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Posted at 06:25 PM ET, 01/31/2012

Yoga at the airport

Here’s an idea I hope will, er, take off.

Last week the San Francisco International Airport announced the opening of its new "Yoga Room,” a peaceful space in which travelers can practice yoga, do breathing exercises or simply meditate. The room, represented in airport directional signage by a pictograph of a seated figure in the lotus position, is located past the security check-in, allowing folks to wind down from that often stressful experience before boarding their plane.

I called Baxter Bell, an M.D. and yoga teacher in Oakland, Calif., to ask about the potential health benefits yoga might provide an air traveler.

“I think it could be of some benefit,” Bell says. “The general tenor of travel these days is so stressful, it’s almost designed to get the blood pressure up and stimulate the fight-or-flight response. Stretching [as in doing yoga] can switch from the sympathetic, fight-or-flight nervous system to the parasympathetic, or rest and digest,” system. That could go a long way toward reducing stress.

Bell says he actually just flew into the San Francisco airport but was so eager to get to his nearby home that he didn’t check out the yoga room, which the airport press office says is the first of its kind in the nation. “I would be surprised if many people chose to pop in before going home,” he said. “But it’s a good antidote for the first part of a travel day, which is getting into the airport.” A yoga interlude in a designated room would also be useful “during a layover,” when it would be “such a great place to chill out.”

Chilling out is all well and good, but might there be any non-stress-related benefits to practicing yoga at the airport? Bell, who also writes a blog about yoga and healthy aging, supposes that doing some yoga might offer a bit of protection against deep vein thrombosis, the development of blood clots that sometimes occurs when people remain inactive during long flights by “getting the circulation going.” But he thinks walking up and down the aisle during the flight itself, or doing the seat-bound exercises some airlines recommend on seat cards, might be more beneficial in that regard.

I asked whether people who’ve never done yoga before should avail themselves of airport yoga; the San Francisco airport offers mats and some props but no formal instruction. “It’s a tough call,” he said, “with all the hoopla [surrounding the upcoming publication of William Broad’s book ‘The Science of Yoga’ and a much-discussed New York Times article about it]. It would be irresponsible to just go in and start practicing yoga if you never have practiced yoga before,” just as it would be irresponsible to tackle a rock-climbing wall for the first time without instruction, he says. But yoga newbies can still benefit from “gentle breathing and meditation,” Bell says.

And many people might enjoy their flight more if they manage to squeeze in few simple “inversions,” poses in which the head is positioned below the heart, before boarding. “A simple standing forward-folding bend, downward-facing dog, or legs-up-the-wall pose could prepare you for sitting on the plane, could possible prepare you physiologically to handle the flight better.”

By  |  06:25 PM ET, 01/31/2012

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