Ask and ye shall receive! I’ve gotten quite a few questions regarding what I do to physically prepare for long flights (or overnight train rides!). Most of these poses focus on opening up the neck, shoulders, and hips – areas that require more mobility, more frequently than sitting on a plane allows.
I’ll be adding more and more of this ‘yoga for travel’ series with different sequences, tips and tricks. Enjoy, and happy travels!
1. neck stretches
Find a comfortable seat – maybe on a block, maybe sitting between your heels in virasana (hero’s pose – shown above), maybe cross-legged. Settle your bones into the earth and establish a sense of groundedness.
Take your right fingertips overhead to your left temple. Extend your left arm, pointed downward to the left. Slowly let your right ear drop toward your right shoulder on an exhale.
Play with the height of your left arm by raising and lowering your left wrist – likely, you’ll find a ‘sweet spot’ that gives you the perfect amount of sensation. Settle into the stretch and breathe.
Play with dropping the chin a little forward to stretch the back of the neck, and vice versa, letting the head drop back a little to stretch the front of the neck.
Personally, I like hanging out for a little bit in these stretches when I’m doing them for the purpose of traveling, so I usually stay 5-10 breaths.
Repeat on the other side. If you’re sitting in a cross-legged position, reverse the cross of your legs when repeating the stretch on the opposite side.
2. foot stretches
From kneeling, tuck your toes under and sit back on your heels. This stretches the plantar fascia of your feet. Some people find this to be excruciating! Others could sit like this for hours.
Start slow and don’t push yourself too hard, too fast. Walk your hands back on to your thighs and lift your chest. Remember, sensation is good, pain is bad. Work your way up to staying 5-10 breaths.
Then, from a kneeling position without the toes tucked, place your palms on your kneecaps and draw your knees off the floor and towards your chest. You’ll feel a nice stretch across the tops of your feet and into your shins. Keep your chest lifted and knees together. If you feel any pain in your knees, come out of the pose.
3. downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)
From hands and knees, tuck the toes under and begin to straighten the legs, pressing the hips up and back. Press the heels toward the earth (whether or not they reach is unimportant!), press the tops of the thigh bones back, press your chest towards your thighs.
Focus on lengthening the backside of the body – extending through the backs of the knees, pedaling the legs, pressing the earth away with the hands and charging through the arms to achieve a natural lift in the hips. Stay 10+ breaths.
4. low lunge (anjaneyasana)
From downward facing dog, step your right foot to the inside of your right thumb. Drop your left knee down to the earth, scootch your left knee back a little bit further, and then untuck your left toes. Take your hands to your hips, tilt your pelvis up (pubic bone toward navel) to tuck your tailbone slightly. Draw your front ribs in to eliminate any excess arch in your low back.
Take your arms overhead, palms face toward one another, fingers active. On an inhale reach up a little more out of your waist, get a little longer. On your exhale, let your hips sink in a little more, stretch a little deeper in the front of your left hip & thigh. Stay 5-10 breaths.
5. lizard pose (utthan pristhasana)
From your low lunge, lower both hands to the inside of your front foot. Keep your spine and neck long, don’t treat this as a forward fold. Broaden across the collarbones, lift the sternum.
For a flight-oriented sequence, I like to keep my toes untucked in lizard, and lift my knee off the ground. Similar to the foot stretch above, this variation gives you a nice stretch across the top of your foot and shin. Press into the top of your foot, engage your quads. Keep pressing into the ball and heel of your front foot.
Use your breath to release any tension in your outer hip and inner thigh. Continue to sink your hips forward and tilt your pelvis up toward your navel. Aim to keep hips level, aim to keep shoulders level. If mobility permits, come to forearms or forearms on a block. Stay 10-15 breaths.
6. one-legged king pigeon pose variation (eka pada rajakapotasana)
From lizard pose, take your right ankle to your left wrist, your right shin aiming to be parallel with the top edge of your mat. On an inhale, lengthen your spine, get nice and long. As you exhale, walk your hands forward, folding over your right shin.
If you’d like a little more sensation, take your left arm and thread it underneath your right, so your left temple and cheek come to the mat or floor.
Once you’ve found your expression of the pose, allow the weight of your body to fully release into the floor. Let gravity do the work here.
Notice if you are clenching your teeth or jaw – unhinge, maybe part your lips if this is the case. Stay 10-15 breaths.
Repeat 3-6 on opposite side
7. shoulder stretch
Come to lie on your belly. Take your right arm into a goal post or cactus shape (see photo below for reference), and take your right elbow about an inch in front of your right shoulder. Tent your left fingertips underneath your left shoulder. Bend your left knee and begin to roll onto your right side, letting your left toes touch down behind you.
For a deeper stretch, take the sole of your left foot to the ground behind you. You can also adjust the sensation by walking your left fingertips out, in, or pressing them into the earth. Stay 10-15 breaths. Repeat other side.
8. square/fire log pose (agnistambasana)
Find a seat, cross your right ankle over your left thigh. The goal here is to stack right ankle on top of left knee and right knee over left ankle, forming a square with your hips. Keep both feet flexed.
Look at the above picture -see that space under my top knee? Once you forward fold, that space should minimize. If the space is still prominent, roll up a towel or blanket to place between your bottom ankle and top knee.
