Can astronauts do yoga?

Sir Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, claimed to begin space tourism flight in 2021. The company already has had more than 600 paying customers including Hollywood superstars like Justin Bieber and Leonardo Di Caprio (BBC, 12 Dec 2020). Space is fascinating and such a mystery to us that some are willing to pay more than USD250,000 just to have this ride of a lifetime. Parents like myself never even dream of having one of my kids being an astronaut. Can you imagine filling up a credit card application form and putting your profession as an astronaut? Or writing in your CV that you have space traveled before?

Glamorous as it may seem, astronauts are required to undergo different physical, technical and mental training before their missions. As soon as they are in their space capsules, astronauts will have to face different hardships. For one, since there is zero gravity in space, the need to support their body when they move around is negligible and therefore all of their skeletal muscles will experienced zero contractions. Without regular use and exercise, muscles will weaken and deteriorate. This process is known as muscle atrophy. According to studies at NASA, astronauts experience up to 20% loss of muscle mass on spaceflights lasting five to 11 days. Muscle weakening for any astronauts during their mission can be life threatening as they are required to perform strenuous work around the space station such as cleaning and repairing the space stations. Daily workouts for astronauts are therefore essential.

Yoga, despite the absence of mat and gravity, can be a great addition to the astronauts workout routine. Let’s have a close look at the necessary muscles that are important for the space workers. Antigravity muscles located around the neck, back, calf and quadriceps require extra attention during any space mission.

To begin, the astronaut can begin the yoga sequence in mid air with a simple Cat Cow Pose (Marjaryasana/Bitilasana) staying for 8 breaths each.
Binding both legs against the wall of the space capsule, astronauts can try to forward bend with Parsarita Padottanasana A, B, C and D. Anchoring oneself front against the wall of the spacecraft, he or she can take five breaths through Ustrasana (Camel Pose). The astronaut can continue with five breaths of Ardha Bhujangasana (Baby Cobra). A good upper torso stretch can be concluded with Parsva Balasana (Thread the Needle Pose).

These asanas are great stretches to support healthy function of the astronauts pectoral girdle, activating the erector spine muscles (both the longissimus and iliac rib muscle), the serratus anterior muscle, rotator cuff muscle group, trapezius and rhombus muscles.

A good hamstring and psoas muscle stretch can be achieved with Utthita Hasta Padangushthasana. Normally, on land, this asana activates the quadricep muscles as well as the calf muscles. However, one might find that the absent of gravity, apart from allowing oneself to perform the best Sirasana, cannot help work those leg muscles. Another recommended yoga asana would be Paschimotanasana. This pose not only activates the calf muscle and gluteus maximus but also elongate the erector spinae. Finally the quadriceps can be awaken mid air with Dhanurasana (bow pose). The astronaut can chose to end with a dance in Natarajasana.

The above recommendations are designed to help astronauts tone their muscles with as little equipment as possible. In addition to performing the asanas, astronauts would benefit tremendously with daily Kalpala Bhati Pranayama. Remember those days when we have to stay in our homes due to Covid-19, astronauts who work and live in tight spaces within the space capsules must feel the same low. A breathing exercise as such would not only provides physical benefits but also uplifts their minds, improving their overall moods.