The word “yoga” in Sanskrit literally translates to “union or coming together” – a joining of the body, mind and spirit. As travelers, it’s easy to lose our connection with self as we sprint through time zones, new climates and new experiences; we all know the feeling of needing time for our minds and hearts to catch up with our bodies after a long flight or bus ride.
Adapting our yoga practice to traveling can be an effective way to maintain our connection with self, no matter where we are in the world. Practice can be modified to airplanes, buses or hotel rooms. Even taking five or 10 minutes to bring mindfulness to our selves can be beneficial. These benefits manifest themselves in three ways: physically, mentally and spiritually.
Simple stretches can reduce physical effects of traveling in confined spaces, such as swelling and dehydration. Keeping your body active will keep your immune system stronger to fight off new germs and bacteria you may be exposed to. Maintaining your yoga practice will help preserve your physical strength, balance and flexibility, and may even counteract some of the effects of exuberant feasting on new taste sensations.
Mental exhaustion while traveling can have detrimental effects, such as decreased awareness that may leave you vulnerable to robbery and lessen your daily enjoyment. The mental discipline of maintaining a yoga practice can keep you aware of your new surroundings and open to learning new languages and cultural practices.
Spiritually, the impact of daily yoga practice can help you to more fully appreciate your new surroundings. Grounding yourself in the present can remind you of your intentions for your trip and enrich your senses to new experiences. Practicing yoga can be a great way to find community – sometimes all it takes is one person being open with their practice to create a group.
Ideas for Practice
When practicing on an airplane or bus, it is respectful to let your seat partners know what you are up to; perhaps you can even invite them to join you!
Preparing. Ground each toe of your foot into the floor below you. Take note of the specific sounds and smells around you. Place your hands on your knees and connect each finger to your leg, again noting your surroundings and grounding yourself in the moment.
Wrist, ankle, neck and shoulder rotations are easily adapted to a bus or plane. Move slowly, increasing and decreasing the circle size of each body part with each rotation. When circling with your neck, make sure to bring your head to your chest with an exhale and back to neutral on an inhale, in order to protect your neck and spine. These movements will warm your body and help neutralize any swelling that may be occurring.
Arms and Torso. A gentle spine rotation can decrease back pain from sitting for extended periods of time. Gently place your left hand on your right armrest or window, place your right hand on the seat behind you, and allow your torso to twist to the right, directing your gaze out the window or over your right shoulder (Fig. 1). Repeat to the left.
Place both palms on the seat beside you, inhale to open your chest, connect your scapulas and engage your abdomen. Press both palms strongly into the seat and slightly raise your gluteus in an adapted dandasana or staff pose (Fig. 2).
Cross your right leg over your left. Raise your arms over your head, pressing your scapulas together. Bend your left elbow, and reach your right arm behind your back to gently grasp your left fingertips in an adapted gomukhasana or “face of the cow” pose (Fig. 3). On an exhale, gently bend forward at the waist to stretch your gluteal muscles and hamstrings. Repeat on the other side.
Legs. When getting up to use the washroom, use the aisle space. As you move down the aisle, do so using deep lunges. As you place your leading foot on the floor in a wide stance, engage your abdomen, ensure that you are balancing on the ball of the foot behind you, and bend your front knee into a lunge. Hands can be on your hips, or above your head in full Warrior I pose (Fig. 4). Change your lead foot as you continue. If you don’t feel comfortable being so conspicuous, simply try to widen and slow the pace of your walk, bending your knees to increase muscular work and to improve circulation.
If there is room outside the washroom, take a few moments to stretch using the wall in front of you. Place both palms on the wall and bend so that your torso is 90 degrees to your legs; press firmly into the wall with your hands and grip the floor with your toes, breathing deeply (Fig. 5). Allow your hands to come off the wall and seek the floor. On each inhale, lift your spine slightly, and on each exhale, bring your hands a little farther down as your torso seeks your legs.
In the privacy of the washroom, before or after using the toilet, try an utkatasana or chair pose. On an exhale, bend your knees as if you are sitting in a chair, inhale deeply and raise your arms above your head, connecting your scapulas strongly behind your back and engaging your abdomen (Fig. 6). Breathe and hold for as long as you can, and slowly raise your body to a standing position on an inhale. Repeat several times.
Modifying practice to a hotel or hostel room can be challenging for many reasons; there may be social distractions and difficulty feeling connected in a new space. To overcome these challenges, creativity is key. Before you travel, incorporate a small, lightweight object such as a scarf, statue or photo into your practice. Keep this object in your space while practicing, and use it in your meditation. Bring it with you when traveling, and use it as a “yoga comfort object” to help you feel at home in your changing space. If you practice with specific music, bring it with you on a portable device to further help you engage.
Being creative with your space and props will allow almost any yoga posture to be possible, whether its using a towel in place of a mat, a chair for an inverted mesa pose, or a piece of available wall for inverted postures. As you move through your trip, try to absorb new sights and sounds and incorporate them into your yoga practice. Using newly learned words as mantras, trying new incense in meditation and tonal humming are all great ways to connect your practice to what you are experiencing around you.
Seek public places for your yoga. Beaches and parks are wonderful places to practice if you feel safe and comfortable doing so. The joy of practice is infectious – before long you may have companions to practice with.
Yoga is union. When journeying in both a physical and spiritual sense, yoga connects us to our most precious selves, and allows our true voice to be heard. Bringing yoga and travel together is beneficial to both paths. In order to maintain your yoga while traveling and to absorb the benefits of practice, creativity is essential – seeking space and adapting practices. Remember to walk with an open heart and mind, to allow yoga into each aspect of your life, and to make time for yourself and yoga practice wherever you are in our beautiful world. Namaste!
Jennifer McLennan is a certified Iyengar yoga instructor who has practiced in India, Canada and Costa Rica. She teaches at Downtown Yoga in San José’s Barrio Amón district.