December 23, 2013

Airplane Yoga: A Better Ride. ~ Michele Bickley

This is the part of the ride where my body starts to ache and feel tight.

We are on an airplane on the way to good ol’ Dallas, Texas, to see our family for Thanksgiving. We are two hours in, one more to go. The man behind me keeps jabbing his knees into my chair. Not on purpose; he is just too big for the mini seats!

We are crammed in tight quarters, my circulation has slowed, and we’ve been breathing in stale air for way too long.

Flying is a modern luxury that allows us to transcend time and go to places that would have been impossible for my great grandparents to visit. It really is miraculous when you think about it. We kind of just take it for granted and complain about how there is no legroom. That is true.

There really is no room and the cramped space can be hard on our bodies. With that said, I try to acknowledge the wonder of flying and at the same time deal with the realities that come with it.

Whenever I fly I find myself practicing a subtle pranayama to help relax my nerves.

So, as I get kicked in the back (argh), I’ve been doing my Ujjayi Pranayama (yoga breath of sound) to bring some extra calm to my body and mind. As much as possible, I try to feel my breath and really truly listen to that oceanic sound in my throat. If I can drop into my body and notice my breath, over and over again, my flight experience becomes much more positive for me and everyone around me.

There are a few yoga exercises I always do to help alleviate stiffness and encourage circulation when I fly. First, I take off my shoes and leave on my socks. This helps the feet breathe and they are less likely to swell.


My all time favorite stretch to do while seated in those way-too-little seats is Eagle Arms. See The Greatest Neck Stretch Ever for full instructions.

This pose helps release the trapezius so that the shoulders and the neck can relax. To prepare, pull one arm across the front of the chest (hold the elbow with the other hand), take a few deep breaths, and imagine the tension melting away. Repeat with the other arm.

Next, move into Eagle by hugging both arms across the chest and wrapping the hands around the back. Take a breath between the shoulder blades and drop the shoulders down. Release just the forearms from hugging and wedge the top arm into the crook of the other elbow crease. Either press the back of the hands together or entwine the palms together.

Breathe deeply in-between your shoulder blades, lift the fingers straight up to the sky, and feel the trapezius release its hold. Imagine letting go of any stress you’ve been carrying and shouldering.


The stress of travel (sometimes just the packing and getting to the airport) will often make my neck tight. Rolling the head around will help soften the gripping. Stretch it side to side and circle it gently around. If a spot catches or feels extra tight, that is an invitation to pause and breathe deeply there. Maybe even give yourself a little massage.


For a little more freedom, create some extra space in the body by rolling shoulders back and down a few times. Try to exhale a nice big sigh.

As the plane bumps, as babies cry and as cramped people fuss, I do these simple exercises. I remind myself to, as Thich Nhat Hanh said:

“Breathe in some peace and exhale a smile.”


A simple seated twist will do wonders to release back tension.

With feet flat, sit tall and take the right hand to the outside left leg and left hand to the wall or armrest. Press against the leg and armrest and wring out tension and toxins. Relax the shoulders and exhale anything that isn’t serving you.

Then, twist the opposite way.


One of my other favorite chair stretches is pigeon. Our hips take on so much tension as they are in stuck in a seated position for hours on end. The psoas gets tight and the lower back follows.

For relief, sit tall in the chair and cross your left ankle on your right thigh. Flex your left ankle and inhale your left knee towards your body. Exhale and gently press it away. Repeat and imagine you are oiling a squeaky hinge. Once your synovial fluids are flowing, press your left leg open and breathe there. If you want more of a stretch in that left hip, lean forward a bit. Exhale and blow out the stuff you are done with!

Repeat on the other side.


If you have the mobility to raise the feet a little, this will also help with swelling that can occur. I like to sit by the window and prop my feet on the back of the armrest in front of me. It is fairly unobtrusive and doesn’t put any pressure on the seat in front of you. If you happen to have an empty seat next to you (does that ever happen anymore?), lie down and put your legs up the wall. Cross your legs (Sukasana), up the wall, if they are long.


Walking around is also a good thing to do to help with circulation and stiffness. I love to go to the back of the plane and do a nice forward fold with bent knees to release my back. Interlacing fingers behind the back and stretching the shoulders by reaching the hands up and over feels like heaven! People always comment that it looks like it feels so good. I tell them it does and sometimes they join me for a bit.

I think they see the peace in my eyes after I have stretched!


Puppy dog (down dog with hands on a wall or ledge) is also amazing to open the back and shoulders. Place your hands on the back of a seat or a ledge and walk your feet back until you make a 120 to 90 degree angle with your body. Bend your knees and melt your heart toward the floor while stretching the hips away from the hands.

I also drink water to stay hydrated and pack healthy yummy snacks so that I am not forced to eat the airplane junk.

I usually get off a plane feeling pretty good. I can tell you back in the days of my eating disorder, flying was miserable! I was overweight, so the way-too-small seat was more-than-way-too-small! I would binge on junk food and fast food; the perfect combination of salt and sugar to make me swell up, drop into a food coma and get a headache. I stayed immobile in my seat and tried to hide from the world, cursing silently at all of the people around me.

I would get off the plane feeling like a blimp and everything would ache.

These days when I fly, I practice some ahimsa, non-violence, towards myself and all of the other people on the plane. I send silent, good, loving energy to the other folks that are squished on the large metal bird with me and even offer an occasional smile to a stranger.

When I add my yoga practice into my flight, or anywhere in my day, I am taking an action of self-care; an action to remove the stress from my body and mind.

The amazing thing about yoga is that the more I tend to my needs, the more I can be a kind person that serves others and the greater good. The more tension I remove from me, the easier it is to drop into a peaceful heart space and show up in the world.

Especially in the tight quarters of an airplane, we are all in this together.

Relax so much that the people around you start to relax.
Soon, the whole world starts to relax.” ~ Erich Schiffmann

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Assistant Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Author’s own

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Michele Bickley