Yoga to Go
About seven years ago I began my yoga practice. Filled with a beginner's enthusiasm, I attended classes regularly and derived many benefits from the poses I learned, both physically and mentally. But when I started traveling, for business as well as pleasure, my practice was suddenly interrupted. Sterile hotel rooms with avocado-green carpets did not seem like the right place to stretch out on the floor and relax into Savasana (Corpse Pose). Staying with friends was even less conducive to a yoga workout. Rearranging the furniture to do a lunge seemed to impose on their hospitality, and on at least one occasion, permanently scarred the parquet floors.
I'd become accustomed to the coziness of my local yoga studio, with its sweet-smelling incense, warm blankets, and soft lighting. So while I was on the road, I did crossword puzzles instead of asanas. Returning home, it was difficult to pick up where I'd left off. In fact, I'd be home for days before I could get myself back into the routine of attending classes. This turned out to be a real stumbling block. I wanted my practice to deepen, but was stalled at a low level of accomplishment—not that I regarded yoga as a competitive sport, but I did want to improve.
Then I found a solution. Following the advice of my yoga teacher at the time, I started dropping in on classes wherever my travels took me. I visited studios all over the country, from Los Angeles to New York, from Seattle to Arizona, anywhere and everywhere I happened to be. What started out as an impediment became a catalyst for personal growth and enjoyment, opening up a whole new world of experience.
Visiting different yoga studios, whether locally or out-of-town, is the perfect antidote to the rut that is sometimes engendered by attending yoga classes, week in, week out, in the same location. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from taking my yoga practice on the road occurred at a studio in New York City. It was the dead of winter, and the floors were cold, drafty, and a little grimy. Every few seconds either a siren would go off or a truck would trundle by, shaking the building to its very foundation. Compared to my comfortable yogic headquarters in sunny Southern California, this environment seemed harsh and distasteful.
But when I confided in one of the instructors about my displeasure, she told me to use the experience, not run away from it. "If something disturbs you," she said, "it's probably your reaction to it that is more upsetting than the disturbance itself. Just be present with it and don't react to it." I'd heard this said before by Zen masters and various lecturing gurus, but it had never really sunk in until then. I was finally able to understand it fully because it wasn't an academic lesson but an experiential one—one that I would not have had back home.
The Portable Practice
As much as I look forward to visiting yoga studios in other cities, sometimes my travel schedule leaves me precious little time to attend a class. In these cases, I create my own. Over the years, I've learned how to transform even the most sterile of hotel rooms into an environment conducive to yoga. First, I bring a few objects that remind me of home—my favorite fountain pen and a sketch pad (I love to doodle), a good book (usually one with motivational quotes or beautiful illustrations), and a photo of my girlfriend. Some colleagues pack a picture of the Dalai Lama or Michael Jordan. Whatever inspires will do. The point is to personalize the space you're in.
Next, I order lots of extra bath towels from the hotel's housekeeping staff and spread them out on the floor, thus eliminating any squeamishness I might have about the cleanliness of hotel carpets. Finally, I turn the heat way up, so I don't get cold halfway through. Some hotel sofas have cushions that can serve as substitute bolsters for supported Ardha Matsyasana (Fish Pose) or to place under your knees in Savasana. Add an eye bag, and I'm as comfortable and cozy as if I were in my own custom-made yoga studio.
Well, almost. At least I'm on the floor, motivated to do yoga. But which asanas to do? After much experimenting and research, I've found the ones that work best for me are "the Magic Four," developed by Rama Berch, director of the Master Yoga Academy in La Jolla, California. I like them for the simple reason that they are easy to do and quickly settle a jumbled traveler's mind and body, creating a feeling of relaxation and release. The routine takes me 20 to 40 minutes, spending about three to 10 minutes on each pose, either in the morning or right before bed. Whether I'm dealing with a stiff neck, general lethargy, or lower back tension caused by ungenerous 747 seats, I've found that these poses help get me back on my feet and ready to enjoy my trip.
Slow Motion Dive
Sit in a chair with your knees wide. Align your heels under your knees and point your toes slightly inward. Slide your buttocks back into the chair, lean your elbows on your knees, and let your head hang forward. Breathe deeply and feel your neck lengthen as you relax into the pose.
You can drop farther forward and place your hands on or close to the floor, if comfortable. To come out of the pose, use your elbows or hands to gradually push yourself up, with your head rising last.
Benefits: Releases tension in the tailbone and relaxes the shoulders and neck.
Crooked Knee Pose
Sit in a chair with your legs together and in front of you. Slide feet slightly forward. Place your left ankle on your right thigh, with the groove of that ankle on your thighbone, and slide the ankle towards your hip. Tip your head forward, softening the back of your neck. If you feel any discomfort, stay at this stage. If not, then lift your front ribs upward slightly as you inhale, then tip your torso forward as you exhale. Dangle your arms alongside your legs or place your hands or forearms on your right knee. To come out of the pose, use your hands as you did in slow motion dive, raising your head last. Lower your raised leg to the floor, rest and breathe deeply, then do the other side.
Benefits: Relieves tension in the back and neck; soothes sciatica. Also quiets the mind and releases pressure in the pelvic and abdominal organs, aiding digestion.
Place your hands and knees on the floor, keeping your back level. Move your right foot into the space between your hands. Move your right ribs toward the bent leg, lengthening and aligning your spine parallel to the inner edge of your thigh. Hang your head forward and tuck your chin in. If you feel discomfort, go into a lesser angle.
Breathe easily in this pose for 30 seconds to three minutes, longer if you have the time. Then push on the floor with your hands, slowly backing out of the pose to prevent gripping in the back muscles. Do the other side.
Benefits: Helps sciatica, and back and neck pain. Relieves anxiety and related tensions, creating a state of greater mental clarity.
Rotated Stomach Pose
Lie on your back and hug both knees against your chest, with your hands or forearms around your shins. Then extend your arms down to the floor and out to your sides so that they form a 45 degree angle to your body. Roll your bent legs and your hips to the left, laying your legs on the floor.
Slowly rotate your head to the left, pausing to breathe 1 to 2 minutes, then turn your head to the right. Breathe for another 1 to 2 minutes, then bring your knees to center and do the other side.
Benefits: Soothes the nervous system; helps relieve headaches, tension in the spine and neck, indigestion, insomnia, lower back pain, and sciatica. Massages the internal organs, stimulating the metabolism and improving digestion. An excellent preparatory pose for meditation.
Richard Torregrossa is the author and illustrator of The Man Who Couldn't See Himself: A Love Story, published by Health Communications, Inc.