How to Use Yoga for Long Flights

The first time I did it, I thought I might lose my marbles halfway through. The quarters were cramped, my anxiety was palpable and, through dry and scratchy contact lenses, I was sure that I could see particles of nasty germs floating overhead. A 14-hour transcontinental flight is no joke. It is not for the weak or faint of heart. 

yoga for long flights

When I moved to China three years ago, I had little idea of what to do before boarding the plane, or while on the plane to keep my sanity, and health, in tact. Now? I am getting the hang of it. 

As I write to you now, I am flying over Tokyo towards Seattle. This is my eighth trip between Shenzhen, China, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today—or tonight? …  this morning? … which time zone do I go by right now as my brain thinks it is 4 pm and my body is flying already chasing a sun that will dawn a new day in a few hours?—I am less claustrophobic than that first flight.

I did, though, sit down in my seat three hours ago pretty frazzled. This morning I got up at 4 am to catch my flight from Shenzhen to Shanghai. In Shanghai, I was supposed to catch a flight to Detroit. My plan was foiled by a long wait to collect and recheck my luggage, and I found myself talking—less than zen-ly—with an airline representative to rebook the flight. The best-laid travel schemes do not always go as planned. 

With a 4 am wake-up call, I did not get my usual yoga routine in this morning (though I did get an actual sprint in to catch this flight) and I can feel my muscles just begging to breathe. With over six more hours in this leg of my journey, I thought I would consult The Google and see what I could find for yoga poses you can take on the road … or in the air. 

I am here now at 2:19 am Minneapolis time to share my findings with you so that we all may have our best chance at putting our best flight forward. Here are the best ways to do yoga for long flights.

Yoga poses for pre-boarding and layovers 

It is a bit of a mystery to me what kind of energy I will take into a flight. Sometimes I am just so excited about what awaits on the other side of my air time that I get into this steady centered space on my flight. Other times, I experience dizzying anxiety.

Between anticipation and anxiety, excitement and uncertainty, travel can just be nerve-wracking. The Yoga Journal suggests several ways to do yoga for long flights to help set our nervous systems straight before we board the plane:

  1. Easy Pose (Sukhasana): Sit in a chair or on the floor cross-legged, in a seated meditation pose. This asana helps to center us in the moment, and it can be paired with a mantra such as I am safe to soothe nerves before they fray too far
  2. Tree Pose (Vrksasana): Placing one foot on the other leg, either on the calf or above the knee, tree pose helps you to remember that you are capable of feeling and being balanced
  3. Extended Side Angle (Utthita Parsvakosasana): As this pose allows you to lunge and stretch your side, it brings a sense of strength and comfort to your being.

In-flight yoga poses

I tried to break plane etiquette and stand in the aisle to do a pose earlier. I was told after 27 seconds to please take my seat. Sigh.

All is not lost, though, as there are some simple poses if I have to namastay in my seat. These poses from Yoga International help with relaxation, stretching, and help blood to keep flowing, which is especially important on longer flights when blood clots become a slight risk. 

You may want to start yoga for long flights after a breathing exercise. Most carrier’s entertainment has a health and wellness option. My Delta flight right now, for example, has a guided body scan, which is perfect for a pre-seated yoga routine. Since we all have absolutely nowhere else we can be while flying, we can tune in deeply to our bodies as we practice the following poses slowly: 

  1. Toe and Heel Taps: Lift and tap your heels on the floor 10 times, than lift and tap your toes on the floor 10 times. This number is making me giggle because my feet do not actually touch the floor. #livingaverticallychallengedlife.
  2. Knees Towards Chest: Placing both of your hands just below one knee, pull that knee up and towards your chest. Inhale as you bring the knee towards yourself, and exhale as you lower. Repeat 10 times with each leg.
  3. That Booty Tho: Using your armrest as leverage, raise and lower your buttocks 10 times. This releases tension on your spinal disks. I am glancing around right now, grateful that everyone around me is in sleep mode, lest they give me a funny side eye. I can already hear myself say, “No, sir, I am not passing gas, I am just practicing seated yoga.” 
  4. Arm Raises, Fist Clenches: Raising your arms to shoulder height, clench your hands into tight fists and then stretch your fingers as wide as possible. Repeat 4-6 times. 
  5. Puff Up That Chest: With your hands on your thighs, work to bring your shoulders blades together, opening the chest. Inhale as you open, exhale as you release. Repeat 10 times. 

I have just over five hours now until I am stateside once again. In between episodes of Stranger Things, I will be practicing my seated yoga, waiting for that four-hour layover where I can stretch out with some standing asanas. 

Perhaps I am most excited to walk into my parents’ house where six sweet nieces, awesome budding yogis, await. We’ll be practicing a proper sequence soon. After I have graduated from the jet-lag recovery program.

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About Jamie Bacigalupo

Having first traveled from her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to live in Quito, Ecuador, she decided to give the East a run and is now a resident of Shenzhen, China. She earned her degree in Communication Arts/Literature and Communication and Secondary Education from Gustavus Adolphus College and is enthusiastically exploring Asia by teaching abroad. She digs hanging out with her students by weekday, and relishes finding new restaurants to eat authentic Chinese food and finding new hiking paths on the weekends. In addition to sticking her nose in a book to recover from an intense workday, Jamie also loves exploring all manner of flavors in the kitchen, especially when she is whipping up some recipes for her friends and family.