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. Many of the poses can be performed by yoga novices; others are for seasoned yogis — or those who dare to try a tree pose at 30,000 feet.
“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.