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If you ever feel the need for a calming, restorative yoga practice, it’s when you’re travelling. Airports and train stations are packed with people rushing to their final destination. The lines for security and concessions seem to extend endlessly, and if you toss in a particularly gruff airline employee or bus driver, forget about it—your stress levels will skyrocket.
The opposite of the kind of stress response travel often induces is what’s called “rest-and-digest,” where blood returns from the limbs (where it was pumping in case we needed to run or flee) to the digestive and reproductive organs. Your heart rate and breathing slow down and your immune system can jump to into action as needed.
One of the styles of yoga believed to activate this rest-and-digest response—a.k.a. the parasympathetic nervous system—is restorative yoga. This style of yoga is marked by the body being fully supported by external props, such as blocks, bolsters, blankets, chairs, and sand bags. Due to its gentle nature, it is used in many therapeutic settings, such as with cancer patients or people in a lot of pain. Because the body is supported, practitioners are able to hold the poses for longer periods. We can also more easily drop into the relaxation response when we’re in passive postures versus more active shapes.
But let’s call a spade a spade: While restorative yoga is a powerful antidote to travel stress, not many of us are stuffing bolsters and yoga blankets into the overhead compartments of a packed airplane or train. So, how can we still benefit from restorative yoga while on the road?
If you have a mat, a few towels, and a wall, you have all that you need. Here’s a 7-pose restorative practice you can do without props:
Reclined Cobblers (Supta Baddha Konasana), variation
As a yogi, the hardest part of traveling is all the sitting. Even if you manage to sneak into business class or someone is doing the driving for you, most travel involves long periods of staying in a constricted position. Starting your practice in this pose begins to unwind your body. Try “rolling” the mat in more of a square shape versus a cylinder. If you have a thin travel mat, place a towel on top and roll the mat with the towel for more thickness. Begin sitting directly in front of the rolled mat, with the edge of the mat at your sacrum. Lay back slowly. If your head comes off the top, place a rolled-up towel or light pillow under your head. Bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together, letting your legs open gently. If the inner thigh release is too intense, roll two hand towels under your outer thighs. In a restorative practice, we are not seeking a huge stretch, but rather a passive opening, which is key for the nervous to be able to settle. Stay here for a minimum of 7 minutes.
Supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha)
Continue your gentle backbending with this version of supported bridge. Opening the chest means more space for the lungs and a deeper breath. When under stress, the breath rate can be rapid and short; when we are relaxed, the breath does the opposite—it becomes slow and deeper. If you are comfortable straightening your legs, you’ll also experience a mild release in your hip flexors. However, if your low back is tender, please keep your knees bent. To begin, sit on the edge of the rolled mat. Lay down and slide off the mat until your upper back is on the floor, abovethe mat. Straighten your legs with your heels pressing into the floor, keeping your arms relaxed by your sides. Stay here for a minimum of 7 minutes.
See also 7 Restorative Poses to Stay Grounded
Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose (Viparita Dandasana)
In Iyengar yoga there is a prop called the “whale” (a.k.a. the Viparita Dandasana bench). This wooden structure helps you practice a supported backbend, and is named after what it looks like from the side: It has a bulbous larger top half (over which your upper spine may extend) and a downward sloping slant (for your legs). You can replicate this shape using a hotel bed. Begin lying on the side of the bed with your legs and feet fully on the bed. Inhale your arms to the sky and on an exhalation, allow your upper back to drape over the edge, arms reaching overhead. If this feels like too much pressure on your neck, use your carry-on bag or a few pillows to support the neck. Stay here for a minimum of 7 minutes.
Seated Forward Bend (Pascimottanasana), variation
Sitting may feel like the last thing you want to do after a long trip, but resting in this forward bend not only releases the back side of the body, but also releases the mind. Remember that one of the keys of restorative yoga is that you are not actively working, so this should not feel like a huge stretch. Sit on your mat on the floor with a chair or table in front of you. Rest your forehead on the edge of the chair. Try to have the support just above the center of your eyebrows. Yogis know this as the third eye, but neurologists know this is as our frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain that makes us human; it is where our higher processing and decision-making arise. (Read: It’s an area that needs rest after a long journey!) You are welcome to use a towel to support your forehead if it’s sensitive. Your arms can hang by your sides, or you may hold the chair legs. Allow your spine to round, and stay here for a minimum of 7 minutes.
One of the more challenging effects of air travel is dehydration, and twisting is a great way to rehydrate the spine. Take the desk chair or low table over to a wall. Stand with the right side of your body next to the wall, facing the chair. Step your right foot up onto the chair. Inhale through the left arm and on an exhalation, twist your torso toward the wall, bending your elbows into a cactus shape. On an inhalation, lengthen your spine; on an exhalation, twist, using the wall to pull against. Take 20 full breaths on both sides.
Reclined Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
We will continue releasing the hamstrings, which work so hard to bend our legs when we’re sitting. This pose allows the blood to flow from legs back to the heart. Lie on your mat and draw your right knee in toward your chest. Place a towel (or belt) around the ball of your lifted leg. Hold the towel or belt in both hands and keep your shoulders heavy on the mat. Stay here for 30 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
If a full body exhale was a pose, it would be this one. After all, what better way to get grounded than to literally come to the ground? This mellow inversion has numerous benefits, from relieving the digestive organs to reducing swelling in the legs and feet. Begin sitting sideways against the wall, knees bent. Lay down and swing your legs up the wall. Try to keep your sacrum (the back of your pelvis) on the floor. If your lower back or hamstrings are tight, you will feel rounded and will need to slide away from the wall. It also may be helpful to use a rolled mat or towel under your lower back to exaggerate its natural curve, which ultimately lengthens the spine. Stay here for 7-15 minutes. If you are suffering from severe jet lag and having difficulty sleeping, practice this pose by itself before sleep.
About the Author
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher in San Francisco. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com.