Out In the Wide Blue Yonder

Jan 25th, 2016

Most people practice yoga indoors, the weather being what it is. Studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway, which is a good thing if it’s winter in Russia or summer in Mississippi.

Practicing indoors means being able to practice in the middle of a blizzard or a thunderstorm. It means practicing in a space set aside for yoga, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent.

No rain checks are ever needed when unrolling a mat at your local studio or your own room. They are private spaces, spaces in which the environment is controlled.

K. Pattabhi Jois, the man who developed Ashtanga Yoga, 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 yogis in India practicing in the forest he said, “That is very bad. ”

Although there are problems associated with practicing outdoors, from tradition to bad weather, yogis do it all the time, especially in places like southern California.

“If you’re doing yoga indoors you’re cheating yourself,” said Sarah Stevenson, a California teacher. “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. From Norway to North Dakota, 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 ‘Y-8’ routinely practice on frozen-over Lake Alster in the German town of Hamburg. They make sure to pull the hoods of their insulated sweatshirts over their heads in headstand.

Whether it’s grass or ice, 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, a teacher in Maine. “Outside, you end up engaging your core much more to stabilize your whole body. ”

I rarely practice outdoors because I’ve carved out a space at home I like, and because our weather in Lakewood, Ohio, is unpredictable, while the bugs that fly up out of the nearby river valley are predictable.

But, when my wife and I were on Canada’s Prince Edward Island I moved my practice outside. At times in the morning, but more often in the afternoon, when the apple tree at the back of our cottage cast a convenient shadow, I unrolled my mat and set about doing asanas.

“When I practice outdoors, there is this amazing energy,” said Angela Jackson, a Canadian teacher. “I feel more connected to the earth, the birds, and to myself. ”

I practiced almost every day, because the days were warm, and it was breezy where we were on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. I was bitten every day by mosquitoes, and sometimes by black flies from the dense woods behind the cottages.

PEI is mostly 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.

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

I saw lots of sky on my back in the wide blue yonder. Many crawling insects zigzagged across my mat, some birds flew overhead, and one afternoon a red fox watched me for a long time.

Most of the birds I saw were wood warblers and cormorants – coastal birds with short wings – and yellow sapsuckers darting in and out of the apple tree.

The red fox surprised me. I knew they were all over the north shore. We had seen them, on the shoulders of roads, or the edge of woods, always looking for handouts.

From 1900 until the 1930s fox farming was a cash crop on PEI. 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 perfected a way to breed them.

It made many 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 PEI in 1910 averaged a dollar a day in pay.

Changing fashion and the Depression crippled the market and by the 1950s fox farming was finished on PEI. Most farmers simply let their animals loose.

“My grandfather raised horses and foxes for pelts,” said Kelly Doyle, whose Coastline Cottages 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, looking for food,” said Ryan O’Connor of Canada’s environmental movement.

Although some of the issues with yoga in the sun are bad weather and bugs, rarely is the issue a wild animal.

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

Mr. Doyle has a rule at the cottages: Don’t Feed the Animals. The rule is to discourage them from looking for a free meal. I hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, but there was the fox, giving me the once over.

“They won’t bother you,” Mr. Doyle had told me.

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 25 pounds, with a reddish-brown coat, white under-belly, and a black-tipped nose. One of his eyes was cloudy.

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

During my practice that day the fox never made a sound and even seemed to doze off for a few minutes. When he left, he walked on his toes, heels off the ground, agile and swift.

Living in Lakewood beside Lake Erie I am by necessity forced to practice indoors most of the time. But, moving one’s mat outside isn’t necessarily for the birds, if only because that’s where the prana is. In the world of yoga prana means life force. Practicing 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 fresh air are even better.

There was more than enough of it for both the red fox and me the afternoon we shared it, dwarfed by a vast horizon and gigantic puffy white clouds blowing out to the Atlantic Ocean.

To read the full article please download our Asana Journal App or purchase Issue 157 January 2016

Asana Journal

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