Up In the Air Yoga Stretches

Anyone heading to the airport this holiday season?

If you’re traveling by plane in the busiest time of the year, you probably already know what to expect: crowds, waiting in lines, security checks, packed planes and – for most of us – flying economy. Being confined to plane seats for hours is not the most pleasant experience: they are constrictive and not at all ergonomic. If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you might know that sitting in a chair for extended periods of time binds the hip flexors and promotes stiffness in the hips.

As a yoga practitioner, I’ve been developing a greater awareness of the needs of my body, whether it’s nutrition, rest or movement. A few months ago, while flying coach in a 5 hour flight, I noticed I was getting irritated. I thought I was hungry, so I had a granola bar. No, it wasn’t hunger. I asked the flight attendant for some water. Nope, not thirst either. So I stood up, headed to the restroom and while I was waiting on the aisle, I stretched my legs out, lifted the arms up, did some gentle twists and I thought “oh boy, THAT’S what I needed!”

So I figured it was time to develop a simple stretching routine, taking into consideration the constraints of a plane seat as well as respecting the space of the fellow passenger flying next to me. The routine below is self-explanatory and simple enough that anyone can follow it. It’s purpose is to stimulate circulation and prevent you from feeling stiff and overly fatigued upon landing.

Your behind stays behind you – How to sit

Have you ever noticed how we tend to curl the tail bone under when sitting? Sitting like this doesn’t ergonomically support your spine. To protect your back, bring a small towel or blanket with you, or ask a flight attendant for one.

Make a roll with your blanket and sit on it in such a way that the top of the hips tilt forward. As the top of the hips tilt forward, the flesh of your buttocks will move back behind you. When you elevate the pelvis, it’s easier to maintain the spine long, and the muscles of your back won’t have to work as hard. If you sit like this, you’ll notice that your back barely (if at all) touches the seat back. That’s fine.

Finding more space with the space you have

You might think there isn’t enough space for you to stretch, especially when confined to a plane seat. Considering most of your hours inside the plane will be spent sitting, I invite you to work with whatever space you have, even if it’s minimum. Below, there are 7 easy yoga stretches that require little space and promote circulation:

  • Flex and point toes.
  • Make circles with the ankles.
  • Bring the knee in towards the chest.
  • Stretch the arm up into a side bend.
  • Shrug the shoulders, making circles.
  • Bend the right elbow, elevate it to chin height, right hand touches the left shoulder. The left hand presses the right elbow towards the back of your seat.
  • Twist from side to side.
  • Circle your neck.

Take over the back of the plane

If flying long hours, remember to stand, walk and stretch about once every hour. If you’re planning on sleeping, make sure you do this before and after you take a nap. When you do stand, go to the back of the plane and find a corner for the following stretches (and don’t be bothered if the flight attendants look at you funny). As with any yoga practice, don’t forget to breathe!

  • Standing, feet together, big toes touching, bend the knees and then rise up on the ball of your feet. This will stretch the sole of the foot, toes and get the circulation going.
  • While next to a wall, stand on your left leg, bend the right knee and hold the top of the right foot behind you, for a quad stretch. Gently kick the foot into your hand for a deeper stretch and keep reaching your knee towards the floor.
  • Bring your feet about 2 feet apart, turn the toes out and bend the knees deeply, until the thighs are parallel to the floor. Bring your body up as you straighten the knees, and down as you bend them. This will warm up the groins and hips.
  • Have your right side towards a wall, right hand to the waist, stretch the left arm up, and side bend to the right. Press the left fingers against the wall and use it as a leverage to increase the side stretch.
  • Again, right side facing a wall, bring your right arm behind you in such a way that the right palm touches the wall, at shoulder height. As you press the right palm against the wall, slowly rotate your body towards the left. You’ll feel the upper chest muscles and the front of the shoulder opening.
  • Have your back to a wall, feet hip width apart, interlace the fingers behind your back. As you straighten your elbows, lift your chest and look up slightly for an arm extension and tiny back bend.
  • Again, with your back to a wall, feet hip width apart and interlace the fingers behind your back. As you fold forward, straighten the knees and elbows, bring the hands overhead and shoulders away from your ears. Linger here for long as it feels yummy, or until you hear “Excuse me.” :)

These routines are simple and certain to increase circulation and impact your overall level of energy. If for any reason you feel like you cannot do all of the yoga stretches mentioned, do just a few then. This is all about working with whatever space you have in order to stay refreshed and well-disposed through the sometimes long travels this holiday season. So next time you’re flying, give it a try, you might come up with your own yoga stretches routine, who knows?

