Last updated on May 15th, 2023
Airplane seat yoga and other tips to offset long flights
By Diana Eden, Contributing Writer, Women Over 80
I confess: At 81, the worst part of any trip is the plane ride, especially ones longer than four hours. I have a crooked spine, a moderate case of S-shaped scoliosis, which makes sitting for long periods painful. While I am not a doctor, chiropractor, physical therapist, or licensed teacher of yoga, these in-flight stretches have helped enormously to reduce the pain of long flights, so I share them to give others in my situation hope.
I’m still waiting on the development of the technology to instantly beam me up to my new destination, Star Trek style. For now, I rely on Airplane Seat Chair Yoga for my in-flight stretches. If you are in Economy Class, your yoga practice will be somewhat limited but still possible. If in Business Class, you will have more space, with anything short of Downward Facing Dog within your grasp.
Guiding principles for in-flight stretching
1. Be considerate of your fellow passengers: Before starting, alert the passenger in the next seat and a flight attendant. You may be doing forward folds, and it is easy for someone to think you are feeling ill or faint. A polite explanation usually works: “Excuse me, but I have a very painful back, and doing 20 minutes of yoga helps me a great deal. If I disturb you in any way, please let me know, and I will stop immediately.” Never has anyone asked me to stop.
2. Be aware of your limitations: Your real estate is limited to the 31-32 inches in front of you. You have virtually no ownership of the space on either side of you, and intrusion into that space may cause issues with other passengers.
3. Stop worrying about what other people think: You may get weird looks from those across the aisle, but who cares? Would you rather grin and bear the pain in silence or give your aching body some love? Besides, once you are in your 80s, you have every right to be eccentric. Apparently, on flights within India, people often stand on their heads and others think nothing of it – or so I am told.
Six steps to make long flights more comfortable
Editor’s Note: We invited licensed chiropractor Dr. Nekessa Remy to review the tips and exercises in this article and provide video demonstration to ensure proper form when practicing these on a plane.
Now that you’ve prepared yourself and those around you, you’re free to move on to the stretching portion of the program. Assign a time to do this when you can commit to it fully. Usually, 20 minutes is good.
Step 1: Practice mindful breathing
Sit upright (long spine) with your hands resting comfortably in your lap, close your eyes, and start to breathe consciously, in and out. Lengthen your breath gradually until you are comfortable taking an in-breath for 5 or 6 seconds and an out-breath the same length. Don’t let your mind wander. Bring your concentration back to the in-and-out of breathing until you feel yourself in a slow rhythm and starting to relax.
Step 2: Stretch your head
Tip your head (chin) down towards your chest and hold for several (slow) breaths, feeling the stretch across the back of your neck. Then slowly lift your chin towards upwards as far back as comfortable. Feel the stretch in the front of the neck and under the chin. Repeat 3 or 4 times. Then tilt your head to one side on an out-breath, hold for several breaths, and return to centre on an in-breath. On the next out-breath, tilt to the other side and hold. Repeat 3 -4 times. Then turn your head to the right to look over your shoulder and then to the other side. Lastly, do slow circles of the head, using the chin as if a pencil to draw your circle, down, right, up, left. And back.
Step 3: Side stretches
Word to the wise: Only do these if you have a seat with the space not to touch anyone or if your seat neighbour has conveniently gone to the john. Flop one arm over your head loosely (or if you are brave, put it high above your head) and slowly bend to the opposite side, creating space in those side ribs. Doesn’t that feel great? Then do the other side: Take an in-breath as you return to upright and an out-breath as you lean to the other side.
Step 4: In-flight back stretches
Push your backside out and arch your upper body forward and up (like a cow with a swayed back), lifting your chin towards the ceiling. Feel that lovely stretch. Then collapse your ribcage as if you got socked in the stomach and curl back into “cat pose” with the roundest inward curve you can manage. Ahhhhh. Repeat as often as you like. I do this one a lot.
Bulkhead row is ideal for a forward fold that gives your back more stretching and pain relief. Fold over and lie your body over your knees with your arms hanging limply toward the floor. Stay there for as long as it feels good, but don’t forget to breathe. If you have forewarned your neighbours, no one will ask you if you’re feeling okay.
Step 5: Leg stretches
Clear out the baggage under the seat in front of you, raise your leg an inch or two, and circle the ankles. Slowly does it. After a dozen or so, reverse the rotation. This will improve blood circulation and stimulate all sorts of good things. You can also perform what dancers call releves in place. Place your feet on the floor right below your knees and lift your foot until you are on your tippytoes. Hold and release. Again, please.
If you have enough space in front of you, lift one leg up to a foot off the floor and hold, pulling the toes back towards you to give the calf a good stretch. Then place it back on the floor. Lift the other leg and keep alternating. Repeat a few times per side. Your hips will thank you.
Step 6: Hand stretches
I also exercise my hands. I hold my palms upwards in front of me and then curl my fingers in as far as they go, and then open them up as far as they will go, spreading the fingers wide. Repeat with palms facing downwards. Then with fists clenched, you can also rotate your hands with the wrist, going one way and then another.
Final Steps: Hug and breathe it out
Now that you’ve completed these in-flight stretches, give yourself a big hug, crossing your arms and wrapping them under your armpits as far as they will go onto your back. Stretch those back and shoulder muscles. If you can cross your elbows and hook your wrists in front of you, that helps the back stretch even more.
Close by doing some more conscious breathing, in and out, very slowly, very slowly.
When done, open your eyes, and get back to that movie or book, and order yourself a nice glass of wine to deepen the relaxation.
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