Pilots sit on their butts a lot. We might want to stay in shape, but after a day of dealing with weather, shooting a precision approach and managing a thousand other things, all we really want to do at the end of the day is sit in a cool lounge or hotel room, and exercise our fingers by flipping buttons on a remote.
We need to stay healthy. The FAA and good sense demand we take care of ourselves in order to enjoy the privileges of a medical certificate. It's not enough to be a mental athlete. It takes a combination of good diet, cardio, weight training and everything in moderation to stay fit and ready to be pilot in command.
What if, after a day of aviating, you could find a way to relax and get a physical workout at the same time? What if in the time it takes you to watch one TV show, you could build strength, balance and flexibility, ease back pain, tone your muscles and de-stress in a peaceful environment?
I'm talking about yoga. More than a simple exercise program, yoga is an ancient practice that has been used for curing disease, physical therapy, injury rehabilitation, and even treating depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yoga has good benefits for pilots who are challenged by sitting for hours at a time subjected to back pain and time-zone changes. For aerobatic and fighter pilots, yoga can help with the stress that pulling G's puts on their bodies by helping with body alignment. An estimated 30 million people practice yoga in the U.S. today, partly because it provides a mindful balance to today's intensely techno society. It's a great escape from our incessant mental-data download, and it's the perfect antidote to a sedentary lifestyle sitting in front of a computer screen, or for pilots, in a cockpit.
Originating in India thousands of years ago, yoga is part of the curriculum of the Indian Army today. The Indian Society of Aerospace Medicine has been using yoga to desensitize student pilots who have airsickness problems. And, according to The Times of India, yoga is now being used to help train commercial flight students. Capt. Yashraj Tongia, Chief Flight Instructor of Yash Air, says yoga was "solely introduced to help students sharpen their mental abilities and pick up basics of flying training in a novel environment."
Yoga might have begun there, but we don't have to go to India to find it of special interest to pilots and in wide use in military and government programs. The USAF 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, U.K., uses yoga extensively in their physical fitness program. Pilots setting long-distance records report using yoga to help stay awake and keep their butts from getting numb, and there's evidence that yoga, pilates and tai chi are effective for treating high blood pressure. Warriors at Ease (www.warriorsatease.com) has researched the effect of yoga practice for soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a yoga instructor was quoted on www.militaryhub.com: "Most military people are strong but not very flexible, and too often, their hard-core training workouts can lead to injury," she says. "That's why I teach students hatha yoga, which is exercise based and has no meditation or religion connected to it. Mostly, I want them to use this practice to relax and relieve their stress. Ultimately, it will lower their blood pressure and improve their overall health."
Ready to begin? It's important to know that yoga practice transcends age, body type and gender. Macho guys, you have no excuses! I regularly find myself in class with men and women of all shapes and sizes, and of all ages, from 20s to 70s. Yoga classes are easy to find. In addition to dedicated studios, a lot of athletic clubs and gyms have yoga classes. There are beginner or Level 1 classes, but you can also start with a mixed-level class. Just tell the teacher you're new to yoga, so they can guide you during the practice. Oh, and there are even yoga rooms popping up in major airports. San Francisco International Airport has just opened a first-of-its-kind yoga room for travelers. You've got to love California!
A class is sort of like an aerobatic routine or a game of golf—neat and compartmentalized. There's a beginning; loosening up; stretching; focusing attention inward; the balances and postures ("asanas") for flexibility and strength; then the stretching and wind down; ending in "shivasana" or deep relaxation, all usually done to music. No two teachers or classes are the same, and you learn that your body feels different every day. Yoga practice isn't competitive or about comparing yourself to others, so it's a nice way to let go of your ego. At the end of a class, you feel energized, but relaxed and centered.
The different types of yoga you will most commonly find are hatha, power or vinyasa flow yoga. Hatha yoga is the foundation of all yoga styles. It incorporates postures that increase strength and mobility with breathing and meditation. This is slow paced and gentle, and will give you an introduction to the basic yoga poses.
Vinyasa yoga focuses on coordination of breath and movement, and tends to be more vigorous. It's a very physically active form of yoga, and focuses on more intense stretching at the end of the class.
Power or ashtanga yoga is fast paced and more intense, combines stretching, strength training and meditative breathing, postures with push-ups, toe touches and side bends. Instead of pausing between poses as you would in traditional yoga, each move flows into the next, making it an intense aerobatic workout.
Restorative yoga is a more relaxing class in which you'll spend periods of time in poses that passively allow the muscles to relax. You'll find a restorative class to be relaxing and therapeutic.
Bikram or hot yoga studios seem to be popular, and it's where yoga is practiced in a 95- to 100-degree room that allows for the loosening of tight muscles and profuse sweating, thought to be cleansing and detoxifying. Not my cup of tea, but a lot of people like it.
Yoga practice helps bring my attention inward to a stillness that's hard to find, a place where "I" don't exist. Yoga is a great practice for life, but not a substitute for cardio and other workouts. I usually practice yoga two or three times a week, and balance with some weight training and cardio, like riding my bike, a body-pump class, flying aerobatics, swimming or riding my horse. Yoga has made me stronger and more flexible, and helped with the stress that aerobatics puts on my neck and my back. Because of it, I've crossed the chiropractor off the list of things I have to do.
Give yoga a try. It might be the key to immortality! There's a wonderful fluidity to the dynamic flow of energy and position. If only for a moment, you find yourself in a place where you "just are," and your mind has taken a break from the distractions and complexities of the technical world, then it's worth every second. That is flow and is truly hard to find.