeling energized, refreshed, ready to jump feet-first into the vacation or business venture that awaits you? Probably not, especially if you fly economy class. More likely, you’ve arrived at your destination feeling groggy, sporting a tense back, tight shoulders, stiff joints, perhaps even a headache or stuffy nose. That’s what usually happens when the body is immobile and confined for an extended period.
It may not resolve all your travel-related problems, but it can make a real difference in the way you feel on your first days abroad.
According to a recent study by the Flight Safety Foundation, blood clotting during long flights is a medical problem that can strike even the relatively young and physically fit, due to cramped conditions in which the densely spaced seating and narrow aisles make it difficult to move around. The circulation tends to slow down when the body is immobile. Yoga in Flight improves circulation and can help prevent this problem. It may not resolve all your travel-related problems, but it can make a real difference in the way you feel on your first days abroad.
Your Yoga in Flight routine begins with a short breathing exercise and ends with a relaxation technique. In between you will stretch and loosen each part of the body from foot to head. You can do it with the seat belt loosely fastened in the confined space of an economy-class seat without infringing on the adjacent passenger’s space. Some of the exercises actually use the seat as a prop. The routine takes about 30 minutes. It is best to begin with your seat in the upright position. Socks or soft slippers are comfortable for your feet, and waiting at least an hour after a meal is comfortable for your stomach. If you have any concerns about standing out from the crowd, just think about how outstanding you’ll feel at the end of the flight!
Many movements in this routine lend themselves to repetition. Where appropriate, repeat them 4 to 6 times. It is best to perform the exercises slowly so that you don’t jolt your muscles. Holding the stretches for at least 20 seconds is also beneficial, since it takes the muscles that long to get the message and really relax. Are you ready? Fasten your bandhas and prepare for takeoff.
Nadi Shodhanam (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Sit with a straight spine and relax. Using the thumb and ring finger of the right hand, close the right nostril with the thumb, exhale, and then inhale through the left nostril. Close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale and inhale through the right nostril. Continue breathing deeply through alternate nostrils for about two minutes. Nadi shodhanam is at once both deeply calming and energizing—ideal for relieving tension or boredom on airplanes.
With the feet flat on the floor, lift and tap the heels on the floor, lift and tap the toes, and then alternately roll the feet from heel to toe.
Lengthen your legs and raise the feet slightly off the floor in front of you. Flex and point the feet, spreading the toes wide apart as you flex. Turn the toes outward, flex and point again.
Lower the heels to the floor about eight inches apart, turn the toes out and in; then lift the feet again and make circular movements around the ankles in each direction.
If you’re concerned about the stares of ogling passengers, you may want to skip this next one, but it really feels great—especially the massage. Bend one knee and place that foot on the seat. Using the opposite hand, rotate each toe, then pull it away from its joints or, to use jargon, give it “a pinch and a pull.” Repeat on the other foot.
Rest one foot on the opposite thigh just above the knee and give yourself a foot massage as follows. Run the thumbs down the length of the foot, applying a slight amount of pressure. Do this starting directly below each toe and also between the toes. Next, press several points along the foot with both thumbs, using a circular motion. Then give the foot a cross-fiber massage by placing the thumbs on the sides of the foot and moving them toward each other across the width of the foot. Finally, pound the foot vigorously with both fists. Do this again with the other foot. Now take a moment to notice how alive and tingly the feet feel before moving on to the legs and knees.
Legs and Knees
Grasp the right knee with both hands and raise it toward the chest. Inhale and squeeze the knee as close as possible to the chest while lifting the sternum; exhale and release. Next, raise the bent right leg a foot or more off the floor. Circle the knee in both directions, rotating the leg from the hip socket. Repeat, using the opposite leg.
Place both heels on the edge of the seat, grasp the knees and pull them toward the armpits. Hold while breathing deeply, then release.
Raise the right leg a comfortable distance from the floor. Using the fists, pound the sides of the lower leg and thigh, the front of the thigh, and the front and back of the lower leg. Repeat with the left leg.
Pounding is energizing. It also increases circulation. You be the judge as to how hard to pound, based on what feels good to you. If you prefer, use the technique of slapping these areas with open hands to achieve the same benefits in a gentler way.
Hips and Upper Body
Bracing your hands or forearms on the arm rests, raise and lower the buttocks. This relieves pressure on the spinal disks. Then, with the buttocks raised off the seat, circle the hips in both directions. Lower the buttocks onto the seat and move the rib cage from side to side. (This may feel awkward if you’re not accustomed to doing it.) If space allows, placing the hands on the hips will make it easier to isolate the rib cage.
Bracing your hands or forearms on the arm rests, raise and lower the buttocks. This relieves pressure on the spinal disks.
Place the right hand on the seat behind the buttocks, with fingers pointing back. If space is insufficient, make a fist instead. Grasp the right corner of the seat cushion with the left hand, straighten the spine, and twist to the right, looking over the right shoulder. Do this on the opposite side. Next, with the right hand, reach across the lap diagonally and grasp the corner of the seat cushion. Place the left arm on the left armrest. Elongate the spine by lifting it and pressing the crown of the head against an imaginary ceiling, then turn the torso toward the left and pull from the shoulder. Hold as you continue to pull, and breathe deeply. Then repeat this on the other side.
