Most people practice most of their yoga indoors, the weather being what it is. Yoga studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway, which is a good thing if it’s winter in Vermont or 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 exercise and breath work, or just meditation, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent in one’s practice, a habit considered 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.
Some practices, like Bikram Yoga, are performed indoors only, unless it’s in heat-ravaged places like Pakistan in the clutches of a post-modern climate event, when you might as well be outside. Even then it probably doesn’t measure up to what Bikram Choudhury, with his 24-karat smile, calls his “torture chambers.”
K. Pattabhi Jois, the man who developed Ashtanga Yoga, on which most yoga in the West 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 yogis in India practicing in the forest he said, “That is very bad.”
Although there are problems associated with practicing outdoors, from tradition to biting insects to lightning, yogis do it all the time, especially in places like southern California, where there are many classes like Runyon Canyon Yoga and Beach Yoga with Brad.
“Ditch the confines of the indoors,” says CBS Los Angeles.
“If you’re doing yoga indoors 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. 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 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 in headstand.
Whether it’s ice or sand or grass, or the top of a paddleboard on a lake that’s 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.”
I only practice outdoors sometimes because I’ve carved out a space at home I like, and because the weather in Lakewood, just outside Cleveland, Ohio, is very unpredictable, while the bugs that fly up out of the nearby river valley are equally predictable.
But, during two rainless 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 my practice 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 dappled shadow, I unrolled my mat on the grass and set about doing asanas, 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 the days were warm and it was usually breezy where we were on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. I was bitten every day by mosquitoes, as well as occasionally by black flies from the dense 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.
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 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 week-and-a-half after already being on PEI a red fox watched me for a long time.
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.
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 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 Islanders 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.
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.
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.
Mr. Doyle has a rule at the cottages: Don’t Feed the Animals. The rule is to discourage foxes from loitering, looking for a free meal. I hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, but there was the red fox, behind the cottage next to ours, giving me the once over.
“They won’t bother you, or bite you,” Mr. Doyle 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 it had 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 and when he cocked his head and his ears went erect he looked like a Maine Coon with a muzzle in a mousing position.
All during the rest of my yoga practice that day 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 and swift. I didn’t see him again.
Living north of the Mason-Dixon line I am by necessity forced to practice 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 breath work, 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 fresh air are even better.
There was more than enough of it for both the quiet 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, behind a small cottage beside a Prince Edward Island soybean field.