Wide Blue Yonder


Most people practice most of their yoga indoors, the weather being what it is. Yoga studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway. That is a good thing if it’s the dead of winter in Vermont or the armpit of summer in Mississippi.

Practicing indoors means being able to practice in the middle of a blizzard or a thunderstorm, or even a sprinkle. It means practicing in a space set aside for asana or meditation, or just breathwork, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent in one’s practice, a habit thought to be fundamental to gaining ground.

No rain checks are ever needed when unrolling a mat at your local studio or your rec room. They are private spaces, spaces in which the environment is controlled. Lightning might strike, but it won’t be literal lightning.

Some practices, like Bikram Yoga, are performed indoors only, unless it’s in heat-ravaged places like Pakistan in the grip of a post-modern climate event, when you might as well be outside. Even then it probably doesn’t measure up to what Colonel Bikram Choudhury, with his 24-karat smile, calls his “torture chambers.

Pattabhi Jois, the man who gave life to Ashtanga Yoga, on which most yoga exercise today is based, recommended that it be practiced indoors.

“Outside don’t take,” he said. “First floor is a good place. Don’t go upstairs, don’t go downstairs.”

When asked about old-school yogis in India practicing in the forest he said, “That is very bad.”

Although there are problems associated with practicing outdoors – including that it will invariably rain the one day you try it – people do it all the time, especially in places like southern California, where there are many classes like Beach Yoga with Brad.

“Ditch the confines of the indoors,” said CBS-TV Los Angeles.

“If you’re doing yoga indoors then you’re cheating yourself,” said Sarah Stevenson, a Certified Yoga Instructor in Orange County, California. “The sun’s rays and fresh air provide not only improved physical health, but also spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”

It isn’t just luminous climes, either, that roll out the mat regardless of rocks and roots and snakes. From Missoula to Minneapolis, any place where the winters are long and dark, the sun-starved come out in droves in the summer.

Some don’t wait for the solstice.

Members of the yoga project ‘Y-8’ routinely practice their Alsteryoga on the thick ice of the frozen-over Lake Alster in the northern German town of Hamburg. They make sure to pull the hoods of their insulated sweatshirts over their heads when in headstand.

Whether it’s ice or sand or grass, or the top of a paddleboard on a lake that’s been defrosted, the instability of ground outdoors makes for a challenging experience. “When you’re not on a solid wood surface, you end up using different parts of your body,” said Jennifer Walker, an instructor in Maine. “Outside, you end up engaging your core much more to stabilize your whole body.”

More often than not I roll out my yoga mat indoors because I’ve carved out a space I like at home, and because the weather in Lakewood, just outside Cleveland, Ohio, is unpredictable, while the bugs that fly up out of the Rocky River valley are predictable.

Sometimes, though, I jump the traces and brave the back yard..

The two mostly sunny weeks my wife and I spent in North Rustico, on the north coast of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, at the Coastline Cottages on the National Park shoreline, I moved me and my mat outside. At times in the morning, but more often in the afternoon, when the crab apple tree at the back of our cottage cast a convenient shadow, I unrolled my mat on the grass and set about doing yoga exercises, warming up with sun salutations.

“When I practice outdoors, there is this amazing energy,” said Angela Jackson, an instructor in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. “I feel more connected to the earth, the birds, the animals, the sky, and to myself.”

I practiced almost every day, because we were on vacation with plenty of time, and because the days were warm and it was breezy where we were on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. I was bitten every one of those days by mosquitoes, as well as occasionally by black flies from the scrubby conifer woods beside the fifty acres of soybeans behind the cottages.

Prince Edward Island is predominately a farming and fishing province. We once stayed in a cottage next to a barn full of cows. Every room in the cottage came equipped with a fly swatter. We made sure all the screens were safe and sound.

The reason we feel more connected to the earth when we practice outdoors is because we are standing directly on the earth, on the soil and grass of it. PEI is made of soft red sandstone and its soil is an iron oxide red. The contrast of bright green grass to the red land beneath a high blue sky on a summer day is often striking.

