Think you have to wait until you’re off the plane to get a good stretch? Think again. As crazy as it sounds, I promise you it is possible to practice yoga from the discomfort of your airplane seat.
Consider this: Yogis are primed to stay focused in less-than-ideal conditions. Remember that packed yoga class you were in that was mat to mat, yet you were able to focus on your own practice? Remember that time you were in a deep twist and were still able to breathe? Yoga teaches us to find inner space, regardless of outer conditions. In fact, the more inward our focus, the more expansive we feel. So, while we may not be able to stretch our legs out fully or do a Handstand in the airplane aisle, we can stretch our minds and find the space we seek within—yes, even when stuck in a cramped middle seat on a long flight.
Try this 5-pose sequence specifically designed to practice in your seat, with your seatbelt fastened.
Cat-Cow (Bitilasana), variation
The best way to find space—yes, even in coach—is to breathe, and adding movement to breath is especially calming for the nervous system. When we are under stress (which, let’s face it, is a natural byproduct of travel these days), the body prepares to fight or flee, which means it needs to move—something that’s challenging when you’re stuck in a cramped airplane seat. This seated Cat-Cow variation opens your spine and shoulders and helps you breathe, ultimately calming your stress response.
How-to: Lift your arms up in line with your ears, bend your elbows, and interlace your fingers behind your head (like you would if you were doing a sit-up). Hug your outer upper arms in toward your ears to target the movement into your upper back. With your feet on the floor hip-width distance apart, arch your spine on an inhalation, reaching your tailbone back and lifting your chest up. (Use your hands behind your head to gently traction your neck.) On an exhalation, round your spine, bringing your elbows to your knees. Repeat 10 times, and as needed throughout your flight.
Seated Twist, variation
Sitting for long periods of time without movement compresses the spine. Twists are the antidote, helping to create space in the spine by sending fresh blood to the discs between the vertebrae.
How-to: Begin with your feet on the floor, hip-width distance apart. Rest your right forearm on the arm rest (or your thigh if there is no room) and place your left hand on the outer edge of your right thigh. On an inhalation lengthen your spine; on an exhalation, press your left hand into your outer right thigh to twist. Work with your breath and your arms to twist deeper, and hold the fullest expression of your twist for a full count of 10 to 15 breaths. At the end of your final exhalation, return your spine to center and switch sides.
Eagle Pose (Garudasana), variation
We may be asked to remain in our seat, but that does not mean we have to remain constricted. This seated variation of Eagle Pose is especially good for stretching your outer hips and upper back.
How-to: Cross your right thigh tightly over your left thigh. If you’re able to, wrap your right foot behind your left ankle. Reach your arms out in front of you at shoulder’s height and cross your left elbow over the right. Either press the back of your hands together or wrap once more at your forearms to touch your palms. Keep your elbows lifting while reaching your forearms toward the seat in front of you. Lift your chest to open your upper back, as you release your shoulder blades down your back. If the full expression of this pose is not accessible, you can wrap your arms around your shoulders as if you were giving yourself a big hug. Stay here for 15 to 20 breaths before switching sides.
See also 3 Prep Poses for Eagle
Neck rolls and lateral stretch
It’s not just sitting on the airplane that causes stiffness, but also all of the lugging and lifting of bags. Even if you check luggage, those carry-on bags can pull on your shoulders, causing a tight upper back and neck.
How-to: Lean forward on your seat slightly, so your head is clear from hitting the head rest. Let your shoulders hang heavy and begin to roll your neck in one direction 10 times, then switch the direction of the roll. Then, take your left hand to your right ear and gently pull your left ear to your left shoulder, releasing the opposite side of your neck. Stay here for 10 to 15 breaths, then repeat on the other side. Note: Be careful not to make any sudden movements in this position. If you would like a different release (for example, tilting your chin up or down before taking the side stretch changes the release), come upright first and readjust the position of your head before pulling your ear to your shoulder again.
Half lotus, variation
There’s nothing like prolonged sitting to prompt tight hips. This variation of Lotus Pose (or Figure-4, if you have a knee injury) is a great release for the outer hip and glutes, which get tight and weak from sitting for long periods of time.
How-to: Start with your feet hip-width apart. Pull your right knee into your chest and turn your thigh open, placing your right ankle as high up your left thigh as you can. The pinky side of your right foot should rest toward the top of your left leg. You can stay upright, keeping your chest lifted, or play with tipping forward at your pelvis to deepen the stretch. Stay here for 30 breaths, then switch legs.
About the Author
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher in San Francisco. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com.