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5 Exercises to Save Your Back from Airplane Seats

June 03, 2017
5 min read
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I’ve been traveling the world for the last 10 years, teaching yoga teachers and students how to stay strong and healthy, but sometimes it’s hard to practice what I preach when I’m on a long flight or multiple flights in just a few days. Over the years, I’ve developed techniques that use my knowledge of yoga and biomechanics to combat the aches and pains from all that time in the air. Here are five exercises and stretching movements to help your body recover from a long flight.

1. Nutcrackers

Where to do it: In your seat

This exercise will "wake up" your leg muscles and begin teaching healthy postural direction — muscles can’t move too much if you’re on a plane and this is not a healthy thing.

  1. Extend your legs, but keep your feet touching the floor
  2. Cross your right ankle on top of your left ankle
  3. Clasp your hands (the “nut”) and place them between your knees
  4. Squeeze your knees against your hands — the hands can resist outwardly to make the knees and inner thighs stronger
  5. Pull your right inner thigh backward toward your hips
  6. Hold this pose for five deep breaths
  7. Repeat the same move on left side, with the left ankle on top and left inner thigh in back

2. Seated Twists

Where to do it: In your seat

This exercise will keep building strength in the legs and gently stretch the lower back muscles.

  1. Place both hands on the outer right leg, with your right hand closer to hip — do not extend legs
  2. Hold this pose for five deep breaths
  3. Repeat the same move on the left side (1)

3. Butt Lifts

Where to do it: In your seat

This exercise strengthens the lower butt muscles, which tend to be weak, and forms good postural direction habits.

  1. Place your thumbs on the upper part of your butt and press down
  2. Use your lower butt muscles to lift up toward the thumbs (this will cause you to arch your lower back)
  3. Hold this pose for five deep breaths
  4. Notice how you have more of an inward and upward curve in your lower back (the opposite of the flat back effect caused by airplane seats). (2)

4. Super Hero Stretches

Where to do it: In the lavatory on the plane or in a hotel

During a flight, our shoulders tend to slouch forward, our torso tends to slouch down and our chest muscles tend to become tight. This exercise helps stretch these muscles and shift postural patterns.

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  1. Interlace your hands behind your back
  2. With a giant breath, puff up your chest (to a ridiculous super hero type of shape)
  3. Pull your shoulders back without pulling your chest down
  4. Stretch your arms out longer
  5. Hold this pose for five deep breaths (3)

5. Triangle Twists

Where to do it: In the lavatory on the plane or in a hotel

This "full-body" workout is designed to utilize all the different elements of the previous exercises and benefit multiple areas of the body, including your lower back muscles, legs, spine, neck and shoulders.

  1. Put your hands on the sink — germ-conscious folks can put down a paper towel first.
  2. Raise your right foot up forward, up against the base of the sink wall.
  3. Place your left heel back against the base of the wall behind you (assuming it’s a small bathroom)
  4. Scissor your legs together without moving them (to engage the legs and stabilize the base of your spine)
  5. Twist to the right and lean down toward your right hand — this stretches your right hamstring and twists your spine and lower back.
  6. If you stop scissoring your leg muscles, that means you’ve twisted too far or too fast
  7. Engage the "super hero" pose in your upper body
  8. Do your best to maintain all the actions simultaneously
  9. Hold this pose for five deep breaths
  10. Repeat the move on the other side, this time with your left foot forward (4)

Bottom Line

Following these tips will make you feel better and fend off cramps and stiffness during a long flight. I do have one big caveat though: you really have to do these exercises. I say this because the biggest impediment to health in general is not "not knowing" what to do; it’s actually remembering to do the exercises. I challenge you to find the energy and enthusiasm to keep yourself healthy. It will be worth it!

Ross Rayburn is a guest columnist for TPG. He teaches yoga workshops, trainings and retreats all around the world. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter and at

All images by Brendan Dorsey, TPG’s Assistant Editor.