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Stretching limits of flight

Airplane Yoga, By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt and Bess Abrahams Riverhead Books, 109 pp, $13

The main problem with trying to do yoga on an airplane isn't a lack of room, although that's one obvious dilemma. Nor is it the stale air, although deep, yogic breaths in and long breaths out are not especially pleasant when the meal cart is rolling by or the passenger next to you is passing gas.

It isn't even the curious stares of other passengers -- what else can you expect as you breathe heavily, tilt your head around, or move to the back of the plane to kneel into a warrior pose?

The problem with airplane yoga, the subject of a new 100-page how-to book by journalist Rachel Lehmann-Haupt and yoga instructor Bess Abrahams, is that flying somewhere and doing yoga are at opposite ends of the cognitive spectrum. Airplane travel is about getting there, putting your time in as you look forward to arrival. Yoga, as my teacher, Rolf, pointed out, is about being here, focused in the present.

There I was in economy class on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London, sitting so close to the row in front of me that looking directly ahead made my eyes cross. So I delved into the book with ''takeoff counting meditation," a simple exercise performed with eyes closed. ''As you breathe in, focus on the sensation on the outer edges of your nostrils. As you breathe out, focus on the sensation on the inside edges of your nostrils."

As ridiculous as it sounds, this exercise was soothing enough to put me to sleep during takeoff. Unfortunately, my reverie didn't last more than 15 minutes before a fidgety traveling companion nudged me with her elbow in an unsubtle bid to take over the armrest. Remaining flying time to Heathrow: 6 hours.

With flight attendants sweeping through the aisles proffering meals, coffee, ice cream, and duty-free shopping; video screens on the back of each seat playing movies, cartoons, and games; and free eyeshades, writing paper, pens, and other accoutrements you may have forgotten to bring, Virgin Atlantic caters to travelers unaccustomed to the tedium of a trans-Atlantic flight.

Silence and darkness, the friends of any veteran overseas traveler, are not on the program. Any silence, then, would have to come from the yogi within, and darkness from keeping my eyes closed (or using the eyeshades). So I pored over the book with more resolve. Although the exercises are modeled by drawings of people with bad haircuts and blank, featureless faces like the ones on posters in a school cafeteria illustrating the Heimlich maneuver, the tips were practical and the exercises seemed to work.

For one thing, it encourages use of the aisles and the flight attendants' area in the back next to the bathrooms as a good place to stretch and do lunges. Simply getting out of my seat was liberating, and doing a lunge as people stared from the bathroom line was more entertaining than the movie.

Returning to my seat at the end of our journey, I had time to try the ''barf bag wrist release," a simple maneuver for releasing tension in the wrists, and the ''meal tray head twist and neck tilt." This involved lowering the meal tray to use as an elbow rest and putting my chin in my hand. As I leaned my head to one side, taking five slow, deep breaths, I got a good stretch in my neck and shoulder and found some tension to release in my jaw.

The authors also have suggestions for how to cope with excessive amounts of food, the stasis of occupying your seat for long periods, the lines at customs, the glacial movement of baggage from plane to carousel, and other travails. One pertinent question that the book failed to address was how to avoid motion sickness and a general sense of malaise as the plane pitched and rolled its way into its downward descent. After a fitful night's sleep, a can of Virgin diet cola and a sticky muffin for breakfast, and no fresh air for seven hours, I wasn't ready to hit Harrods and Harvey Nicks. But my neck and shoulders felt relaxed and my grumpy, groggy mood momentarily improved.

Amy Graves can be reached at

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