Fitness Magazine

Friday Q&A;: Pranayama on an Airplane

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
Q: I have a question for your esteemed teachers on Pranayama: I do a lot of air travel: Internal (within US) and international. My international trips involve a minimum of 10-12 hrs of continuous travel. Flying at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet and with the air pressure being so low outside, we are breathing in compressed air inside the plane. Is it safe to do Pranayama inside the plane on long flight duration since the air is primarily re-circulated?
A: I have had the good fortune to travel to Estes Park, Colorado on a number of occasions to teach or study at an annual yoga conference there. Many of the classes held there include breathing practices or pranayama. The altitude at Estes Park just happens to be 7552 feet above sea level. I had no problems, personally, adjusting to the altitude and participating fully in my classes. In the history of yoga, there are many stories of yogis doing their training in the mountains of India, Nepal and Tibet, at high altitudes. My reason for mentioning these facts is that a pressurized, temperature controlled modern jet plane creates an atmospheric pressure of somewhere between 5 to 8000 feet above sea level, not unlike my elevation while studying in Colorado. This means that the percentage of oxygen in the air inside the plane is the same as it would be in Estes Park. So, from a purely atmospheric pressure standpoint, pranayama could safely be practiced on your flight.
Regarding the safety of the air you breathe on planes, I found this online article by an airline pilot illuminating and reassuring in regards to both the amount of fresh air and re-circulated air (50:50 mix in most cases) and the high quality filters that are used on modern jets, considered hospital quality (To read the pilot’s full post, see Cabin Air Quality. And if you want to understand how pressurized cabins in airplanes developed, here’s a great article for Air and Space Magazine online that will give you all the details: How Things Work: Cabin Pressure) In fact, when I posed this question to my colleague Richard Rosen, author of two books on pranayama, he pointed out that the air quality in a plane is a lot better than the hot, polluted air in Pune, India, home of the Iyengar family.
As I researched this topic, the one fact that did jump out at me that could have an effect on the quality of your pranayama practice is the relative humidity of the air in a modern jet. It runs around 12%, which is equivalent or lower than the humidity in a desert setting, which is pretty darn dry! So, the one recommendation I would make regardless of whether you are practicing yogic breath techniques or just napping on the plane, is to drink more water than you might normally at home. This would be doubly true for longer flights. This way you will avoid the dehydrating effect of air travel and you will likely feel better physically when you land at your destination! Richard mentioned that caution should be used with any pranayama technique that you’d be careful with at home or if you were inexperienced. He mentioned bastrika, or bellow’s breath and kapalabhati, or skull brightening breath, as two he would suggest you avoid. Richard did suggest that the “best bet” for airplane breathing is the modern version of ujjayi (in the traditional version the right nostril is closed on exhale), with a “special focus on the exhale and then a pensive pause at the end of each exhale.” So, there you have it, some common sense advice and some expert suggestions from one of the experts on pranayama in this country. To learn more about yogic breathing, check out Richard’s two books on the topic:
The Yoga of Breath
Pranayama, Beyond the Fundamentals

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