Planes, trains and automobiles…yoga

Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli does some car yoga for a Buick Ad.

Several weeks ago as I was driving north on Interstate 5 from Oceanside, in Southern California, I was not pleased that, like all the other times I reluctantly have driven that route, cars were not moving.

Fortunately, this time I wasn’t racing to teach a class or see a client. I was driving to meet my daughter and her beau in Laguna Beach, to celebrate my 65th birthday, and I was sitting in a virtual parking lot. Not that I’m unaccustomed to that!  I lived in Philadelphia for 20 years, and the Schuylkill Expressway — locals called it the Surekill Crawlway — had its share of slowdowns and not-moving at-all challenges.

Although I watch little television, I got caught up in Hell on Wheels (apt title) on Netflix.  That show depicts a time over 100 years ago when we were building railroads across the country. So why, I wondered as I looked at the motionless mall of cars around me, don’t we have commuter trains all over Southern California? No one needs traffic-induced stress.

Last week, I visited Deer Park Buddhist Monastery in Escondido for one of its Sunday open houses/gatherings. Our first group activity was mindful walking, inhaling with one or more steps and exhaling with several steps. Our mission: simply to be present to our bodies, our breathing and the ground.

I was recovering from a knee injury and was concerned I wouldn’t be able to tackle the return trip up hill.  But that mindfulness combined with breathing overrode any knee discomfort.

So, how can we drive with the same mindfulness? When I picked up a friend visiting from Albuerquerque at the San Diego Airport we soon found ourselves, yes, not moving. She reminded me: Breathe in and breathe out as an alternative to freaking out.

Being mindful in a parking jam can be as simple as breathing consciously.

If you are stuck in traffic in a non-moving vehicle, you can:

Thank you to my daughter, Marina Braff for being the car yoga model.

1. Inhale and shrug your shoulders to your ears (more than they might already be).  Exhale as you drop your shoulders away from your ears. You don’t need to have tight shoulders to drive!

Practice Alexander Technique! Take an internal scan of your body.  Determine where you are holding unnecessary tension, and let it go. As Peter Levine, Trauma Recovery Therapist says, “Trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event.”

2. Inhale. Exhale and bring your navel toward your spine. This strengthens your core and helps to center you.

3.  Inhale while looking straight ahead. Exhale as you stretch neck to each side.

4.  Roll one shoulder back. Roll the other shoulder back.

5.  Make faces. Move or stretch in any way you can that is safe and enables you to keep your eyes on the road.

As a passenger:

Improvise with yoga, dance, lifting hand weights, whatever. Yoga poses that work well for me — when I am not the driver — include seated spinal twists, stretching to each side, arching back with hands resting on the seat, and hanging forward bend. Much of the above, though not all, may work on a train or plane, depending on seating arrangements.

6. Try some self massage for the neck, shoulders, scalp and any part of your back you can reach. This is to wake up and relax.

7. Use balls. At the base of your skull, in between your shoulder blades, at your lower back, under your thighs, under your feet. Lean or press into them to prevent tension and help with circulation.

Driving can be a meditation, but don’t let it be an out-of-body experience.  Focus on the road and the other cars without letting your mind wander. Don’t be like Jackson Brown in his song,  “Well I’m a-running down the road trying to loosen my load, I’ve got seven women on my mind…”

How often do our thoughts and attention wander on long drives and familiar commuting routes? Bring your thoughts back to the present. Practice mindful driving.

Years ago, when my daughter was in kindergarten at Anne Sullivan Nursery School, her teacher told me that every time she got on the highway she was amazed by how harmonious it was. Ms. Jean thought we under-appreciated  that so many cars, going in the same direction, could travel without bumping and hurting each other. I think this is also a nice way to look at the world.

But that said, and traveling back to my earlier thought, let’s create more commuter trains that will improve air quality and make our trips even more harmonious. Meanwhile, try using some of these teqhniques to ease your journey.


Gwen Wendy Hammarstrom

Gwen Wendy Hammarstrom

 Gwen Wendy Hammarstrom

 has written a column on health and wellness for the Californian newspaper for two years, as well as a bodywork column for Awareness Magazine and freelance writing for High Country Journal in Southern California, The Murrieta Chronicle and Neighbor’s Newspaper. You can find more at her blog:

Current publications include: Circles of Healing, The Complete Guide to Healing with Massage and Yoga for Practitioners, Caregivers, Students and Clients. Phone: (951) 303-4508.

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