Yoga gives them wings: Solar Impulse pilots' source of strength

  • Nisheeth Upadhyay, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 18, 2015 08:51 IST

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg will need strength and will to fly around the world in their solar-powered plane. The 35,000-km journey will last over five months and will have 12 stops--time enough for them to practise yoga.

Piccard, 57, and Borschberg, 63, will take turns to fly the Solar Impulse 2 (Si2): they took off on March 9 and will fly across oceans with minimum sleep in a non-pressurised cockpit. Helping them in staying fit is Sanjeev Bhanot, a professional yoga trainer with more than 20 years of experience.

"Andre and I met in 2004 and he has been practising yoga with me for more than 10 years," said Bhanot, who is from Rajasthan and is now based in Switzerland.

"Although the Solar Impulse team is blessed with the top league of scientists, Andre realised that as a human he would need professional support on a holistic level to face the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual challenges. When I met Bertrand through the project, we also started to work together and Antastha yoga has supported him," he said in an e-mail interview to HT.

The pilots "will be required to demonstrate extraordinary endurance under extreme conditions, living in a non-pressurised cockpit, unheated, with external temperatures ranging from -40 to +40 degrees Celsius (-40 to 104 Fahrenheit)," according to the organisers.

Bhanot has trained the pilots to stand these extreme conditions.

"The key areas to prepare the pilots are: strength to avoid muscle atrophy from long sitting, flexibility to keep the lymph system active and the nervous system toned, abdominal health to stimulate digestion and breathing to focus the mind, regulate the body temperature, and induce sleep at will," said the instructor, who was also the yoga adviser for actress Julia Roberts in her movie Eat, Pray, Love.

Piccard and Borschberg will have to relieve themselves without moving during the flight, since there is no bathroom and they cannot walk around in the 3.8-cubic-metre-cockpit.

The longest single leg of the undertaking will see a pilot fly solo non-stop for five days across the Pacific Ocean between Nanjing, in China, and Hawaii. While the pilots have said "only time will tell if we can overcome the numerous weather, technical... issues", the challenges do not end there.

"Keeping their nerves and a clear state of mind is one of the most important things the pilots must do to complete this mission. There are many physical challenges involved. Going up to 8500m and down to 3500m repeatedly in an unpressurised cabin can lead to swelling. The oxygen masks can lead to build-up of nitrogen in the body which can affect some system functions. The limited movement can lead to built-up lactic acid which causes tiredness, and sleeping for only 20 minutes at a time is hard, especially for the mind," Bhanot said.

And yoga has come to the rescue.

"Si2's single-seater cockpit acts as a yoga mat--no need at all for carry-on luggage for pilots. The seat has been specifically designed to be lowered into a horizontal position, providing enough space for the pilot to fully stretch out. Bhanot has been able to train with Andre to identify other points in the cockpit that the pilots can use to push against and support themselves during the flights of up to 120 hours," the website of the mission read.

The plane, claimed to be the world's only solar-powered aircraft, landed in Ahmedabad last week after a 15-hour flight from Muscat.

"Yoga helps in a different way, I practice yoga almost daily. It helps you think with a right mind, it helps in balance and breathing techniques and helps to re-energise," Borschberg, who is also the CEO of the Solar Impulse project, told a news agency after landing in India.

The Ahmedabad stopover en route the Si-2's round-the-world trip has been delayed twice due to "fog concerns". With ever-growing safety concerns and the mission becoming more intricate every day, it appears yoga is a gift the Si-2 pilots could use.

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