Own your travel day stress or it will own you
I’ve practiced airport yoga on travel days for the last 15 years and it has made a remarkable and lasting difference in how I experience travel and how I manage stress and inevitable anxiety on travel days. I hope I can motivate you to do the same and reap similar benefits.
In my first career, I did extensive international travel between Europe, the United States and Latin America. I thought perhaps those days ended when I transitioned into my second career as a writer and coach. But wanderlust stays close to the heart, so I once again gravitated to international travel. I still find myself on long-haul flights, and in & out of airports. In the first years of full-time coaching work, I traveled 4-5x a year from my home in Switzerland to a coaching job in California. Door to door, it’s about a 24-hour trip for me. I also try to visit a charity project I support in Malawi once every couple of years and travel often to Thailand to study and teach yoga. That all adds up to lots of time spent in the air and in transit!
Please trust me on this: I’d much rather RUN the equivalent time than sit so many hours on planes, trains and automobiles (seriously!). It’s worth it for the people, destinations and opportunities, but when I know I’ll be stuck in the dreaded sitting position surrounded by noise, discomfort and “expected” travel frustrations, I have to do my best to counter it.
A travel day airport yoga routine
My travel day routine starts at home or my hotel. I complete a few minutes of deep breathing and a few sun salutations upon waking. Here’s a quick video demonstration of Sun Salutations from Yoga Journal.
At the airport, I scout out a suitable location and practice yoga before my flight. I bring a travel yoga mat on all trips and just roll it out right in the waiting area, often in a quiet nook. One time in the Bangkok airport though, there were no quiet nooks to be found, so I just went for it in front of a crowded gate! Some smiled, others laughed, but most just stayed seated with poor posture staring at their smartphones.
Sometimes I only have time for a few Sun Salutations A & B. Other times, I can complete an entire 1-hour practice, Ashtanga, Rocket, or Budokon Style. I enjoy practicing inversions on travel days, especially before long-haul flights (across continents and oceans). I like countering the negative effects of sitting (blood pooling in the feet / swelling) by getting my feet over my head. So, I try to spend at least a few minutes upside down in shoulder stand and head stand poses right before my flight. If there are kids around, this is usually when they join in!
Who cares what people think?
Flight delayed? No stress — that’s more yoga time! I don’t worry about what anyone thinks, as I know that I’ll be feeling much better than any doubters in the crowd. I also hope that perhaps I’ll inspire others to join in or at least learn something about yoga or prioritizing their minds and bodies above worrying about what others think.
If I’m not feeling very physical or the environment is simply not conducive to a yoga asana practice (poses), then I just practice yin yoga or sit quietly for a breath training and/or meditation session. Apps like Pranayama and Insight Meditation Timer are super helpful at moments like this. And sure, sometimes I play with the kids, as they always seem up for some yoga time!
Cleaning up and staying fresh
You may be wondering about clothing. I was never one to travel for show, so I dress for maximum comfort when spending endless hours in airports and all the surrounding transportation. I wear casual, stretchy pants and usually bring a t-shirt or SmartWool shirt to change into. A quick handi-wipe wipe down and fresh deodorant is enough to deal with a light sweat. On a few occasions when I’ve had a long layover and sufficient time for a long session, I’ve just showed in one of the frequent flyer lounges. In addition, I always fly in compression socks, so I usually just pull these off and practice barefoot on my mat. If I’m short on time though, I’ll just practice in socks. A little preparation is all it takes to solve the clothing / sweating concern. Or, simply have a chilled out yin yoga practice.
These airport yoga sessions warm my body, lengthen tight muscles and improve circulation. They also serve as training on days when I’m literally traveling around the clock and don’t have time for a normal workout. I’ve gotten carried away with this as well, as you can see from this fun video I filmed at an empty airport terminal when I had an overnight layover.
I’ve had excellent yoga sessions in airports in Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Zurich, Malawi, South Africa and several US cities. And if you’re wondering, I’ve never been approached by security or anyone for that matter. I take that back — in Atlanta a guy asked me to watch his bag while he walked away. I said “no … I’m focused on my yoga now”. I’ve also practiced yoga on the top level of a 747 and on a train. Usually the flight attendants remark that they should join me and that we all need it on long flights.
Creating your own stress relief
I find these sessions (even the super short ones) to be instantly calming and re-energizing for my body. I also see a noticeable difference in how I respond to the stresses of travel (delays, screaming kids, rude people, etc.). I’m MUCH more tranquil, patient and thankful to others after practicing. This is true even if the practice is just a few sun salutations or a modified sequence of poses designed to fit in that tiny hallway between the airplane bathrooms! This is a HUGE difference from the days when I traveled a lot for work and didn’t practice yoga regularly. Back then, I wore stress all over my face and I was more likely to tense up at a stressful situation than to find a way to offset it by being kind to someone.
By the way, after practicing yoga for many years, I was further inspired to deepen my practice and learn to teach yoga. In my Do What You Love series, I talk about that experience and also the experience of transitioning from a corporate career to a career in coaching.
Give it a try
Whether you have a mat with you or not, take a few minutes to stretch and breath deeply before your next flight. It’s relaxing and much better for your mind and body than trying to relax yourself with booze and meds. For the times you’re stuck in your seat, I also bring a lacrosse ball, which is great for trigger point work on sore spots while trapped in one place. Check out Hillseeker Podcast Episode 5 where I talk about Airport Yoga, stand up desks, encountering wild dogs while ultra running in Italy and more!
Namaste my fellow travelers!
— Coach Jeff