I was researching the concept of yoga moves geared toward plane travel when I stumbled across a pioneer of the topic — the author of a 1974 article for a long-defunct airline publication who called herself the inventor of airplane yoga. Her story, smartly called “Airborne Asanas” and published in the TWA Ambassador Magazine, may have been the first article ever written on the topic.
Khadi Koester, now Khadi Madama, a New Jersey practicing yogi, had the ingenious idea of modifying some yoga-like moves to help fliers relax, get circulation moving and release the back, neck and leg tension that are so common when you fly.
Some 40 years later, we need these yoga-like moves more than ever when we travel, especially on long flights. Madama says airplane seats were a heck of a lot more comfortable back in 1974.
“Yoga on a flight is ideal to help maintain health by keeping the body moving and aiding circulation to help prevent deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that forms deep in the body, and swelling; to release tension and stress; and breathe more deeply to calm and balance your nervous system, especially good if you are a nervous flier,” says Fiona Patterson, a yoga, tai chi and qigong teacher in Melbourne, Australia, who created the Salute the Desk app for yoga moves that can be done at your desk or even on a plane.
Yoga moves can also help you relax (which can help you sleep), can alleviate boredom on lengthy flights or can get your energy flowing when you need it.
“I highly suggest walking around the airplane every couple of hours to make sure the blood keeps circulating,” says Merel Martens, a yoga teacher and founder of Parimukti Yoga & Meditation in Goa, India. “While walking around, you can rotate your joints, which is important, as blood and lymph fluid tends to stagnate there when you travel or sit for long hours in a chair.”
Madama recommends slipping off your shoes, loosening your belt and taking off any tight jewelry to begin your airplane yoga routine.
With feet flatly on the floorboard or sitting cross-legged in your seat, begin with deep inhalations and slow exhalations of breath. Repeat with eyes closed until you have filled and emptied your lungs several times.
Misha Laird, a yoga instructor at the Houstonian Club in Houston, also recommends beginning with seated mindful breathing. Once comfortable with that technique, gradually add one or more of the yogic positions below.
Wheels Up (arm raise)
Raise your arms overhead, interlace your fingers and turn the hand palms up. Actively push through the hand, palms toward the ceiling to stretch the arms, the sides of the torso and the spine. Make sure to keep the belly button moving in toward the spine and not to make a hollow back. “This is a great stretch to lengthen the spine as we tend to sit hunchbacked while traveling,” Martens says.
Turbulence (gentle head rolls)
Nod the head yes, shake it no, and roll it in half-circles. Martens says this is good for the neck, especially if you have been in unusual positions trying to catch some sleep. “On the airplane, make sure to keep elongating the neck while doing the rolls. Imagine as if someone is pulling you from the crown of the head,” she says.
Crosscheck (torso twist)
“Sitting tall, place your left hand in between your seat and your neighbor’s and grip the seat arm to your left with your right hand. Gently press on the seat with the left hand and twist your body just enough to not interrupt your neighbor and yet get a nice stretch in the spine. Pull that navel into the spine as you do this so as to protect and strengthen the lower back. Reverse this process and twist in the opposite direction,” says LeeAnne Moody, a yoga teacher who also is employed at AeroIQ, a private air charter company in Sarasota, Florida.
Holding Pattern (glute stretch to relieve sciatica)
Sit on the front edge of your seat with your feet flat on the floor. Cross left ankle over right knee and allow the left hip to roll open and the left knee to relax down towards the floor. “Depending on how tight your left hip is, either put your hand on the chair behind your hips and lift your chest,” says Laird, “or place left hand on left knee and right hand on left ankle and lean torso forward; or bend elbows to left knee and left ankle for a deeper stretch; or for the deepest stretch, fold your torso onto your thighs and let your arms relax down to the floor in front of the left shin.”
Full Upright and Locked Position (back and forward bends)
“The two most important ones I do are backward bend and forward bend,” says yogi Cameron Alborzian, host of “Yogi Cameron: A Model Guru,” which airs on Z Living. “Getting circulation moving and preventing the muscles from tightening up are the most challenging aspects of flying.”
Stand up in the aisle or the back of the plane after using the restroom. Bend forward exhaling. If you find it difficult to bring your head to your knees, bend your back a little and bring your hands to the floor by your feet. Then lean backward with your hands firmly holding your waist for support while you inhale in and dip slightly backward as you exhale.
“Remember, it’s not what it looks like, and it’s not about calling attention to yourself with fancy positions. Simple moves release endorphins which clear and uplift,” Moody says.