Soap Box Saviors

By Ed Staskus

“We don’t get fooled again.”  The Who

The difference between policies and principles is the difference between Santa, saviors, and savasana, or what is known as corpse pose in yoga practice. Santa and our many saviors, ranging from Islam to Christianity, much like our Messiah-like political leaders, have a heavy hand. They lay down policy like train tracks.

It’s my way or the highway. They enjoin the carrot and stick approach to order the reality they’ve carefully resolutely ruthlessly constructed. It’s often the kind of reality that even when you stop believing in it, it won’t go away.

Savasana is practiced at the end of yoga exercise classes. It’s a simple thing. You lie down on your back on the mat with your arms at your sides, close your eyes, and breathe naturally. When you surrender to Santa and the Savior you agree to live by their rules. When you surrender to savasana it’s just you as you are, not as what anybody else says you should be, not surrendering to somebody else’s magic kingdom.

Savasana only works when you’re being honest about it.

You don’t have to be an honest man or woman to live in the world of Santa and the Savior. You only have to do what you need to do to get along and get what you want. It’s playing hardball with a wiffle ball. It’s OK to lie to yourself. Who cares about the spirit of the thing?

“Next to a circus there ain’t nothing that packs up and tears out faster than the Christmas spirit,” said Kin Hubbard a hundred years ago.

You have to be an honest man and woman to dive into the ocean of yoga. Otherwise, what would be the point? It’s sink or swim. There’s no one looking over your shoulder. There’s no lifeguard.

In the making of the modern age of mass media, mass merchandising, and mass more-of-everything, Claus and Christ are staples from about the beginning of November until the Big Day. The Savior once had pride of place, since Christmas used to be about celebrating his birth, but Santa is the Top Dog in the 21st century.

“Christmas is a baby shower that went totally overboard,” Anthony Borowitz has pointed out.

Sometimes it seems like the celebration is more about the birth of Santa Claus than Jesus Christ. Even though he doesn’t exist, Santa is everywhere during the holiday season, selling jewelry electronics cars, whatever. Besides cash checks credit cards, there are even Christmas Club bank accounts to pay for last year’s presents.

A capitalist is someone who loves his fellow man and woman in groups of a million-or-more. The Money Markets and Scrooge never had it so good. They are laughing all the way to their McMansions, golden arches and all.

Santa Claus is a portly red-clad man who brings gifts to good straight arrow well-behaved children on Christmas Eve, or the morning of Christmas Day. He spends most of the rest of the year supervising elves in his workshop and making out a list of kids who have been naughty or nice. You don’t want to be on Santa’s shit list.

Children who have been on the up and up get gifts. Children who have stepped off strait is the gate and narrow is the way do not get gifts, unless it’s a lump of coal. Santa Claus can be judgmental. There are some roofs he won’t land on.

Santa Claus is everywhere, in California in shorts, in Nigeria shooting off knockouts, which are like firecrackers, and in China playing the saxophone. Most Chinese reenactor Santa Claus’s, ubiquitous on street corners and at the entrances to shopping malls, are almost always jamming on a sax.

No one, not even the Chinese, seems to know the reason why. The Beijing-based Helen Gao thinks it might be because “the saxophone is portable so Santa can  make Christmas music anywhere.” Santa Claus used to have the right idea, which was to only visit people once a year.

Not anymore – he’s all over creation nowadays.

You don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, because then you’d ruin everyone else’s Christmas. Some black people are on the fence about him because they don’t believe a white dude would ever come to their neighborhood after dark. If he did dare, they ask, what’s in that pipe he’s smoking?

In any event, nobody shoots at Santa Claus.

Many children believe in him, up to a point. Shirley Temple’s faith was shaken at the age of six when her mother took her to a department store and the bearded legend asked her for an autograph.

Christmas was once the first step to getting safely home to your Loving Father in Heaven.  It was the start of the story, the starting gate in the stable. Over time it became more a state of mind, a tradition of good cheer for communities, retaining most of its original values. Today it’s a mash-up of visiting family and friends, of the economic miracle of gift giving “Make It a December to Remember With a Lexus,” and the NBA national broadcast on Christmas Day.

The Cleveland Cavs stormed back late in the 4th quarter in 2016 and beat the Golden State Warriors by a point in the last seconds. Some broadcasters said it was a miracle. It was The Miracle on the Corner of Ontario Street in Cleveland, Ohio. Other broadcasters said what Cavs forward Richard Jefferson did to Warriors forward Kevin Durant on the sidelines at game’s end was a sin.

But, when it comes to professional sports, and many other professions, sins don’t matter, one way or the other. They don’t actually affect the reckoning under the tree as long as you believe whatever works is what works. Who soldiers on when there’s no hope of a payoff?

The problem with Christmas has always been God the Old Testament at the front and center of it, not just Christ, the New Testament third arm of God the Father, God the Holy Ghost, and God the Son. If Santa is a judgmental old man, then God is an infinitely more judgmental, eternally older man. Santa Claus may not give you a gift this year, but there’s always next year. When it comes to Heaven and Hell, however, we all get one chance at it and the outcome is forever. There are no last-second miracles.

