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Yoga and Travel

On a recent trip to Japan, I realized how much of yoga philosophy and practice can be practiced during travel. We can say that yoga means paying attention to one's experience of life. There are many ways to define or describe yoga and that’s just one useful definition for this blog post. Now, when we are talking about travel, demands on our attention are even higher. Yoga can also be thought of as managing the senses. We probably do this in many basic ways already. One example is managing our food intake.

Of course, the pleasure of eating is a large reason for many travelers to get out there. I personally believe that we shouldn't deny ourselves the pleasure of the senses completely, but the practice of restraint of the senses, and thus restraint in food intake, is a part of the yoga practice. This skill can be handy when we’re traveling and want to get synchronized with the normal rhythms of the locale we’re visiting.  One could take a strategic method and try to calculate the meal time so that one is aligned. But I noticed that I was waking at 3:30 AM on the first few days and my hunger was strong.  In this case, I ate a small “pre-breakfast” of a small drink and bread from the convenience store.  I listened to my body while also knowing that I wanted to gradually push it onto the local schedule.  This kind of management of food intake is easier to do because of the awareness I have built over time through my yoga practice. Each time I practice paying attention to the internal sensations and signals and the responses to food, I strengthen those neural pathways.

When we experience life through attenuated senses, we can build more refined senses. This can help us bypass some of our instincts that might not serve us and help us tune into our sense of wisdom. When we have that connection inward, it helps us to have a more settled sense of self. Let’s take another example from travel: water. In the media, we're constantly bombarded with the importance of hydration. Drinking copious amounts of water is the obvious answer, but we can also manage our hydration by managing our sun exposure and we can even obtain hydration from solid foods too. Again, paying attention inward is helpful for our hydration. Eating restaurant food  exposes us to far greater added salt, sugar and fats than we might have at home. These ingredients make food flavourful, but continued use can take its toll. Restraining our senses for some time can help us come back into balance. This could mean not eating that bowl of ramen before bed and rehydrating with fresh fruits. The fear of missing out can be strong, but there are trade-offs. Having a simple meal for a few days can help you avoid dehydration or energy crashes. It may mean you have more attention for other travel experiences such as a nice hike in nature. A trip to the local market can yield so many new revelations about a place and its culture. For example, a trip to the fruit and vegetable market was for us an opportunity to learn the geography of food producing regions, an opportunity to practice the local language, and an opportunity to support local merchants directly and have a face to face interaction.

When traveling, we may have the best of intentions to keep up our movement  practice (ie, yoga posture practice or other exercise). Unfortunately, I found that it wasn't quite possible in our small hotel rooms with little floorspace or no dedicated exercise spaces. But I discovered other ways to relieve tension through the strong culture of bathing in Japan. Whether it is the deep tubs and powerful showers in the hotels, communal baths in some hotels or standalone public onsen, there are many other ways to find relaxation. Relieving muscular tension or pain is an important way to ease the mind and stay centered. Even technological solutions were helpful, as I discovered in one hotel that had a room full of high-end massage chairs! These machines were able to get areas that we didn't even think of such as the ankles and hands.  We also had shiatsu massage given by humans and thereby contributed to the local economy. The two massage therapists were so welcoming and seemed to earnestly care for us. We also found relaxation and light exercise by visiting smaller temples, which often are less packed with tourists and sometimes have beautiful grounds attached to them. Even riding the trains can be a place to catch your breath because it is a cultural practice to be silent on trains so that people can get much needed rest on their commute.

This brings us to the ethical dimensions of travel, for this is a part of our yoga practice too. I'm glad that media is beginning to highlight the importance of our choices when it comes to travel. Headlines have been made about overtourism in Venice, Kyoto's Gion district, Hawaii and many more locales around the globe. Some examples of the dark side of travel include cultural degradation, for example, physical defacement of ancient ruins or cultural disruption such as making a mockery of geishas in Kyoto for the sake of likes or views on social media. It comes in the form of carbon combustion from vehicles polluting the air. One could conclude that any travel at all is harmful, but it would be against human nature not to seek new things and expansion. We can apply the principle of restraint, by traveling less, choosing places or experiences that would benefit the locals, being respectful of locals by learning some of the language and customs. Ask yourself, “How I can contribute to the livelihood of the people I’m going to visit, on many levels?” This may be monetary, but it may simply mean showing appreciation and kindness. In one example, in Nagano, we were walking to the train station in order to make sure we made our train, but we heard a local person calling us over. She was really excited to invite us into her event space to watch a taiko drum exhibit performance happening live. We hesitated because we weren't sure we were going to get caught in some scheme. But we were really glad we went because we saw some live drumming and even got to play the drum for a few minutes! We noticed that their audience was pretty small, so we were happy to be their audience and share in their joy together.

Travel brings the risk of disruption to your practice, internally and physically. That can happen through illness encountered while traveling. It can “trip” us up, deflating our joy, by having to forego fun activities in the name of rest, recovery and containing the disease. It may mean pain and other uncomfortable symptoms. There is also an emotional aspect of sickness which is recognized in the Buddha's Four Sights. These inevitable experiences of every human, one of which is sickness, were a-ha moments for the Buddha that helped him on the path to awaken. Sickness plays with your sense experience, and can leave us reeling, in a place of instability and ambiguity. Fortunately, yoga and mindfulness provide us a place of internal stability, even in a place of groundlessness, that we can always return to. That place of stability is strengthened the more we practice and the more we resolve to make it a part of our daily life, whether we’re at home or away from home.


The Case Against Travel by Agnes Callard. The New Yorker, June 24, 2023.

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