illustration by @katyauspenskaya

Lost in Transitions: Airplane Yoga

Being a yoga practitioner and a traveler doesn’t seem like an original pairing; often I’ve realized that fellow yogis enjoy regular backpacking trips, and when I’m on the road, it’s not uncommon to meet meditation and asana aficionados.

When you’re used to having a meditation and mat practice at home, it seems obvious to keep up your practice wherever you go. Carrying your mat around becomes as second-nature as packing your toothbrush and shoes, and you fully expect you’ll make the extra effort to unroll your mat in the new spaces you’re exploring and living in.

But in all honesty, it can be hard, if not impossible, to keep the routine in place, depending on how, where, and when you travel. Sleeping in shared dorms at hostels, for example, forces you to think outside the box – or the room, quite literally, as you need to look for a mat-sized floor surface to get to your practice.

Self-consciousness might make you go beyond the common living area, too. And your meditation practice will probably be altered by the noises, voices, and movements around (unless you choose the restrooms to get your daily dose of silence…).

The first challenge, though, starts long before you get there – it’s getting to your destination. The trip might be long, and you might have to take a couple of flights, wait for several hours in one or two different airports. Add to this the stress of making sure you have everything, because no matter how accustomed you are to traveling, you can never completely rely on robot-frequent-flyer mode, and of course, you’re sure to feel that familiar eagerness, excitement, and anxiety through it all.

Quickly, then, mind and body will feel out of place, out of space, decentered and disconnected. After all, you’re about to fly into the sky, not the place where you’d naturally feel your most grounded and peaceful.

So I thought I’d share my flying routine. I make an effort to stick to this when flying so I don’t get to my destination cranky and in desperate need for a break before any proper exploring has even started.

Ground through the feet (ideally before boarding)

This will help you focus on where you are and allow you to connect with your body (and prepare you for the seated meditation that’s coming up). You might want to do this sitting or standing in line at your gate. Place your feet where they feel comfortable – aligned with the hips or wider – torso upright, shoulders and jaw relaxed, and focus on the ground beneath you, your feet resting and anchored down. How does it feel to be wearing shoes? Or maybe you’re barefoot? How does the ground feel? Try lifting your heels up, or your toes – what happens when you do? Just being aware of the ground beneath you will shift your attention and give you extra Earth support before flying. Make sure you also pay attention to your breath and heartbeat in your chest when you do this.

Treat yourself to an extra long meditation once seated

This one didn’t come to me early on but has now become the most important yogic activity I’ll do when I get on a plane. I use Insight Timer to meditate, and I have a special ‘airplane meditation’ timer saved, so I can just press play, and the timer starts for 20 minutes, with soft music in the background (to block other sounds out) and a bell to indicate the end and beginning of my meditation. During the meditation, I often focus on my body and my surroundings, like the quality of the air and the temperature on my skin.

I also take some time to remember where I came from, and the place I am going to, getting ready for the transition from one space to another. This feels very important for long-haul flights; one of the recent trips I took was from the US to Argentina, where seasons are different – I went from Spring to Fall in a short 12-hour trip, and I wanted to pay attention to this, too. I also sometimes visualize a peaceful trip and imagine myself getting to my destination smoothly, which helps in case of delays and long custom queues. I choose to focus on curiosity rather than judgment for my destination, making a promise to myself that I’ll stay open to what I’m about to discover.

This meditation is also a great opportunity to remind yourself that you are right where you’re supposed to be, and that there is nothing else you need to be focusing on other than your breath, your body, and noticing every thought and sensation that comes in. Remember this particularly if you’re traveling far away from your loved ones and your heart feels a bit tight. 

I have a special ‘airplane meditation’ timer saved, so I can just press play, and the timer starts for 20 minutes, with soft music in the background

Practice honest journaling

When you’re done with your meditation, grab your journal, play some nice mantra music and get to writing. What did you notice during your meditation? What thoughts came up? Do you notice patterns? Is this how you usually feel when traveling, or are these thoughts and emotions new? What about your body, how does it feel? Is there something you crave?  Take this time in the air to make space for whatever needs to come up, as always, without judging, appreciating your state of mind and body for what they are in that very moment. Again, no matter how many times you’ve done it, traveling remains a very stimulating experience that can shake your inner world in a way no other activity does! So, stay open to turn it into a learning opportunity.

Indulge in a movement sequence

Figure 4

This is the most accessible of hip openers when your space is reduced. Sitting down, take your right ankle just above your left knee, flexing your toes back. Stay here if that’s enough, or slowly fold forward, following your inhales and exhales. Inhale to lengthen your spine and exhale to fold deeper, without forcing. You should feel a stretch in the outer right hip and the lower and upper buttocks. Stay as long as needed and slowly come out, still paying attention to your breath. Repeat on the other side. And don’t forget to relax your hands and jaw, and everything else you don’t need in this pose!

Forward fold with spinal waves

This one might make your neighbor(s) question your sanity… but it’s definitely worth it. Fold over your bent legs in your seat and slowly unroll, the same way you would if you were standing up. Fold back down, this time focusing on rolling your shoulders down and back, heart/collar bones open, neck in line with the spine until your belly touches your thighs; release your head, your neck, even twist your head from side to side. If you’re brave enough and not bothered by the curious looks, you can do this standing up while waiting in line for the bathroom.

Eagle arms

Your shoulders will thank you! Cross your right arm under the left and cross again at the wrists, or keep the backs of your hands touching. Take your elbows up so they’re aligned with your shoulders; from here, you can move your elbows up and down, and keep them where it feels good. If you want more sensations in the back body, lower everything towards your legs – lengthen your spine on the inhale, make yourself heavier on the exhale. Repeat on the other side… and as often as needed throughout the flight.

Bonus (if you’re short enough): Hamstring stretch

Us short people don’t have it easy most of the time, but on airplanes, we’re definitely the ones sleeping more comfortably and able to enjoy more space for our tiny limbs. If your flexibility (and size, yes) allow for it, straighten your right leg in front of you, and up toward the ceiling, and you can have it resting on the seat in front of you. Since mine doesn’t (flexibility, that is), I also bend the other leg and place my foot on the seat to help. Grab your ankle, foot, calf, anything you can, and make sure your back is straight – better have your hands lower on your leg if it means you won’t be slouching over your leg. You can flex or point your toes and feel what difference that makes. And again, don’t mind your neighbor’s looks, and repeat on the other side.

Don’t forget to hydrate a lot – the humidity in the air on planes is much lower than usual, so you need to drink up! This will also have you taking bathroom trips regularly, an opportunity to take a walk and wake up your legs.

Although traveling is exciting, it also comes with its own set of challenges, and it’s okay if you don’t feel as excited or uplifted as you think you should – there’s your opportunity to make space for all these conflicting feelings. Rather than focusing solely on the tightness you feel in your body, or all the things you have to do when you get to where you need to be – your new destination or back home – take this transitional time, high up in space in that weird metal bubble, to process everything that’s happening.

And remember, this routine took me many years and flights to get down. Start with my suggestions here, but don’t be afraid to tweak it for what you need. The most important thing is to ask yourself how your mind & body feel… that will help you attend to your needs the next time you travel. Happy flying!


Illustration by Katya Uspenskaya
Edited by Jaimee Hoefert

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