Inhale, find length in your spine. As you exhale, walk the hands out, forward fold. Settle into the pose and notice again if there is tension or straining in the jaw or mouth. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
9. cow face/eagle hybrid (gomukhasana/garudasana hybrid)
From square pose, walk your right foot to the right until your right knee is stacked on top of your left knee. You might need to use your hands to manually do this. Your feet will look like handlebars (see above).
For less sensation, take the heels close to your hips. For more sensation, bring both shins to be more parallel to one another. If both sit bones are not grounded into the earth, straighten the bottom leg, keeping knees stacked on top of one another.
On an inhale, take the arms out into a ‘T.’ As you exhale, cross right arm over left arm, wrap the forearms to bring the palms of your hands to touch. If this action is inaccessible, give yourself a big bear hug, try to grab the inner edges of your shoulder blades. Breathe deep to stretch the space between them.
If your arms are in full garudasana, keep your fingers long and active, don’t crunch them into a ball. Raise your elbows, draw your forearms away from your face. Continue to stay connected to breath. Create space between the shoulder blades. Stay 5-10 breaths.
10. seated twist (ardha matsyendrasana)
From gomukhasana, ground the sole of the right foot, direct the right knee toward the ceiling. Take your left heel close to your right hip. Tent your right fingertips behind your right hip. On an inhale, take the left arm up to the air – exhale, twist to the right, outer left bicep comes to outer right thigh. Hold 5-10 breaths.
Repeat 8-10 on opposite side
11. seated wide-legged forward fold (uphavistha konasana)
Find a comfortable straddle seat. Press through the balls and heels of both feet, toes and kneecaps directed toward the ceiling. Tops of thigh bones dropping down. On an inhale, get nice and long in the spine.
Begin to walk the hands forward as you exhale. Keep your toes and knees pointed up (i.e., don’t let the tops of your legs and feet tilt forward as your upper body starts to fold). Draw shoulders away from your ears. Stay 3-5 breaths in this stage.
If your body gives you the green light, after a few breaths walk your hands out a bit forward, maybe coming right onto your belly. Keep your toes and knees pointed towards the ceiling. Soften your belly, soften your jaw. Stay another 5-10 breaths.
12. revolved head-to-knee pose (parivrtta janu sirsasana)
From a seated straddle, bend your right knee, take the sole of the right foot to the floor. Bring your left forearm to the inside of your left shin, reach the right arm up and over to grab hold of the left foot or strap.
Once you have found a place to settle into, take the left hand to grab hold of the right ankle. Keep revolving your chest towards the sky.
If your torso is facing more ‘down’ than ‘up,’ loop a strap around your foot and grab hold of that – don’t sacrifice your body or the integrity of the pose just to grab your foot! Hold 5-10 breaths. Repeat other side.
13. waterfall (viparita karani)
This is probably the cure-all pose in the yoga world. This is my preferred variation, though you can also do this by simply putting your legs up a wall and laying on your back.
In the pictured variation, I have 2 blocks underneath my sacrum, both on lowest setting.
I’d suggest starting with one block on its lowest setting, then seeing if you want two. If you’re new to the pose, you might want to stick with one while you learn how it registers in your body.
Once the soles of your feet are facing the ceiling, you’ll find a ‘sweet spot’ where you won’t need to work to keep your legs suspended – it shouldn’t feel like an ab workout!
This pose is great for everything, but specific to flying – viparita karani is calming, resting, good for high/low blood pressure, headache, stiff/achy joints, anxiety & depression, among others. Once you find your sweet spot, close your eyes and let the effects of reverse blood flow register in your body.
If you have glaucoma or any other serious eye problem, avoid this pose (and all other inversions).
14. supported bridge variation (setu bandha sarvangasana)
From viparita karani, lower one leg so that the sole of the foot comes to the ground. Actively point your raised foot towards the ceiling as straight as is possible. Keep your tailbone directed toward your lowered heel.
Lift both the front and the back of the body to emphasize the arch in your back. Bring your sternum to your chin, keep your arms by your sides.
15. happy baby (ananda balasana)
From the previous pose, take the soles of both feet to the floor, ground down into them just enough to lift your hips, slide the block(s) out from underneath you and set them to the side. Bring your hips back down to the earth, draw your knees into your chest, grab hold of the outer edges of your feet.
If grabbing your feet isn’t accessible, try a strap or towel looped over the sole of each foot. Allow the weight of your arms to draw your knees in toward your armpits, release any unnecessary muscular holding.
Keep your sacrum reaching toward the ground to keep the spine long. Sometimes rocking from side to side in this pose feels really awesome, or straightening one leg at a time. I personally really like the non-static version of ananda balasana – fluid, dynamic, rolling around on the floor – like a happy baby.
16. supine twist (jathara parivartanasana)
From happy baby, release the grip on your feet, hug your knees into your chest. Take your arms out into a ‘T’ or into a goal post/cactus shape. Drop both knees over to the right, take your gaze to the left.
If there’s a big space either under your bottom knee or in between your knees, roll up a towel or blanket for support. For added sensation, you can take your right knee to your outer left thigh. Stay for 10+ breaths.
Come back to center on an inhale, pause. Take one full breath cycle before transitioning to the other side. I hope you enjoyed the first installment of the ‘yoga for travel’ series!