This time of year holds many important festivals – with two of them happening to fall this week: The Winter Solstice and Christmas!
While they’re not technically part of the same belief system or path, they both represent a time when people gather together to celebrate and remember the important things in life as we step out of our daily habits and routines, and into days of appreciation and gratitude (most of the time….)
The Winter solstice occurs in the Northern Hemisphere when the amount of daylight we see is at it’s shortest and the sun is lower in the sky than at any other time in the year (of course, we know the sun hasn’t actually moved – it’s us that moves….) Fittingly then, the word solstice is derived from the Latin ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘Sun Standing Still’. It technically occurs this year on Tuesday 22nd December, although is often celebrated on the 21st December as this is usually the day with the shortest amount of time between sunrise and sunset. In the UK the sun will rise at approximately 8:04am and set at 3:54pm, so if one of your new year’s resolutions for 2015 was ‘to see the sun rise’, there’s not much excuse for sleeping through this one….
This whole week is traditionally celebrated as a ‘return to light’, celebrating the beginning of gradually longer daytimes, until we reach the Summer solstice when darkness slowly creeps back in to prepare us for Winter.
In ancient Rome, the week was actually reserved for chaos and basically a free-for-all, where all social orderliness and disciplines were ignored and arguments and grudges forgotten. It is said there was a ‘carnival atmosphere’, and slaves were served by their masters (a slave was actually set in place as the temporary ‘king’ instead of the real king, and was allowed to act however he liked for seven days. He was of course executed at the end of these days as a ritual….)
Whether we celebrate the Solstice (also known as Yule), Hannukah, Bodhi Day, Christmas, or Zarathosht Diso, honouring the earth has been one tradition that has literally existed since the dawn of time.
In a time known as the Vedic period, and at the very beginnings of Yoga as a practice – totally unlike what we see in studios today – sages and Brahmins (high-caste priests) would honour, celebrate and revere the earth. In these times, the aspects and elements of nature were respected and even had Deities representing them, because the earth, sun, moon, fire, water, air and ether were considered the very things that kept the human race alive; allowing them to grow and harvest crops, to drink water, to breathe, and to stay warm by igniting fires. The elements are still the things that keep us alive to this day, however we probably now feel as though we’d rather survive a day without air than without our iPhone….
Just as we’ve moved away from being close to nature and respecting it’s wonderful simultaneous simplicity and magnificence, we’ve moved closer and right into to what is often known as ‘the iron age’ – an age in which corruption, pollution, war, greed and urges for temporary happiness fill the earth.
Surrounded by computers, phones, cars, artificial lighting, central heating, the beeps and buzzes of technology and endless screens depicting the artificial lives of artificial people – it’s no surprise many of us have totally forgotten what it’s like to be without all of this stuff. The bare nakedness of the human soul, without any prejudice, material dependence or self-imposed habits to distract us.
This is why the practice of Yoga can sometimes be better understood as a process of ‘separating’, ‘remembering’ and then ‘uniting’ – rather than going straight from over-stressed business worker to peaceful guru after one swift kick-up into handstand….
In many cultures and traditions, the sun is represented as the soul; something permanent, authentic, stable, unmoving, and the source of all life. Just as all of nature is revered and honoured, it’s important to remember that we are indeed made up of the very same stuff as the natural world around us – to actually inappropriately quote a line from the film Fight Club;
“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
‘Special and unique’ are often words we use to describe the very grossest aspects of ourselves; our hobbies, habits, eye colour, shape etc. Do we ever consider that actually by considering only these aspects which are different, we separate ourselves not only from nature, but from each other too….
When we remember that the soul – represented by the sun – stands still, is stable within itself, is the source of life and light, and is totally authentic and true, we too are prompted to remember our true and authentic self.
The practice of pratyahara – often translated as ‘sense withdrawal’ or ‘inward focus’, is not about literally switching off our senses, it’s about turning the attention inward in deep focus – such as when practicing Yoga – and connecting to that deep, still, stable soul within, also known as atman, (and yes, sometimes it takes a lot of focus to find it). Just as we honour the sun and the solstice – a return to light – we honour ourselves as souls – returning to our own natural state.
One way to physically and outwardly honour this is by beginning each day with surya namaskar – sun salutations. Namaskar means to salute or honour, and by waking up with the sun, moving and breathing and coming to life as the world around us comes to life, we begin to connect back to our natural rhythms and natural state.
It’s not about attaining the ability to perform more and more yoga postures, nor is it the ability to sit for hours and hours to meditate in solitude; it’s about separating from thinking we are only the body, the habits, the possessions, darkness and relationships – the story of ‘us’, remembering who we really are beyond all of this – a soul, and as scary and revealing as it is, it’s a final uniting with this authenticity in order to be our real, most powerful selves. It’s not a journey outward and away, it’s a coming home. A return to light.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
So what are you afraid of?