Travel and Yoga

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 29, 2015

International travel is difficult. Adjusting the body’s clock to a different time zone is, by itself, difficult enough, but at the same time one is assaulted with the discomforts of the travel to get there, a different language, different ways of doing almost anything, different food, different greeting rituals, different body language and more. Culture shock. Doing even the most simple things can seem a brain buster, and that would be the case even without travel fatigue and jet lag having already frazzled your poor wits.

There are more similarities between life in the United States and life in Mali than most, not having experience of both countries, might imagine. There are also vast differences. A traveler newly arrived in Mali from a country like the United States will encounter many challenges far beyond the experience of travel between relatively similar countries.

Here is my number one travel trip: yoga. Yoga is the most powerful tool I know of for overcoming the fatigues of travel and adapting quickly to a new environment. It is very helpful for less-challenging travel and it can be a life-saver when coming to a place like Mali.

Yoga is intimately connected with my being in Mali in the first place. Last year, I had something like a mid-life crisis, an event that led to taking stock of who I had become, reevaluating what was important to me, and deciding what I really wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I quit my job and focused my energies on my internal journey through life. I had had a yoga practice for many years but I started doing yoga once every day, sometimes twice. After 4 months I had completely transformed my body and, with it, my mind. Ultimately, the end goal of a yoga practice is mental control, calmness, strength, clarity. Some people associate this with being spiritual; I don’t object to the term but I find it imprecise. Yoga can take you to another level of perception, inner perception certainly, but I also believe it focuses external perception as well. You see more truly into yourself and outside yourself. The distant objective is to see ultimate reality but before you get to that there are many steps of increasing clarity and, even if you don’t get anywhere close to the grand prize the intermediate steps make the effort more than worthwhile.

I went to an intensive training program and became a certified yoga teacher. I never intended to pursue a career as a yoga instructor, per se, but in addition to deepening my own practice I wanted to be able to share yoga with others. I have never taught yoga in a class since becoming certified but I have shared my knowledge of yoga with many people. I also learned a great deal in training about teaching. I have made very good use of that knowledge in the Colonie de Vacances STEM.

It was in the course of yoga teacher training that I made the decision to commit myself fully to making iNERDE successful. Just as I used yoga to heal my body and stretch my mind, if not to, at least, towards, ultimate reality, iNERDE was the most logical approach for me to contribute to healing the world. In traditional yoga philosophy, a person serves best by serving their best in the capacity it was given to them to serve. I am a master technologist. With iNERDE I am applying my best skills in the place in the world where they are needed the most.

I wrote many blogs during my yoga teacher training on this journey, you can probably find them somewhere in internet-land if the subject interests you. Let me go back, now, to my travel tip.

The very best preparation I know of for a long flight is yoga. I do yoga as close to my flight time as I can. For a very long flight, I do as much yoga as I can. Of course, anything is better than nothing. If you have a few yoga poses that are very effective for you, 15 minutes just before the flight can mean the difference between a comfortable flight and arriving in shambles. I’ve done yoga in busy airport terminals, waiting for my flight. (San Francisco, always the enlightened city, has yoga rooms in its terminals.) The ideal, though, for, say 12 hours of travel, would be 2 or even 3 hours of yoga the day of flight, being physically exhausted enough when arriving to the plane so that you easily fall into a recovery sleep for most of the flight. I had the opportunity to do that on my flight from San Francisco to Paris. When I arrived Sunday morning in Paris I got off the plane with nary an ache or pain, wide-awake, spent a busy Sunday in Paris with family and friends, went to bed at a normal time in the evening, Paris time, got up the next day at 6am, took a train to Germany, gave a presentation in a business meeting, came back to Paris, and drove to Lille in the north of France that evening. That was, in fact, a long and tiring day for my first full day in Europe, but, thanks to yoga preparation, I managed it just fine.

Yoga the day before a flight is also effective, even two days before a flight will be of some help. From the physical point of view, yoga prepares the body against the stress of being in a fixed position in a confined space for a long period of time. It also prepares you against the mental stress of travel. Even being herded through a security screening can be relatively unperturbing when I’ve mentally prepared myself with yoga.

When I can, I also try to do yoga as soon as I can on arrival. I have done many years of Bikram yoga. One characteristic of Bikram yoga is that the sequence of postures is fixed. It is easy to jump into a class anywhere in the world once you are familiar with the sequence, even when the class is in a language you don’t understand. YOA, yoga on arrival, will immediately get all the kinks that might have crept into your body during the flight out, will help with adjusting to the time change, and will mentally prepare you to deal with whatever level of culture shock is going to hit you.

There aren’t any Bikram yoga studios in Bamako, Mali. Still, yoga is the perfect tool to bring to Mali to deal with travel fatigue. It is a restorative physical activity which can be done at any level of exertion in only the space needed to stand upright. I don’t have access to a gym or a pool here, I could go jogging but it wouldn’t be all that pleasant on the rough roads and possibly counter-productive with all the motorcycle and car fumes. (In Dakar I only saw two people who were obviously foreigners – one was riding a road bike, in spandex cycling clothes, dodging potholes and zig-zagging taxis on a busy road, the other, a woman jogging. Even I thought, crazy white people!)

Yoga practice has given me a very highly attuned awareness of my body. I am a speedskater and started practicing yoga to treat lower back pain, common in that sport. Three months after starting yoga the lower back pain completely disappeared and I have not have any back pain whatsoever for over ten years. I haven’t had any aches and pains in all that time, only injuries from sports which I quickly heal from with the help of yoga. So if there is something going amiss in my body I feel it right away, because my default state is to be free of any discomfort. I had observed, before I started my yoga practice, yoga practitioners talking about some problem with their body and came to the conclusion that yoga practitioners have more physical problems than people that don’t practice yoga. I later realized that these yogis talked about problems because they were unusual, that they were aware something was wrong, and were addressing it before it really became a problem.

There is a down side to having this level of awareness of one’s body. I now have almost no tolerance to alcohol. I used to enjoy wine, beer, or liquor from time to time. Alcoholic drinks have a rich history and are often part of fully appreciating a culture. So, I have always enjoyed imbibing as part of being a citizen of the world. However, now, I feel the effect of even a small quantity of alcohol right away as something that damages my physical equilibrium.

Such fine sensitivity is very helpful here in Mali, as one is exposed to many things that may overwhelm the body’s defence mechanisms. I have gotten sick several times, whether from food, water, heat, fumes, or something else. As soon as I become aware of a problem developing, which, for me, is well before I am incapacitated, I take immediate remedial action. Sometimes it is resting, or nourishment. I have also done intensive yoga to fight something off. I felt an infection starting in my lungs but successfully fought it off with two three hour sessions of yoga. Part of it is physical, yoga brings nourishment to the body at a cellular level, strengthening its ability to fight infection. Part of it is mental focus. It is well established that people with a positive attitude are healthier and live longer. Yoga is bit like being able to supercharge the effects of a positive attitude at will.

Yoga may, indeed, be a miracle, but it can’t solve every problem. Travel is still very challenging, even for super-yogis. But it is the most useful and powerful thing I bring with me on my travels. It has been the greatest possible help in making all of my travels as enjoyable and as productive as my trip to bring the iNERDE Colonie de Vacances STEM to Senegal and Mali has been.