By Ed Staskus
The nearly 80,000 people who plug away every day on Prince Edward Island go to work in lots of places, including groceries school offices, aerospace and bioscience and pouring coffee and serving breakfast, but mostly in agriculture, fisheries, and tourism.
Grains, fruits, and potatoes lead production on farms, bringing in cash receipts of about $500 million. “Good soil is better than money in the bank” was once a commonly used expression on Prince Edward Island. It is still true, although it doesn’t hurt to have a bundle in the bank, something for a rainy day.
The lobster fishery lands 40 million-some pounds, valued at more than $200 million. Every last person on PEI is too few to eat all the lobster, so exports are vital. There are more than 4,000 commercial fishers and 47 licensed processing facilities. The enterprise employs as many as 8,000 people during peak production times.
Tourism rounds out the big three. A million-and-a-half visitors come from all over the world to golf, eat, relax, and experience “Anne of Green Gables.” It is far more come and go in summertime than lives on the island.
When you live and work on PEI summer starts when the snow melts and the days get longer. If you are in a business dependent on tourism, ice cream theaters restaurants transportation accommodation, summer starts when summer is over.
Tourism on PEI generates 15,000 to 17,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal jobs. When summer is over many in the trade go somewhere starting in mid-autumn, looking for a few weeks of summer in another country. The sweltering heat of Cuba is a sticky thing, but it is super in winter, when there are plenty of dry sunny days and lots of blue sky.
Visiting Prince Edward Island in summer means warm enough to go to the beach, swim sail kayak, and go walking, running, and biking. There are plenty of days in July and August when t-shirts and short sleeves are the order of the day, and maybe a pullover for cooler nights. It’s about four months on PEI of being able to get out the door and outdoors.
It is aces having a big cabin if you get cabin fever. But nothing is as wide open big as being out in the open air. Besides, not everyone has a big cabin, or a cabin big enough. Even the largest cabin is dwarfed by the overarching sky.
Yoga means “to yoke.” Even though nobody gets paid for doing it, it is a kind of work. It is also its own reward.
Most people consider yoga an indoor activity. It is mostly practiced indoors, the weather being what it is in North America. Yoga studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway. That is a good thing if it’s the middle of winter in Vermont, or the armpit of summer in Mississippi, or fall winter a wet spring on Prince Edward Island.
Almost 120 inches of snow falls during the winter on PEI. Skiers going to Vermont are happy if 80 inches has fallen during the season. The wind off the ocean can make everything feel colder than it is on the island. Sometimes harbors are still frozen stiff into May.
That was why Frank and Vera Glass never left northern Ohio on the edge of Lake Erie to go to Prince Edward Island until June. Although it was never a sure thing, they tried to make sure they could get outside as much as possible.
Doing yoga indoors means being able to practice in the middle of a blizzard or a thunderstorm, or even a light sprinkle. It means doing it in a space set aside for exercise and breathwork, or just meditation, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent in one’s effort, a good 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. If you’re looking for insight, lightning might strike, but it won’t be literal lightning. If you’re just looking for a dry place to exercise, you’re in the right place.
Some yoga, like Bikram Yoga, is only done indoors only, in sealed-up steam-filled rooms, like heat-ravaged parts of the world in the grip of a climate change event, when you might as well be outside. Even then it probably wouldn’t live up to what Bikram Choudhury, the eccentric mastermind of hot room yoga, calls his “torture chambers.”
K. P. Jois, the man who inspired and developed Ashtanga Yoga, on which most yoga exercise of the last half-century 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 in the past practicing in the forest, he simply said, “That is very bad.” K. P. Jois was a man of few words.
Even though there are problems associated with practicing outdoors, including that it will inevitably defy the weather forecast and rain the one day you try it, people do it all the time. Southern California is littered with classes like ‘Beach Yoga with Brad.’
“Ditch the confines of the indoors!” recommended CBS-TV Los Angeles, reporting from the great outdoors.
“If you’re doing yoga indoors then you’re cheating yourself,” said Sarah Stevenson, a Yoga Alliance-certified instructor in Orange County. “The sun’s rays and fresh air provide not only improved physical health, but also spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”
It isn’t just warm clime folks, either, who roll out mats regardless of rocks and roots and bugs. From Missoula to Minneapolis, any place where the winters are long and dark, the sun-starved come out in droves in the summertime.
Frank was a fair weather man, but some don’t wait for the solstice.
Members of ‘Y-8’ routinely practice their ‘Alsteryoga’ on the thick ice of the rock- hard Lake Alster outside 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, the instability of ground outdoors makes for an easier said than done experience. Some people even practice on paddleboards when rivers and lakes have defrosted. “When you’re not on a solid wood floor 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.”
Although Frank Glass often got out into their backyard in the summer and fall, he still rolled out his mat indoors more often than not because he had carved out a space he liked at home, and because the weather in Lakewood, just outside of Cleveland, is unpredictable, while the midges and mosquitoes that fly up out of the Rocky River valley are predictable.
Sometimes, though, he jumped the traces.
The three mostly sunny weeks he and his wife Vera spent in North Rustico, on the north central coast of the island, at the Coastline Cottages, he moved his mat outside. Sometimes in the morning, but more often in the afternoon, when the crab apple trees at the back of their cottage cast welcome shadows, he unspooled it 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. “I feel more connected to the earth, the birds, the animals, the sky, and to myself.”
