Putting On the Brakes: Yoga for the Calm Commuter

By: 
Kathryn Boland

Ask anyone living in a major city about what stresses them out and you’re likely to hear, “commuting” more than once. With packed public transit vehicles, heavy traffic, mechanical failures, and time pressures, commuting stress plagues millions of people from students to business executives.

In The Huffington Post article “Everybody Calm Down! 5 Ways to Decompress from the Stress of Traveling,” Mama Glow explains how “signaling the heart to revert back to a normal rate is not possible when there is constant stress preventing the restorative stress response. When the body can’t fully recover from stress the systems that are suspended during the stress response will not operate effectively.” So, hour-long commutes full of stress and anxiety can surely take their tolls on our bodies as well as our minds.

Commuting stress also has larger social costs. Studies from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a non-profit, charitable organization dedicated to saving lives through traffic safety research and education show that almost 90% of respondents believe aggressive drivers to be a ‘somewhat’ to ‘very serious’ threat to their personal safety.

What’s more, as many drivers admit to engaging in aggressive behaviors, such as traveling in excess of 15 mph above the speed limit, or running red lights. These types of aggressive actions, as well as tailgating, erratic lane changes, or passing illegally are a factor in up to 56% of fatal crashes.

Yoga teaches us to face stressful situations and challenges with balance, equanimity and grace. Why not use those skills to help us keep calm during our commuting time as well?

Yoga for Travel Relaxation

Below is a short practice that is suitable for most anyone. All that it requires is a seat and awareness of your body’s sensations. You can practice these techniques anywhere - a bus stop shelter, on a train, or a plane, but not while you are operating a moving vehicle or other heavy machinery. Just listen to your body, and use the space around you to create a practice that works for you. These exercises could add much-needed rest and respite from stress during your frenzied commute.

Yogic Breath – Elongating the Exhale

Of course, the first most important thing to check is your breath. Take a few minutes to notice your inhalation and exhalation – whether you’re breathing into the upper chest, lower diaphragm – just notice the breath as it is.

Place one hand on the stomach and one on the chest to help you get a sense of where you are breathing into. Once you’re comfortable, try to make your out breath longer than your in breath, making both the inhalation and exhalation as slow, steady and smooth as possible.

Yogic Moves for Balance and Calm

You can try one or more of these as space permits, making sure to move slowly and gently with your breath.

Neck and Shoulder Rotations: Bringing blood flow to the muscles can aid the body in relaxation. Try gently turning your head from left to right (like the pendulum of a grandfather clock) turning on the inhalation and bringing the head back to center on the exhale. Then try slowly and gently circling your shoulders forward for a few rotations, then backward for a few while keeping the breath slow and relaxed.

Seated Backbend: Gently lift your chin and draw your heart upward, coming into a little backbend. Then draw your navel toward your spine, lower your chin toward your chest curing in on yourself. Alternate gently back and forth to elongate and contract the muscles of the spine.

Modified Tree Pose: Extend your arms upward, keeping your shoulders relaxed and your palms facing each other. Take long, slow breaths lowering the arms on the exhalation and raising them back up on the inhalation.

Modified Pigeon Pose: Cross your ankle right above the opposite knee. Keeping your spine long, either maintain this posture or gently lead forward to increase the stretch in the low back, buttocks and hip flexors. Repeat on the other side.

Modified Forward Fold: Keeping your spine long, fold forward over either bent or straightened legs to relax and stretch the low back and hamstrings. Take long, slow breaths.

Enjoy the Ride

Draw your attention back to your breath, slowing it down if necessary. Allow yourself to take a few breaths to enjoy the sensation of your practice. You may even want to try closing your eyes and imaging yourself in a beautiful setting or a favorite place, all while keeping the breath slow and relaxed. After a few minutes you can return to your life refreshed and balanced.

Kathryn Boland is a third-year Master’s degree student in Dance/Movement Therapy at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA), and an E-RYT 500. She is originally from Rhode Island and attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in dance (where she first encountered yoga). She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans, all demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!