Sallie Jo Cunningham wasn't expecting a good night's sleep. Waiting for her 12:30 a.m. flight out of San Francisco International Airport to depart, Cunningham, a business development professional, had resigned herself to a groggy trip back home.
Then she visited the airport's yoga room, a dimly lit, hardwood-floored oasis of calm. "I thought it would be a good idea to stop in the yoga room and see what they offered," she said. The mats, blocks and bolsters were useful, but not so much as just having a quiet place to stretch, practice her flow and unwind.
"I can tell you that I actually did feel quite a bit more relaxed for that flight," Cunningham said. "I was really glad I had the opportunity to do yoga." San Francisco is one of a growing number of airports that are creating rooms for yoga and meditation. Airports including O'Hare in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth and Burlington in Vermont all have set aside space for yoga.
A temporary yoga room at Heathrow in London proved so popular last year that it was made permanent, and its operator is looking to open one in Hong Kong. Even people in the business of relaxation, it appears, are not immune to flight-related anxiety.
"I definitely have found myself going to the bar and having a glass of wine," said Ritu Riyat, a yoga instructor and life coach who has used airport yoga rooms. "With yoga, I don't need to have that glass of wine."
Analysts say the rooms are a reflection of an increasingly tense environment in airports. "This is a tacit recognition by airports that travel can be stressful and they want to do what they can to help travelers reduce that stress," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst. "Yoga's probably a lot healthier than trying to quell the stress at an airport bar."
The rooms have been particularly well received at larger airports where passengers wait for connecting flights. "It really was just the most pleasant layover I think I've ever had," said Leslie Wei, an ophthalmology fellow from Wisconsin, who happened across the airport yoga room when traveling through Chicago last fall. "It's like the quietest place in O'Hare. It's really hard to find a quiet place there."
O'Hare added its room in November 2013, and Midway Airport followed suit last September.
While a number of airports have, over the last couple of decades, converted existing chapels into interfaith sanctuaries that offer a quiet place, yoga rooms - most of which are free and open to all - straddle the line between secular and spiritual, offering a quiet place for meditation as well as a space to stretch or sweat.
One exception to these inclusive facilities is at the SkyTeam Lounge at Heathrow. Members of the SkyTeam airline alliance have access, though other travelers can buy a day pass. SkyTeam began what was intended to be a 2-month pop-up yoga room last year, but kept the space open after traveler response. Now, SkyTeam plans to introduce yoga to its lounge in the Hong Kong International Airport when the lounge opens this year.
Harteveldt said that airports were simply responding to consumers' needs by creating yoga rooms. Travelers these days must arrive earlier than ever for their flights, especially at busy hub airports, leading to more of the hurry-up-and-wait routine of long lines and idle time. And more travelers also want to maintain their health and wellness routines on the road, whether that means seeking out healthier food options or finding ways to sneak in exercise during their trip.
"This whole trend of how consumers are expressing their health consciousness is one we've been observing by several years," said Jim Crawford, an executive at a design firm that does a lot of work with airports. Airports with yoga rooms say that they are working hard to make traveler well-being a priority, though, and that offering a place for tranquility is an important step toward that goal.
"It was installed as part of this holistic program to actively promote the pursuit of healthy lifestyle choices," said David Magana, spokesman for the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which added a yoga room in 2012.
Like other airports with yoga rooms, Dallas-Fort Worth does not log every traveler who visits, but Magana estimated that dozens of travelers used the rooms every day. "We felt that a yoga room would kind of be an interesting thing that would differentiate our airport," said Doug Yakel, spokesman for the San Francisco airport. "A yoga room seemed to be something that resonated with travelers."
San Francisco lays claim to the first airport yoga room, which it opened in 2012. That room was later relocated to a walkway where Terminals 1 and 2 connect in order to give more travelers access to it, and a second yoga room opened early last year in Terminal 3. Yakel said the airport was considering adding another room to serve the airport's one remaining terminal.
Burlington added a room for yoga after officials saw passengers flow through sequences right in the terminal. A local studio, Evolution Physical Therapy and Yoga, helped design and stock the space.
"What it comes down to is customer satisfaction," said Gene Richards, director of aviation at Burlington International Airport. Most airports, though, are not so accommodating. Dedicated yogis say they often end up practicing out in the open in the terminal.
"It definitely elicits lots of curious looks," said Jessica Thompson, who co-founded and runs YOGO, a company that makes foldable yoga mats for traveling. Having a room solves that problem. "It allows you to do a full flow or deeper stretching without feeling like everybody is staring at you," she said, "because they do."
© 2015 New York Times News Service