Return to Light: Yoga at the Winter Solstice

“You are what your deepest desire is.
As your wish is, so is your intention.
As your intention is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed, so is your destiny. “
–The Upanishads

The new solar year is just around the corner as the earth begins to face the sun again, signifying the completion of another life cycle before the arrival of spring. For thousands of years, the winter solstice has been celebrated around the world. The shortest day of the year is recognized as a return to the light, a return to innocence. a rebirth at the wheel of life as the big world goes on turning.

This spiritual homecoming has turned into what we in western cultures know as December 25th Christmas. Long before that, the pagan festival of Saturnalia had marked the beginning of winter, as had the birthday of the “invincible” sun god Sol Invictus during the golden age of the Roman Empire. In ancient Egypt, January 6th was first recognized as a winter festival, which was later adopted by Christianity as the Epiphany.

At the present time, this standstill on December 21st coincides with the start of the Capricorn season in astrology. During this cycle, we are invited to realign ourselves with our goals and ideals as we look to the coming New Year – despite the chaos of the holiday season when the calendar turns. Capricorn is symbolized by the sea goat’s unusual paradox, evidence of the enduring energy of this ambitious but grounded earth sign. Ruled by Saturn, the hard teacher planet known as “Father Karma” in astrological lore, Capricorn reminds us that it is okay to have lofty dreams and great visions, but also to be rooted in reality must be.

By setting intentions for the winter solstice, we can clear them up during the Capricorn season and beyond. As we set the framework for our plans, we are building a pathway that illuminates the path through the darkness of winter and guides us into our brightest future. By continually refining our goals, a willingness to understand that mistakes will be made and that we may need to change course, intentions are little stepping stones that guide us like a compass to our highest potential. An intention is the starting point of a dream; What makes the unconscious conscious. It is the creative force that fulfills the desires of our heart, be it career or relationships, money or material things, personal or spiritual advancement. In essence, an intention is a revelation in action. Aha!

Similar to our yoga practices, our intentions are always in flux – and change from moment to moment. Through the ritual of practice, the intentions we set in motion inevitably become second nature as old layers, habits and selves fall away in this great decipherment to self; our truest nature. And like a seed, an intention must be planted, nurtured, and made patient. But an intention cannot grow if we hold on to it – it must be released externally in order to make itself known to the universe.

Activate your New Year intentions by turning inward and awakening your inner fire. by learning to see in the proverbial darkness. Imagine the winter solstice as the fourth and final movement of your 2017 Life Symphony and try these six yoga circuits: a series of dynamic core-propelled sequences to expand your practice. Synchronize your breath with a movement that is powerful and intuitive. Go slowly and let go of what no longer serves you so you can clear the slate for whatever comes your way.

SEQ I. Ancient eye activation

Movement: Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog) has been divided into high lunge variations.

Extend your front leg to raise your arms above your head and look up at the sky. Bend through your front knee again and let go of your arms outward on either side to look into the future. Repeat, then straighten your back arms again and return to the high lunge. Rotate the navel towards the spine. Put your left hand down and reach your right hand up.

Optional: Place your right palm behind your neck and lean into it for support so that more space can flow into your heart. Bring your hands down to frame the forefoot, then step back on Downward Dog Split before lowering your foot to switch sides.

SEQ II. Pyramid Force

Movement: Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose) variations to explore the hips and hamstrings with buoyancy.

Twist into a wide stance and fold forward, then cross your left elbow over your right and rotate your inner elbows outward. Twist your heels in and out. Root to Stand Up: Bend your knees and maintain a long spine as you look forward. Grind into your fingertips and ankle balls and collect earthly energy.

Optional: move your hands to the forefoot before switching sides, or move your hands all the way to the left to frame the rear foot and get to the other side.

SEQ III. Rising of the Phoenix

Movement: Utkatasana (chair posture) tied to warrior variations.

Sit deep and dive forward, sweeping your hands behind the sacrum, crossing your fingers and pulling the heels of your palms closer together. Lift it halfway, then transfer your weight onto your right foot. Wrap the back of the left hand over the right side of the waist with the hands still clasped.

Root to Stand Up: Bring your left knee to 90 degrees to raise, then step back into a high lunge with your hands at your right waist. Use your left forearm as a shelf to support your lower back for a slight bend. Lift yourself high through the heart, then with the back of your left palm, bring your hips to the left and open your arms wide in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II). Reaching up to Flying Warrior with your hands, straighten your legs, and then lower to bend your front knee again.

Reaching up first and then backward and lifting through the heart for Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reverse Warrior). Windmill moving hands forward for assisted Virabhadrasana III, fingertips to earth. Spine elongates; Kern is busy. Use your breath to bring your knee towards your nose. Root to Stand Up: Return to standing, then sink back into Utkatasana to prepare for the other side.

SEQ IV. Fly like an eagle

Movement: High lunge on the right side when raising and lowering to Garundasana (eagle pose).

Eagles wrap arms (left over right) as they raise and lower. Stabilize your hips and move forward like an eagle. Bring the knee to the nose and the root to stand up. The left knee rises 90 degrees.

Slowly descend in Garundasana and wrap the left leg over the right. Relax and send your left foot back, holding your heart up. Land in a high lunge and untangle your arms above you. If at first you don’t succeed, remember: repetition is an opportunity to try again. Switch sides.

SEQ V. Center of the cyclone

Movement: Variations from Natarajasana (dancer pose) to half moon (Ardha Chandrasana).

Shift your weight into your right foot and raise your left knee 90 degrees. Stabilize yourself and swing your foot back to arrive in Natarajasana. the calm of a warrior in the middle of the storm. Activate the standing leg quadriceps to bend the knee. Bend your knee a little more and bend your heart forward.

Extend your torso and the hinge at the waist further to lower your fingertips to the ground. Hold your left foot or ankle in place and twist your chest up for chapasana (cane pose). Open to Ardha Chandrasana. Supported Warrior III square hips activated by the tips of all ten fingers as the breath guides the knee back towards the nose. Root for getting up: return to a standing position.

Optional: Swing your foot back and repeat the process, observing what you learned along the way. You might just surprise yourself. Switch sides.

SEQ VI. open Sesame

Movement: A core strengthening transition from Downward Dog to Camatkarasana (Wild Thing).

Out and in, open and close. In a high plank position, hover your hips in line with your low ribs. Take the pose from your torso and prop it through your abdominal wall into your legs. Discover a slight knee flexion. Feel bouncy and limitless. Stack your shoulders over your wrists and shift your weight into your right hand, stack your hips and twist the bottom of the lower right ribs underneath, elongate through the crown and step into vasisthasana (side plank). Stop, then step back with the ball of your left foot and bend through the leg as your left hand goes up toward the sky. Embody your inner rock star.

Optional: Place your left palm on your neck and lean in for support as you offer your heart’s desires to the universe. Keeping your right shoulder steady over your right wrist, press it into all four corners of each palm. Turn around and return to Downward Dog. Repeat on the other side.

Rest now Open the doors to inner awareness and sharing. Reconnect with your reserves and rejuvenate as you prepare for partying and hibernation.

Photography and video by Beth Kessler

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Andrea Rice is a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has also been published in the New York Times, Yoga Journal, NY Yoga + Life, SONIMA, mindbodygreen, and other online publications. Connect with Andrea on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and her website.

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