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A few weeks ago, I was on an evening fight from Las Vegas. The guy sitting in front of me looked a little green. Sure enough, a half-hour in, his buddy, sitting next to him, called for the flight attendant.
She floated up the aisle, looking smooth and prepared, with a big plastic bag and a glass of club soda.
“It’s OK,” she said to him kindly. “These things happen.”
Her hand rested gently on the guy’s shoulder. The mess got cleaned up completely. Thanks to the attendant’s calm attention, he was asleep within 10 minutes. Most flight attendants would have handled the situation efficiently, but this one was so nice, in a way that seemed really familiar to me. I knew I had to talk to her.
A few minutes later, I went to the front of the plane.
“You do yoga, don’t you?” I said.
“It’s the only way I don’t lose my mind on the road,” she said.
“I could tell you practiced,” I said.
“Because you were so decent to that guy.”
“If you don’t get sucked into people’s drama and just recognize that they’re suffering,” she said, “it’s amazing what can happen.”
Right there, I thought, was the essence of yoga, in a metal tube at 35,000 feet.
Yoga works for any profession. I know doctors who say yoga makes them more empathetic to the needs of their patients, and chefs who claim it makes them better appreciate the needs of their diners. It also has more prosaic uses. My friend Melissa, a crime-scene investigator, likes to impress her fellow cops by using her Chaturanga skills to keep from getting dirty while looking for evidence under cars. In my own dull line of work, yoga keeps my mind calm as I sit at my computer for hour after hour. But it plays a special role for flight attendants, who travel constantly and spend most of their lives in the company of stressed-out, physically uncomfortable people.
I know this because I travel a lot, and the woman on the Vegas flight wasn’t the first yoga flight attendant I’d met. There have been several that I’ve known of for sure, and several others that I’ve suspected. More than once, I’ve exchanged asana tips in the galley with the yoga-doing men and women of the skies. My friend Carina, who I met at my yoga teacher training, recently retired from the stewardess racket. But she always used her flier perks to good-humoredly travel the world, attending yoga workshops and retreats. It’s a great job for the curious and open mindset that yoga practice seems to foster.
All the yoga-doing flight attendants I’ve met say the same thing: It helps them deal with jet lag, and it helps them deal with people. Most importantly, it helps them live in the present moment. As my new friend on the Vegas flight said to me, “So many of the women and men I work with, they just shut down. That’s why you see them in the back doing Sudoku or reading gossip magazines. It’s the only way they can deal. Yoga teaches me to engage directly with whatever reality’s right in front of me. It makes life a lot more interesting.”
No matter what you do for a living, if you practice yoga, in the long run, you end up caring about people and empathizing with their problems. It doesn’t mean people aren’t annoying. The older you get, in fact, the more annoying people get, just because they’re so predictable. If you can meet them at their level, and then make it your own level, then everyone will leave the day happier. And if you can do it on an airplane, where people are often at their worst, well, that’s just a special gift to them and to the world. A little kindness goes a thousand miles.
So does a little asana. As my new friend said, “No matter the time of day, I do a Handstand the second I get to my hotel room.”
That helps, too.