No wonder travelers are bent out of shape.
Economy airplane seat width is usually 17 or 18 inches. The average American man’s waist is about 40 inches (38 for women), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Need I even mention the sliver of space between your knees and the seat in front you?
Fliers nowadays expect to walk off planes with stiff hips and strained backs. Desperation for relief has made seats with extra legroom cash cows for airlines. Even top yoga instructors who can fold their bodies like origami say they abhor airplane seats. So how do you emerge from a plane without feeling like Quasimodo? I turned to one of the best-known yoga teachers for advice.
Cyndi Lee, the founder of the “no baloney” Om Yoga brand and familiar to veteran practitioners from her videos and New York City classes, is in her 50s and among the most flexible frequent fliers. A few weeks before spring trips that will take her to Japan, Virginia and Berlin, she shared some airplane-friendly poses that keep her feeling supple and can be done in a seat or in the aisle.
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“A lot of what you’re doing with these stretches is just increasing the circulation,” said Lee, explaining that fluids “such as water and lymph can tend to pool in lower regions” on an airplane, making fliers “feel sluggish and thick.”
To improve circulation through your lower back on long flights, be sure to twist every so often. While in your seat, plant your feet on the floor and twist to the right (you can put your left hand on the outside of your right knee to deepen the twist). Always include your head and neck in the twist. Switch sides.
If you have enough room and flexibility, from your seat you can also try ankle-to-knee (with one leg) pose, which is a complicated way of saying place your ankle on top of the opposite knee. For most people, simply being in this position is a significant stretch. “That will open your hip and give you a really good stretch around your butt and your hip,” Lee said. To deepen the stretch, lean forward a little and place your forearms on top of your legs. Then switch legs. To improve circulation while in that position, flex and point your raised foot, and squeeze and spread your toes. Mind the whereabouts of the drinks cart.
Now, on to your upper back. This next pose, the hug, can be done sitting or standing. And it’s perfect if your travels have you feeling stressed: just wrap your arms around yourself and squeeze, aiming to touch your shoulder blades with your fingertips. From there you can stretch your neck by pressing your right ear to your right shoulder; repeat on the other side. Then release and switch arms, this time placing the arm that was on top on the bottom, as you reach across your back.
After the hug, you can go into a modified eagle pose (normally done standing). Put your hands in front of you as if you were about to play peek-a-boo, but instead of covering your face with your hands, cross your forearms and wind your wrists until your palms touch. Move your palms away from your face for a little stretch. (Instructions for some of these are on YogaJournal.com.)
Need a bathroom break? In the space near the lavatory, you can counteract rounded shoulders and relieve a tight upper back with a shoulder stretch. Reach behind you with both arms outstretched until your hands meet, then interlace your fingers, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Look up and lift your chest. Depending on your level of comfort, you can lift your arms up and away from your back a bit. “You’re curving your spine in the opposite direction of the seat,” Lee said, “which is good.”
For regular yoga practitioners, “tree pose is a no-brainer,” Lee said, referring to the standing pose in which you place the sole of one foot against the inner thigh of your other leg and raise your arms to your chest or over your head. (You can use a wall by the bathroom for balance.) This pose can open up tight hips and relieve lower back pain. A small price to pay for the eyebrow raises from other passengers.
“I do these things and nobody even cares,” Lee said. “In fact, I think some people are thinking, ‘That’s a good idea.’”
Another option is a variation on downward dog. Stand at your seat and put your hands on the seat back in front of you (not when your neighbor is occupying the seat). Then step back and lean forward, bending in half. (You’re making a 90-degree angle, so your upper body and arms should be parallel to the floor.) If there’s no room for that (and chances are there isn’t unless you are rather petite), adjust by placing your forearms on the seat and do the same thing. “It’s just a downward dog in a different relationship to gravity,” Lee said.
And don’t forget to breathe deeply, which will help you become calmer. Lee, the author of “May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind,” practices sama vritti, equal breathing in and out. She inhales for a count of 4, 5 or 6, then exhales for the same amount of time. She also recommends that travelers try lion pose: scrunching up your face and then, as you exhale, sticking out your tongue and looking up at the space between your eyebrows.
“Try to touch your chin with your tongue,” she said, noting that this is good for waking up and reminding you to breathe.
I was about to suggest that this is also good for making people think you’re nuts, but Lee seemingly read my mind.
“You can do that one in the bathroom,” she said.