Yoga proves just the ticket for tense air travelers

November 26, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

The Polk family heaved themselves onto the airport shuttle yesterday morning and, sandwiched there thigh-to-thigh, on the way from Baltimore to Thanksgiving in South Carolina, they heard the voice of an angel - the angel of airport serenity.

"Roll your heads in a circle," the angel soothingly instructed. "Pretend there's an imaginary pencil on your head drawing big circles on the ceiling."

Airport Fast Park hired Jean-Jacques Gabriel, who isn't exactly an angel - though he does have heavenly posture - to lead yoga classes on its shuttles from long-term parking lots yesterday and again this morning. They charged Gabriel and a colleague, instructors at Baltimore Yoga Village, with soothing harried holiday travelers with as much deep breathing, limb stretching and spiritual rejuvenation as they can fit into the minutes-long trip from lot to concourse.

The Polk girls, young teens in tie-dye, didn't exactly throw themselves into the yoga. But their mother did. Ingrid Polk was all over the breathing exercises, having seen them, she said, on Oprah.

"I hate travel and this was so terrific," Ingrid Polk gushed as she stepped off the bus. "More people should be doing this stuff than taking pills."

If there's serenity to be found on the busiest travel days of the year, the airport would normally be the last place to look.

Though millions of people will fly this Thanksgiving - and most of them burdened by travel stress and general holiday anxiety - Airport Fast Park doesn't believe "travel" and "tranquillity" must be mutually exclusive. The company figures a little downward dog could go a long way.

Generally, air travelers around Thanksgiving have grounds to be thankful if they make it out without sweating for hours in a grumpy security line, getting mysteriously delayed on the runway, losing their luggage, missing a transfer, suffering through an indigestible meal - or any of the scores of ways flying can try the patience of the Dalai Lama himself.

"We find they're really tense going out," Jim McCleaf, who manages the company's lot on West Nursery Road in Linthicum says of his clients. "They've got the whole holiday ahead of them."

McCleaf's operation near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is just one of a number of Airport Fast Park sites around the country introducing yoga this holiday season.

Though it seems reasonable that not every traveler laden down with luggage, sleepy, and bracing for hours on a crowded flight would be game for a surprise ashtunga attack, Gabriel and his colleague Sara Sheikh, long-trained in the blissful arts, disagree.

"I think that most people can relate to needing to loosen up a little," Sheikh says. "Or at least that's my positive attitude."

Remarkably, she was right. Whether it's the recent surge of yoga's popularity or the persuasive charms of these two teachers, all morning long scarcely a soul declined to breathe and stretch - at least a little. And the few that refused certainly seemed to have fun watching.

At one point yesterday, the bus was stuffed. On the right sat Lois and Don Derham, a senior couple from Chestertown. Across from the Derhams was the Polk family - Tim, Ingrid and daughters Kristin and Natalie. Patrick Small, a big man with a buzz cut hauling camouflage duffel, settled into the back seat.

Hearing that some yoga was in store, Lois Derham, a snowy-haired grandma with pearl button earrings, said, "Wonderful! I'll put my ticket away and maybe I can relax."

Gabriel, who wore earthy silver jewelry studded with turquoise, asked the packed shuttle bus to breathe so much air deep into their tummies that it spilled over into their lungs.

He encouraged everyone to straighten their spines and push them back against the gray, synthetic shuttle cushions.

No one was listening more attentively than Small, the big guy in the work boots.

With his eyes closed, he stretched his ear to his shoulder, dropped his chin to his chest, thrust his chin un-self-consciously toward the ceiling, looking less paramilitary and more Zen with each calming exhale.

When the bus emptied between runs, the lithe Gabriel swung from the overhead bars like a gymnast and twisted himself into shapes pretzels would envy.

He paid no mind to the sign near the windshield: Remain seated until bus stops. In fact, he joked that he might try some handstands.

When bus driver John Harris, quite fit at 75, heard the part about handstands, he joked: "Watch him! If you see him on his hands back there, let me know and I'll slam on the breaks, see how far he goes."

After Orean D. Chatman maneuvered his Lexus into a long-term spot and pulled his suitcase from the trunk, he slid into a seat in back of the shuttle - talking on his cell phone all the while.

Gabriel stared at him until Chatman, putting his hand over the receiver, asked, "Yes?"

The yogi explained his mission. He hoped Chatman would hang up the phone, put his hands on his knees and drink in a cup of deliciously restful parking shuttle air.

"Ah, I'm already relaxed," says Chatman, who happens to have written a novel about a man on his way home for the holidays who witnesses a murder. "But I appreciate it though."

Seconds later, determined yogi Jean-Jacques Gabriel, the sort of guy that forsakes a traditional handshake for a two-handed number that's more caress than pump, has Chatman rotating his tight wrists and inhaling deep, rhythmic breaths.

At the Southwest terminal, Chatman's stop, he thanks Gabriel profusely.

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