Happy travels!


[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by registered yoga teacher Raquel Scalon Fernandes. Raquel, a 500-RYT based in San Francisco, takes pleasure in discovering new ways of integrating yoga into everyday life. With a background in psychology, she blends her academic knowledge with yoga philosophy in order to bring forth meaningful and inspiring themes into her classes. She can be contacted at raquelscfernandes@hotmail.com].

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  1. Hi I think these stretches are perfect. I am a flight attendant so before you go in the back and start stretching ask the flight attendants that are back there because sometimes we are doing things in the galley that when we have more people back there we can not do what we have too. Also if that seat belt sign is on please stay in your seat. Just some helpful tips

  2. Very helpful tips! Sitting in one little seat up in the air with all that pressure does horrible things to your body. I will be the strange little lady doing yoga stretches on her flights this holiday season, thanks to your advice!

  3. Thank you so much for this. As a recent Yoga Enthusiast and Avid Traveler, I have been searching for ways to continue the practice while on the go. Thanks for the helpful stretching techniques.

  4. Perfect tips. Nowadays we do travel in plane quite often and as many others we also don’t know what to do. You have provided very useful tips and great explanation that is easy to catch up. Keep posting and I have bookmarked your site.

  5. I was traveling last week and wish I had these stretching tips on my 5 hour flight! I’m definitely bookmarking this page!

  6. OMG, here I am recovering from a surgery I underwent just now, few hours ago, and there is this wonderful article in my e-mail account to read!! And here I am already doing some of the moves (the ones Inam allowed!)
    As a yoga practioneer, I must say how important those streches that Raquel recommend for long flights but in every other situation! Yoga helps us to take a brake of the busy times we are all facing and helps us relax and feel better.
    Finally, I would like to write something I read the other day: “if you have busy days, take 20minutes every day to practice some yoga. If you are too busy for that, then you need a whole hour for yoga!”


  7. Dear Raquel, very helpful your article because as an international executive I am always going abroad and it will be very useful for me. And, afterall your wonderful smile must be a sign that yoga is a special way to be happy….! Tks!

  8. I thing stretching daily is so important to overall health. I would add that muscle spasms can be an inhibitor and also muscle pain. I recommend natural pain patches and free videos on natural pain relief @ http://www.imbuebody.com

  9. When I was reading your post, the first thing that came to my mind was Japan Air Lines (JAL). On a recent travel from Honolulu to Bangkok, I took JAL and they showed throughout the flight at least 3 times a series of stretching exercises. No announcement is made on the speakers, nor any audio is sent through the audio channels, However, so many people on the plane were doing them. There is always a chance to practice a bit of yoga. What do you think of JAL’s initiative?

    • raquel scalon fernandes says:

      Hello Damian – that is such great news! The yoga stretches reccommended in this article work perfecly for short, but especially for long flights. From my experience, and from observing how people sit on their seats, I believe most of us underestimate the impact of long distance travel has on our bodies. We sit for too long, sometimes in a seat that is not that comfortable, there isn’t much space to stretch the legs, we dehydrate a LOT, consume sparkling drinks and heavy to digest food, etc. So there are a lot factors that actually contribute to a “healthy flight”. And to answer your question, I think JAL is showing their innitiave and concern in the safety and health of their customers, so congrats! We do know that in more extreme cases, staying in the same position for too long might even cause death – it is rare, but it can happen. Thanks for your post!

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