I saw lots of sky doing things on my back on my mat in the wide blue yonder. Creeping crawling zigzagging insects took shortcuts under me and the long way over me. Seaside birds flew overhead. Most of the birds I saw were wood warblers and cormorants, an easy to spot coastal bird with short wings and a long neck, and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, who darted in and out of the crab apple tree.

One afternoon behind our cottage a week-and-a-half into our two weeks on Prince Edward Island a red fox watched me for a long time. The fox surprised me, even though I knew they were all over the north shore. We had seen plenty of them, on the shoulders of roads, or the edge of woods, always looking for handouts.

From 1900 until the 1930s black silver fox farming – the silver fox is a mutation of the island’s ubiquitous red fox – was a cash crop on Prince Edward. Fox pelts were in high style, but cost an arm and a leg because they could only be got from trappers. No one knew how to raise them until in the 1890s two men, a PEI druggist and a farmer, perfected a way to domesticate and breed foxes.

It made many of the natives rich. The price for a bred fox pelt, never mind a trapped pelt, in 1910 was a jaw-dropping $1200.00. To put that into perspective, farm laborers on the island in 1910 averaged a dollar a day in pay.

The Great Depression and changing fashion crippled the market and by the 1950s fox farming was finished on Prince Edward Island. Most farmers simply let their animals loose.

“My grandfather raised horses and foxes for pelts,” said Kelly Doyle, a longtime North Rustico lobsterman whose Coastline Cottages, overlooking the eponymous Doyle’s Cove, we were staying at. “But, then they weren’t cool anymore, so he let all the foxes out and my father who couldn’t make a living at that became a farmer.”

Spotting a fox in woods or fields used to be out of the ordinary, but sightings nowadays are commonplace.

“Whereas foxes once avoided human contact, they now venture up to parked cars, presumably looking for food,” said Ryan O’Connor, who grew up on PEI and is a historian of Canada’s environmental movement.

Although some of the issues with sun salutations in the sun are bad weather and bugs and sometimes too much sunshine, rarely is the issue a wild animal. The foxes are wild, but not so wild, either. They live in woodlots and sand dunes, are intelligent and adaptable, and have no trouble living in close association with human beings.

Nevertheless, one moonless night, sitting on the deck of our cottage, we heard a godawful noise somewhere on the long sloping dark lawn. The next day Kelly Doyle had to clean up the remains of a dismembered rabbit.

I don’t know when the red fox slipped behind the adjacent cottage to ours. I saw him midway through my practice, when I lengthened into plank from down dog and transitioned into up dog, and there he was, about fifty feet away from me.

There is a rule at the cottages: Don’t Feed the Animals. The rule is to discourage foxes from loitering, cadging for a handout, looking for food for their kits. I hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, but there was the red fox, plain as day, behind the cottage next to ours, giving me the once over.

“They won’t bother you, or bite you,” Kelly had told us.

I had no reason to doubt him, so I continued what I was doing, sneaking a peek at the animal now and then. The fox was small, maybe 20 or 25 pounds, with a reddish-brown coat, white under belly, and a black-tipped nose. One of his eyes was cloudy, as though the animal had a cataract or been hurt.

He lounged and moved more like a cat than a dog, although foxes are a part of the dog family. His ears were triangular. When he cocked his head and his ears went erect he looked like a Maine Coon with his muzzle in a mousing position.

All during the rest of my yoga practice that afternoon the fox never made a sound, and even seemed to doze off for a few minutes. When he left, moving away into the soybean field, he walked on his toes, heels off the ground, agile canny swift. No amount of yoga I ever did was going to get me to be able to move like that.

I didn’t see him again.

Living north of the Mason-Dixon Line I am by necessity forced to do yoga indoors most of the time. But, moving one’s mat outdoors isn’t necessarily for the birds, if only because that’s where the prana is.

In the world of yoga prana means life force and pranayama means breathwork, or breathing exercises. To practice outdoors is to be immersed in the source of prana, whether you mean it as the source of life or simply as the air we breathe.

Bringing a breath of fresh air into your body and brain is refreshing. Great wafts of it are even better. It’s no holds barred breathing the old-fashioned air of the island.

There was more than enough of it for both the red fox and me the sunny day we shared it, both of us dwarfed by a sweeping horizon and gigantic puffy white clouds blowing out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, behind a small cottage next to a soybean field.