Backseat Guru: Five Ways to Stay Mindful on the Open Road

September 19, 2014    BY Glenn Scherer

My fiancée and I recently had the honor of chauffeuring an Indian swami around the mean streets of Boston. Our task had an unexpected perk: each time we got tangled in rush hour traffic, our backseat sadhu eased into a blissful state and radiated peace up to the driver’s seat. Of course, traveling with an enlightened copilot isn’t always doable, so I came up with a few tips to move the serenity found on the mat out onto the open road.

1. Dirgha in the Driveway

Don’t wait until you’re seized by road rage to start practicing yoga.

Don’t wait until you’re seized by road rage to start practicing yoga. Begin as soon as you slide behind the wheel. Before you goose it and go, center with a few dirgha (three-part) yogic breaths. Inhale, expanding from belly to chest to collarbone; then exhale from collarbone to chest to belly. Three to five deep breaths like these and you’ll likely experience a gentle calming effect. Next bring your yogic awareness to the business at hand: deepen your breath further as you consciously adjust seat and mirrors, fasten your belt, and check fuel levels. Now set your intention: visualize your destination and the best route for the time of day. Breathe into your intention; then smile with gratitude. You’re very fortunate! It was obviously an oversight that Patanjali didn’t include zipping along the expressway at 60 mph in chapter three of the Yoga Sutra on extraordinary powers.

2. Shoulder Rolls on the Road

Though trikonasana in the driver’s seat is never an option, small body movements, such as shoulder rolls, can help keep you flexible when driving. At a stoplight, inhale both shoulders up, exhale them back and down, and inhale them forward and up. Reverse after a few reps. Keep those breath-coordinated circles going ’til you get the green. Also, try synchronizing the breath with other small movements, exhaling, for example, when looking left and right to enter traffic, then inhaling to center. Or perform seated cat and cow on a straightaway, arching the back away from the car seat as you inhale in cow, and hinging slightly forward and pressing the mid-back into the car seat on the exhale in cat. Mini-asanas help to enhance driving flexibility. Options include flexing your fingers, rotating your wrists, elevating and lowering your elbows and stretching out each leg while subtly rotating your ankle.

3. Relax in the Fast Lane

The next time you’re in high-speed, bumper-to-bumper traffic, let the tension building in your gut cue you to consciously and naturally double the length of your exhale. This nasal breathing technique, combined with the dirgha breath, engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate, calms your mind, relaxes your body, and tempers your emotions. All of this helps you make better driving decisions. To further enhance this calming effect, layer on some ujjayi (victorious) pranayama—the nasal, ocean-sounding breath proven to reduce anxiety.

During extended bad weather, these same pranayama techniques can keep you stay focused yet relaxed, preventing white-knuckled driving fatigue. Yogic breathing got me safely through the worst New England blizzard I’ve ever experienced—three hours of crawling along at 25 mph inside the hellish equivalent of a milk bottle.

Stressful driving can also offer an opportunity to practice compassion.

Stressful driving can also offer an opportunity to practice compassion. When that monster SUV cuts you off, imagine what may be going on in the other driver’s head; they may be racing to see a sick spouse in the hospital, about to lose a job if late for work, or maybe they just didn’t see you. Blessing the offender by offering this little metta (loving-kindness) meditation is the first step toward world peace!

4. Rest Stop Asana

Try this mini-vinyasa the next time you pop off the interstate to gas up or catch a snack on a long road trip. Get out of the car and stand in tadasana (mountain pose), hands at your side. Inhale your arms overhead, then exhale and swan dive into uttanasana (standing forward fold). Rise up with a flat back and repeat. Uttanasana elongates the spine, opening space between the vertebrae, which become highly compressed while driving. Next, step the feet wide apart for empty coat sleeves pose. Begin twisting side to side from the sacrum up to the cervical spine. Quicken the twist until the arms swing too. Give a big open-mouthed “ha” exhale as the fingertips tap opposite shoulders. Kripalu yoga instructor Devarshi Steven Hartman told us yogi-wannabes that if we didn’t have time to do any other daily asana, we should always do these three: tadasana, uttanasana, and empty coat sleeves to extend and limber up the spine, oxygenate the cells, get lymph moving to cleanse toxins, and clear the mind. This sequence is the perfect way to recharge on long-distance drives.

5. Kapalabhati Coffee Break

But please don’t do kapalabhati for the first time on the highway.

I discovered this driving strategy late one night on a dark Vermont Interstate. I was exhausted and there wasn’t a cup of joe for miles. Instead, I substituted kapalabhati (skull-shining)—a forceful nasal exhale with a passive nasal inhale. This energizing breath invigorated me as much as a double mocha latte, but without the heartburn. I got home awake and safe. But please don’t do kapalabhati for the first time on the highway. Practice on the mat before engaging in a couple rounds of 20 reps when drowsy behind the wheel. If you start to feel at all lightheaded, go back to normal breathing. Also, remember, skull-shining breath can look pretty darn silly and suspicious, so immediately discontinue kapalabhati if a state trooper pulls up alongside!

Driving, like washing the dishes or peeling an orange, has the potential to be a powerful mindfulness practice if we bring yogic attention and intention to it. While yoga on the road may not be the best route to samadhi, it could prevent a traffic ticket, a fender bender, or even save your life.

Glenn Scherer
Glenn Scherer is a Kripalu yoga instructor, with a certification in Trauma Sensitive Yoga. He lives and teaches in Vermont, where he has taught yoga to National Guard troops returning home from Afghanistan.

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