He did it almost every day, because they were on vacation with plenty of time, and because the days were warm, and it was fair and breezy where they were on the Atlantic Ocean. He was bitten every one of those days, sometimes more often than less, by creeping flying bugs, occasionally by black flies from the scrubby conifer woods next to the fifty acres of soybeans behind the cottages.
Prince Edward Island is predominately a farming and fishing province. There are croplands and cattle and fishing boats everywhere. A few years earlier they had stayed in a cottage one town down next to a field and a barn full of cows and thousands of flies. Every room in the cottage came equipped with a fly swatter. They checked to be sure all the screens were safe and sound and in place.
The reason we feel more connected to the earth when we do yoga outdoors is because we are standing directly on the earth, on the soil and grass of it. PEI is made of soft sandstone and its soil is an iron oxide red. The contrast of bright green grass and red land beneath a high blue sky on a sunny summer day is always striking.
Frank saw lots of sky doing things on his back on his mat behind the cottage. Insects crawling took shortcuts under him, the long way over him, or just bumped into him and zigzagged away. Seaside birds flew overhead. Most of them were cormorants, an easy to spot coastal bird with short wings and a long neck. There were plenty of wood warblers and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, darting in and out of the crab apple trees.
One afternoon behind their cottage a week-and-a-half into their stay on the island, a red fox hunkered down thirty-some feet away on the grass and kept his eyes on Frank for a long time. The fox surprised him, out in the open, even though he knew they were all over the north shore. They had seen plenty of them, on the shoulders of roads, or the edge of woods, always looking for handouts.
Vera ran on the all-purpose path every day and kept a wary eye out for them.
From 1900 until the 1930s black silver fox farming – the silver fox is a mutation of the island’s ubiquitous red fox – was a booming cash crop on PEI farms. Fox pelts were in high style but used to 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 druggist and a farmer, perfected a way to domesticate and breed them.
It made many of the locals rich. The price for a bred fox pelt, never mind a trapped pelt, in 1910 was a jaw-dropping $1,200.00. To put that into perspective, farm laborers on the island in 1910 averaged a dollar a day in pay for ten-and- twelve-hour days.
The Great Depression and changing fashion in the 1940s crippled the market and by the 1950s fox farming was finished on the island. Most farmers simply let their animals loose. The foxes were glad to go, glad to be back on their own, glad to not have to be a fashion statement anymore.
“My grandfather raised horses, and kept foxes for their pelts,” said Kelly Doyle, a North Rustico native whose Coastline Cottages they were staying at. “But then they weren’t cool anymore, so he let all his foxes out, and since my father couldn’t make a living at that became a farmer.”
Rubbing eyes with a fox in woods or fields used to be out of the ordinary, but nowadays sighting have become 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 yoga in the great outdoors are biting bugs and bad weather and sometimes too much sunshine, rarely is the issue a wild animal. Red foxes are wild, but not so wild, too. They live in woodlots and sand dunes, are intelligent and adaptable, and have no trouble living in close association with human beings.
They are still wild, though, living out in the wild.
One moonless night, sitting on their deck overlooking Doyle’s Cove, they heard a god-awful noise somewhere out on the long dark sloping lawn. The next morning Kelly Doyle had to clean up the remains of a dismembered rabbit. Every fox hunts every night for mice rabbits voles.
Frank don’t know when the red fox slipped behind their cottage to watch him on the yoga mat. He saw him midway through his series for the day, when he lengthened into plank from down dog and transitioned into up dog, and there the fox was, nearly near-at-hand.
There is a rule at the Coastline Cottages. “Don’t Feed the Animals.” The rule is to discourage foxes from loitering, looking for food for their kits. Frank and Vera hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, because who wants a fox at their door cadging for a handout? But there was the red fox, plain as day, behind their cottage, giving Frank the once over.
“They won’t bother you, or bite you,” Kelly had told them.
Frank had no reason to doubt him, so he continued doing what he was doing, sneaking a peek at the animal now and then. The fox wasn’t small or overly large, 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 been hurt or had a cataract.
He lounged and shifted 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 up erect, he looked like a Maine Coon cat with his muzzle in mousing position.
All during the rest of Frank’s yoga practice that afternoon the fox never made a sound, and even seemed to doze off for a few minutes. He stretched and yawned. When he went away, sliding into the soybean field, he walked on his toes, heels off the ground, agile canny swift. No amount of yoga Frank ever did was ever going to get him to be able to move like that.
He didn’t see the fox with the bad eye again the rest of their stay, although Vera spotted him one day miles away near MacNeill’s Brook.
Living far north of Mason-Dixon, Vera was by necessity forced to run on a treadmill and Frank 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 energy is. The fountainhead is under the arching sky in the wide blue yonder.
In the world of yoga, the word prana means energy or life force and pranayama means 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 back roads air into your body mind spirit is refreshing. Great wafts of it are even better. It’s no holds barred taking in the old-school oxygen of the island. There’s more air in the air on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean than there is in most other places.
There was more than enough of it for both the red fox and Frank the afternoon they shared it, both of them dwarfed by a sweeping horizon and puffy white clouds blowing out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, behind a cottage next to a soybean field.
“How was it?” Vera asked when Frank stepped back inside through the door.
“It was a breath of fresh air in my brain,” he said.
A version of this story appeared in International Yoga Journal.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”