Raise the arms overhead, clasp the hands together, and turn the palms up in what is known as the outward finger lock, letting both thumbs and little fingers touch. Drop the head backward and arch the back. Holding the outward finger lock, press the palms forward as far as space allows and then down toward the floor. Raising the arms overhead again, stretch the arms and torso from side to side, bending from the waist and keeping the torso in a straight plane, as if you were being squeezed between panes of glass in front of you and behind. Twist to each side, looking up as you twist. Return the head to a neutral position as the torso turns back to center.
Drop the hands to grasp the knees and pull the head and torso forward, lifting and opening the chest while squeezing the shoulder blades together. This movement flexes the muscles in the back. Release, dropping the chin to the chest, and spread the shoulder blades apart, extending the back muscles. Repeat this forward/backward alternation several times. Then bend forward, if possible, lowering the chest toward the lap, and grasp both ankles with the thumbs in front and the fingers in back of the legs. If it’s difficult to reach the ankles, grasp the legs higher up on the calves. As you inhale, lift the head and chest, pressing the middle back and chest forward; as you exhale, release and lower the head and chest toward the lap.
Place the hands behind the back with the palms together and the fingers pointing upward in what is known as reverse prayer position. If this is difficult, simply grasp both elbows behind the back. With the arms and hands in position, bend backwards, then twist to each side.
Hands and Arms
Lean back and extend the arms in front of you at shoulder level with palms down. Perform the following moves 4 to 6 times: clench the fingers into a fist and release, spreading the fingers wide as you release; rotate the wrists in both directions. Then bring the arms back and, using the opposite hand, rotate each finger and thumb and give each one “a pinch and a pull,” as described in the feet exercises.
Now extend the arms in front of you again, this time with palms up. Bend and straighten the elbows several times, touching the hands to the shoulders. Then, with the hands on the shoulders, bring the elbows together until they touch, then spread them apart as wide as space allows. Now stretch the arms overhead and spread the fingers wide apart. Lower the arms and relax briefly.
Shoulders and Chest
With your hands in your lap, squeeze the shoulder blades together and open the chest. As you do this, focus on lifting the sternum. For the next exercise, known as the elbow press, reach over the shoulder and place the palm against the back. Place the opposite hand on top of the raised elbow and slowly press the elbow straight back, then toward the head. You can hold these positions for a few moments. Then repeat on the other side.
If you keep on flying and keep on trying, you will soon be able to discard the prop.
The next stretch is an effective way to remove muscular pains in the back and shoulders; it is said even to improve digestion, especially if you hold it as long as 20 or 30 seconds. It will also make the shoulder blades limber and encourage the chest to open. Raise the right arm overhead and bend the elbow so that the hand hangs down the back. Lower the left arm and bend that elbow, reaching up the back to grasp the fingers of the right hand, as if to shake hands with yourself behind the back. If it is difficult to join the hands at first, you can gain the same benefits by holding a sock or a scarf in the right hand and grasping it with the left hand, tightening up on the prop as much as possible. If you keep on flying and keep on trying, you will soon be able to discard the prop. Release, roll the shoulders forward and backward as a counter stretch, and repeat the stretch on the opposite side.
Head and Neck
Massage the jaw by placing the thumbs at the sideburn area and pressing them slowly toward the chin as you drop the jaw and open the mouth slightly.
Turn the head slowly as far as you can, first to one side and then the other, keeping the gaze level and the cervical spine elongated. Roll the head forward, chin to chest, and then backward. (Full-circle neck rotations are generally not advised.) Drop the ear to one shoulder, then the other, without raising the shoulders. Reach the right hand over the head so that it rests on the left ear, and pull the head toward the right shoulder. Use the left hand to massage the neck, lingering over any parts that are tight or sensitive. Repeat this on the opposite side. Pound the head and neck with the fists, then slap them vigorously with open hands, as described in the Legs and Knees section.
Now put your seat in the reclining position and place pillows behind the back and neck. The inflatable neck pillows, sold duty-free aboard some airlines, are excellent for this purpose. Extend the legs and let the feet fall comfortably apart, toes pointing outward. Place the hands on the lap or on the armrests. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and smile ever so slightly as you let go of any remaining tension. (Smiling relaxes the facial muscles and encourages the energy to move upward through the body.) Allow your thoughts to drift out of the nearest window and float away on a nearby cloud. After 10 or 15 minutes of relaxation, deepen the breath, wiggle the fingers and toes, and reflect on how refreshed you feel.
For long-distance travel, Yoga in Flight is just the ticket! You will have the last laugh as you disembark feeling relaxed, invigorated, and ready to greet your destination with a smile.
is principal of Yoga for Mainstream People, a Cambridge firm offering class instruction in Cambridge and corporate yoga programs throughout eastern Massachusetts.