To accept the Savior, or any savior, into your fibre being life is to accept the belief that God has a plan for you. Hearing from him about the big picture is vital, the cog in the wheel of life. Listening following obeying the plan is everyone’s own personal decision. That’s why God grants us Free Will. Many people believe it’s in their own best interest to stick to the game plan both chapter and verse.

Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, proposed a bet about God. Sensible folk should live as though God exists. If he doesn’t exist you lose very little, maybe a roll in the hay and some good times on this earth. However, if he does exist and you live by his rules, you stand to win the Grand Prize of Heaven. You also avoid the Big Bust, namely eternity in Hell.

In the end, if you bet against God you bet against yourself.

Like it says in the Bible, “Whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” You can say no to God’s way of doing things, but, come hell or high water, God will have his way, one way or the other.

The snag in this approach is inherent in the story of the angel walking down a road of good intentions with a bucket of water in one hand and a torch in the other. When someone asks the angel what he is going to do with them, he says that with the torch he will burn down the mansions of Heaven and with the bucket of water he intends to put out the fires of Hell.

“Then,” the angel says, “we’ll see who really loves God.”

Santa and the Savior rule from the top-down. They don’t necessarily care if you love them, or not. They didn’t get to where they are with a ho, ho, ho or a free ride. Santa Claus’s doppelganger is Krampus and God has many millennia of the Old Testament behind him, not just some forward-looking centuries of the New Testament.

The consequence of breaking the rules is dire risky consequential. The naughty are denied the sparkly magic of Christmas and sinners are turned away at the Gate of Heaven. “He who breaks the law goes back to the House of Pain,” said Dr. Moreau to the Beast-Men in the “Island of Dr. Moreau.”

Students follow rules. They have to please their teachers. Until recently women followed the rules because men made the rules. Dogs follow the rules. That’s why they’re man’s best friend. Women have recently been changing the rules, getting out of the dog pound.

There’s only one rule worth following. That’s the Golden Rule. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. It’s a homespun peg to hang your hat on, outside of school outside the workshop outside the law courts.

Santa Claus and Saviors, like everyone who has ever wielded power, are puppet masters pulling the strings. God is all-loving, but he’s all-powerful, too. A bag full of loot coming down the chimney is one thing. The power to fill the bag is another thing. “If you must break the law, do it to seize power,” said Julius Caesar a long time ago. Like Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar was worshipped as a God.

From then until now the love of power has more often than not trumped the power of love.

However, there are no puppet masters in yoga, no Santa Claus and no Savior.

The reason the practice is puppet master-less is that the power of the practice doesn’t flow from the top-down. It’s not just another kind of trickle down from on high, economic or otherwise. It flows from the bottom-up.

“You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself,” said Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of yoga to the western world in the late 19th century.

Power lives and dies in a hierarchical tradition. There is no hierarchy in yoga, no Wizard of Oz. Power is like the Trump Tower. There is a penthouse at the top and a mailroom at the bottom. The Great Wizard is in the penthouse and the monkeys are in the mailroom. Yoga is more like a 5000-year-old tree with many branches. Power never stops blowing its bugle. Yoga quiets the body and mind.

The fly in the ointment of top-down power is when was the last time anyone at the top had a good idea? When was the last time Tim Cook Bill Gates Jay Y. Lee wrote computer code? When was the last time Barrack Obama Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping reduced their country’s armed forces? When was the last time Mark Cuban Dan Gilbert James Dolan sank a three-pointer from the corner office with time running out?

Savasana is sometimes thought of as the most important pose of yoga practice on the mat. It comes at the end of class and no one needs a teacher at the head of the room to tell them what to do. It is the nonpareil bottom-up posture, since you have to lie down on your backside to do it.

Corpse pose is about the self, and the non-self, and self-discovery. It’s about letting go of rewards and reincarnation and an afterlife in Heaven or Hell. When you’re in dead man’s pose nobody, not even the Downpresser Man, can boss your better half. You’re not doing something that somebody else told you to do. Nobody can tell you what to do because there’s nothing to do.

Letting Santa and the Savior read the riot act is a backwards way of living life, from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. Yoga is a practice of learning who you are by exploring yourself, not by reading the manual written by The Man. Marching in the ranks is fine on a parade ground, but who wants to be marching to a drill sergeant’s drumbeat all day and night?

“The question of whether or not there is a God or truth or reality, or whatever, can never be answered by books, by priests, philosophers or saviors,” said Jiddu Krishnamurti. “Nobody and nothing can answer the question but you yourself, and that is why you must know yourself.”

Be your own hero, not a moving part in the puppet show.

Anybody can do hero pose, even though it’s on the challenging side of the practice. You just have to have faith in yourself. It’s better to challenge yourself than be dogged by gods and monsters and the ruling class always trying to cut you down at the knees.

It’s never question and answer time in corpse pose, because it’s the end of yoga class, and you’re tired, and everybody and their brother is just going to have to wait while you and your breath take a break and recharge.

Putting Santa and the Savior and all the self-appointed Messiahs and their sticks and carrots on the back burner is to be up front, at the front of the class, knowing and being your own self, yourself as you are from the inside out.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Cabin Fever

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 posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”