Ayurveda for Healthy Air Travel
A comprehensive health-care science, Ayurveda emerged from the same Vedic culture as yoga, in northern India, and its foundations come from the Vedas, the oldest books in the world. Used for medical interventions and treatments, Ayurveda also emphasizes personal preventative care and lifestyle, seeking to create balance and harmony. Ayurvedic philosophy draws from the nature world and our relationship with it, including the elements (earth, air, fire, water, and ether) as well as daily and seasonal rhythms. One of the features of Ayurveda is the use of herbs and oils. (Online resources for the herbs and oils mentioned in this article can be found at the end.)
Traveling by plane isn’t easy. Sitting, waiting, standing in line, eating packaged food, crossing time zones — all commonplace occurrences for air travelers — are sure to deplete the body and muddle the mind. “The main problem with flying is that it’s completely unnatural,” says Lalita Devi, an Ayurveda specialist who directs the ashram's Well Being Center and has worked with pilots and flight attendants as well as thousands of visitors to the ashram.
“We are suspended in the air over the earth in a metal casing hurtling through space at rapid speeds. There is some part of us, no matter how routine air travel has become, that recognizes that we are engaging in something artificial,” she says. Ayurveda draws from our connection to the elements, and works with rhythms of nature, which are absent in air travel environment.”
From an Ayurvedic perspective, everyone who travels by air experiences an imbalance of what is known as Vata, one of the three fundamental qualities of life that Ayurveda addresses. Vata is composed of air and ether, which are light, fast, subtle, dry, and cold. No one wants to spend their limited vacation time sick and uncomfortable; the implications of a Vata disturbance can include everything from catching a cold, ending up with insomnia, experiencing an energy crash, as well as constipation and delay in bowel movements (a common experience among travelers).
Luckily, the practice of Ayurveda is replete with remedies for the modern air traveler, beginning with planning and prevention. These will make the travel experience healthier and more enjoyable, and also mitigate negative repercussions on arrival. Ayurveda works from the principle that opposites heal, so in order to counter the imbalancing effects of too much air and ether, we need things that are warm, moist, and heavy, no matter what our individual constitution or other imbalances.
Food is one of the most important things to think about before you travel and can make a big difference in your experience.
Eat warm, moist grounding foods like cooked apples, steamed veggies, lentils, quinoa and soups, writes Dr. Vasant Lad, founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and author of The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies. He says to avoid drying foods like salad, dried fruit, and potato chips.
Lalita adds, “People think salads are healthy but one of the worst things for air travel.” She suggests saying yes to soups, stir-frys, cooked veggies, and veggie burgers. “You want things that are warm, moist, and heavy. Even though they are cold, you can also try hummos, yogurt, spanakopita, or dumplings. You won’t get past security with nut butters, but could make a sandwich to take with you — use a moist, heavy bread, like Ezekiel.”
Other advance-planning tips include packing light — dragging around heavy luggage can be stressful — and getting as much advance information as possible to reduce anxiety: For example, how will your cell phone work? Do you need cash or can you use your cards? How are you getting from Point A to Point B? What time will you arrive at your final destination?
Lalita recommends a five-step pre-travel routine, no matter what your constitution or any other imbalance you may be treating:
- Drink 6-8 ounces of warm water upon waking on your travel day
- Use a neti pot (popularized by Oprah) to ensure that nasal passages are cleared from all microbes.
- Take a warm shower
- Rub your body down with a tridoshic oil (sesame oil is good one) while your body is still moist
- Introduce a tridoshic nasya oil into each nostril; bring the oil with you when you travel and re-introduce the oil every hour, especially while you are in the plane.
“From an Ayurvedic perspective, you would do the first four things every day regardless,” she says, “but it is especially important when you fly.”
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, an Ayurvedic teacher and practitioner, offers the following advice: One hour before setting out on your travels, swallow a bit of ginger or cinnamon to strengthen agni (digestive fire), improve your circulation, and clear your mind.
At the airport
Once at the airport, do everything you can to stay conscious and keep stress levels low. “You want to keep your nervous system calm,” says Lalita. Do your best to stay away from crowds and keep your breathing deep and slow, inhaling and exhaling to a count of three, for example. Many airports now have meditation or interfaith prayer rooms that offer a welcome sanctuary from the overwhelm of sounds, sights, and people.
All the experts agree: Drink plenty of water when traveling, to avoid dehydration; warm water is best. Becoming too dry aggravates Vata, which is the cause of most travel discomfort. Do not drink alcohol, coffee, or tea, which are all drying, and skip the popcorn, pretzels, chips, and other dry snacks. (Ideally you have brought your own Vata-balancing foods or eaten well at the airport.)
Make sure you get some physical circulation, especially on long flights. You can point and flex your toes, roll your shoulders, make neck circles, and open and close your fists. Even better? Walk a little whenever you can, just once up and down the aisle can counter stagnation.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa also suggests “When you get settled in the plane for a long trip, take a dose of tagara (Indian valerian). Use ½ teaspoon of powdered tagara, swallowed with warm water. Repeat the dose every four hours while flying.”
Once you arrive, Lalita advises that you adjust your schedule to the local time immediately, without napping. “Reset your clock and get on the local time as soon as possible.”
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa says, “When you arrive, expose your skin to the sun for 20 minutes. Sunbathing stimulates sadhaka pitta in the brain, so you will stay alert while adjusting to the new time zone.” After your sunbath, he recommends countering jetlag by drinking a quart of grapefruit juice, then taking a bath (a teaching from Yogi Bhajan). “Fill a bathtub half full of warm water,” he explains. “Sit in the tub and flutter kick your legs in the water for five minutes for each time zone you crossed.” Another possibility is to add one-half cup chopped fresh ginger and one-half cup baking soda to a hot bath to soak your stress away before committing to your new schedule.
It is recommended to drink sedating tea before you go to bed on your new schedule, such as chamomile or Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime. A traditional Ayurvedic preparation would be to simmer one teaspoon each of jatamansi, tagara and ashwagandha in a cup of water and for 15 minutes. Strain and drink before sliding into bed.
Dr. Lad also suggests drinking almond milk, which relieves anxiety and other Vata-related imbalances. He also recommends a soothing bath or hot shower before sleep, as well as a full-body self-massage at bedtime with warm sesame oil.
Lalita adds, “If your destination is the ashram, you might consider making an appointment for an Ayurvedic consultation or body treatment at the Well Being Center soon after you arrive.”
While air travel did not exist when Ayurveda was first practiced, the understanding of the natural elements and the effects of their imbalance allows us to draw on the wisdom of Ayurveda in very practical ways for our contemporary lives. All it takes is a little awareness, planning, and a few preventative measures to avoid the primary pitfall of air travel — creating a Vata disturbance — so you can enjoy a healthy, energized time wherever you land.
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