I know - that title is making a really bold claim. Yet the evidence is really compelling.
But before we get to that - a word about how yoga looks from the outside, when you’ve never tried it.
You’ve probably seen expert practitioners in magazines, somehow managing the impossible feat of looking good in skin-tight lycra, bending themselves into shapes that would make Salvador Dali sweat.
You’ve seen all the craziest poses (including ones that look like they belong in a circus), because they’re the ones that get most of the attention, mainly for the shock value. You’ve maybe heard something about its 7000 year old Indian origins, something about mysticism and spiritual enlightenment - and maybe the word “fad” leapt into your mind.
Put aside those worries, because that’s not really what yoga is.
Or at least, that’s not what it has to be, if you don’t want that kind of thing in your life. It’s a lot more interesting than any of the stereotypes and muddled first impressions that have leapt up around it.
The history is fascinating, and the way it works in the world - actually works, instead of how a lot of folk in the media think it works - is remarkable and well worth learning more about. Attend a yoga resort led by expert teachers, like our 11-day retreat in Kho Phangan in Thailand this September, and you’ll get a mind/body reset that will feel like you’ve been rebuilt from the soles of your feet upwards...
But let’s forget that side of things for now, because this is a post about travel. Specifically, your travels.
This is about how yoga can help travel further, keep moving for longer, and experience so much more than ever before.
Imagine you’re packing your suitcase before your next trip, and the lid won’t close..
Nobody enjoys repacking. What you want to take and what you can take are rarely in alignment - and that’s usually for the absolute basics, let alone all the “just in case I need it” items that find a way into your luggage in a moment of weakness.
How about if I said you need to pack a miniature gym as well?
Fact is, you need something, because travel is surprisingly hard on the body. Medical record data from the U.S. shows strong links between long-term business travel and increased obesity, diastolic blood pressure, hypertension, anxiety, and all the ruinous compounded effects of poor sleep.
Even the most relaxing trips can be demanding on the body in ways you hardly notice until they add up, from sitting too long on transport to the effect of all that delicious new food on your diet (here are some good tips from registered dieticians for keeping things balanced as you travel).
While the mental and physical benefits of getting out into the world are absolutely spectacular, you do need some kind of mind & body maintenance routine in order to keep going.
Or rather yogas, because it’s like saying “enter sports”. The term ‘yoga’ refers to a vast family of physical disciplines that take many forms.
Some focus on getting your body into the right alignment and holding it there. Some are about flowing movements that never stop. Some are in cool conditions, others are in heated rooms to loosen your muscles and open your pores. Some focus on breathing, or on stillness of the mind. Most are gentle - and a few are designed to push your limits until you have an athlete’s musculature.
(The Guardian has an excellent roundup of the most popular forms of yoga here.)
It’s a self-service buffet for the mind and body, and you get to choose exactly what goes on your plate, according to what your strengths are, what’s ailing you right now - and of course what would be fun to have a go at.
It also weighs exactly nothing in your luggage. There’s no expensive equipment. You don’t need special clothes, or a helmet, or exactly the right kind of shoes that you will wear just twice on your trip while lugging them around for the whole journey). The only requirement is you, along with the skills you’ve learned (or the skills you’ll be taught as you go along).
And what you can achieve with these basic requirements is pretty extraordinary.
Take lower back pain, the curse of the long-term traveller. Long-haul flights can be brutal on your back and neck muscles - and it’s those exact muscles that certain forms of yoga seek to unkink. The lower-back benefits of a regular stretching routine come from some of the most solid scientific research into yoga that’s been done.
Yoga improves muscular strength, flexibility, balance and hand-eye coordination, all of which decrease your risk of injuring yourself when you’re moving about. Like most mind-body exercise, it can help reduce inflammation. It’s great for your joints, it can lessen asthma symptoms in the long term, and it’s recognized as an effective form of treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome.
Like all forms of regular exercise, it’ll also give you more of a handle on the mental side of things, including your stress levels, and help alleviate any mild anxiety that’s a common companion to any travel adventure. Certain types that help with your breathing will give you more control over any anxiousness - and since it helps you take control of your mood and self-confidence, its impact on depression, while currently poorly studied, seems an exciting addition to its long list of beneficial effects.
The last thing, which is a cumulative effect of everything else, is your sense of awareness. When your body and mind are working as they should, all your senses are heightened. It'll stimulate your sense of “body awareness”, so you know what’s going on inside you and can spot any problems - and it’ll help you see more, process more, be present for more.
Can yoga help you make better travel memories? It certainly seems possible.
All this, and you can do it anywhere, including public places (if you’re willing to put up with a few stares, of course). Body creaking and groaning after a long flight? Find a comfortable bit of carpet and do a little yoga until everything feels like it’s fitting back into place. Need to relax, and you’ve just found a spot with a stunning view? Employ some breathing exercises and drink it all in.
Yoga is both a terrific regular maintenance routine and an effective “break glass for emergency” treatment, and you need both, to keep travelling.
That may be a bold claim to make - but it’s definitely not a stretch.