How To Celebrate the Winter Solstice: Modern Perspectives on an Ancient Festival
Northern hemisphere dwellers will feel, within their bones, the approach of the longest night of the year: the Winter Solstice. The diminishing light is felt keenly by half the planet, whether we recognise it or not. The lack of sunlight at this time of year has a profound effect on our mood, our perspective and our wellbeing. It is no co-incidence that we are more susceptible to viral infection at this time of the year, this is the way it has always been.
In winter, the lack of sunshine also has the potential to negatively affect our mood. Ancient people would not be as affected by this as they spent much more time outside than us. They would build up greater levels of vitamin D (which is not actually a vitamin, but a hormone) in their bodies to tide them over the darker months. Us modern, desk-bound humans however, would be wise to take our D3/K2 drops each day to keep our spirits up and those bugs at bay!
Still Point Magic
The Ancients instinctively understood the importance of working with the energies of this time. Etymologically, solstice is made up of two words sol, latin root for sun; and stis from sta; which means to stand still (as in stasis, static). On the day of the Solstice, the Sun reaches its southern-most position as seen from the Earth and seems to stand still for a short time. Then the Sun reverses its direction and begins to travel northwards. We might liken the Solstice to the end of the exhale, a suspended moment of stillness prior to the drawing in of the inhale. The beginning of a new cycle of breath, a new cycle of Earth time.
In 2021 in the UK, the Winter Solstice is celebrated at sunrise on Wednesday 22nd of December. At Winter Solstice, our task is to contemplate the forces of light and darkness in our lives and in our world. We focus our attention on the glimmer of light within the darkness. We consciously and patiently wait for the light to return in its fullness. As with our breath practice, we do not force or hurry things along. This is a time to trust that the light will return of itself as part of the natural order of things. In the meantime, we make ourselves cosy and enjoy this special time of peace and tranquility.
However, modern humans have access to light from many sources other than the sun or the “little sun”, an indigenous term for fire. These new types of light, particularly the blue light found in LED lights and on the screens of our devices, has a stimulating effect on our nervous system and disrupts our sleep-wake cycle. This circadian (circa = “around” dia = “day”) rhythm is governed by the master clock, in a structure in the base of the brain called the hypothalamus. It is attuned to the light of the sun and disrupted blue light.
This is one of the reasons why you might be not feeling quite so tranquil or peaceful around this time of year. One way we can counteract this is to use more yellow light, candlelight and firelight in our home. Even using the blue light blocking glasses can minimise disruption to the hypothalamus, helping us to sleep more soundly and restore ourselves gently as many animals do at this time of year.
Thanks to our blue light devices, many of us will be internet shopping, up late at night preparing for our family gatherings. In addition, these days, our plans can change at a moment’s notice and this adds a new dimension of stress and complexity. This Solstice in particular, in 2021, we are truly called to go with the flow of events, to let go of the illusion of having things exactly as we would like them. And, for some us, we may be required to greatly simplify our plans for gathering together with our loved ones.
Breath as Your Ally
This is where the breath can be our ally and our support. If we find our stress levels rising, we can learn to turn inward towards the cycle of the breath, our own microcosm of the orbit of planet Earth around the sun. Tuning into the pause at the end of the exhale, might allow us to feel the stillness and the calm, which can connect us at a visceral level, to the energy of this time. As our mind, body, breath and nervous system settle, we are able to notice that this still point (in our breath cycle and within the solar cycle) has a quality of timelessness and potential. In this stillness we can harness the energies of this time to dream, to wonder and to connect with possibility… this is how magic and transformation happens.
Dreaming — Light Within the Darkness
With all the complexity and difficulty that humanity is faced with at this time, we could sure do with a little magic in our lives! This year, it feels particularly important to ponder upon how these energies are moving within our lives, and within the wider world. Somehow we must reconcile ourselves with the fact there will always be both darkness and light. We have to accept that we cannot really have one without the other.
Some questions to consider might be: do we feel dragged down by the dark prevailing narratives in the news and on social media? Are we open to expanding the light of our awareness to new understandings and possibilities? Are we able to use this time of year to incubate and tend to the kindling fires of our dreams and potentials? Can we be patient to trust that the light will return and the time for sprouting, budding, flowering and fruiting is ahead? In this dark time we can nourish ourselves in stillness whilst conserving our energies for the challenges ahead. In this way we can inwardly invent, devise, create, explore and wonder about new ways of being in the world.
Ceremony and Intention
The Solstice practices of turning away from the old and dreaming in the new are held within our ancestral DNA, our traditions, our history and our culture. We commonly celebrate the light within the dark at this time. The fairy lights on the Christmas tree, candles and sparkles to brighten up the gloom remind us of the light of the heavenly bodies. At the point at which we are at the furthest point away from the Sun, we choose to honour the celestial light. The mish-mash of symbology that is our modern Christmas has less to do with the birth of Jesus and more to do with the ancient Roman and Pagan celebrations of the time of the Solstice. The practice of setting intentions for the New Year is also a Pagan ceremonial idea, as the Solstice marks the end of an old cycle and the planning and envisioning of the new.
Yoga Nidra Practice for the Mid Winter
This can be a great time of year for finding your way of letting go of what has become less useful in your life, old habits and ideas… and considering what you would like to bring in to your life in the future. What feelings, experiences and situations would you like to create? What projects and plans would you like to give birth to in the Spring? What new intentions can you affirm in order to align with your purpose? How would you like to tend to the creative energies that are moving through you.
This work can be done in the darkness of rest and rejuvenation in a practice called Yoga Nidra. Nidra means sleep, however, it is a little bit of a yogic joke. The physical layer of our being might appear to be asleep. Yet, the other parts of our being, the energy layer, mental layer, wisdom layer and bliss layer are wide awake, preparing for the work ahead and aligning our energetic systems, enabling us to purposefully create our future with clarity and focus.
What is Sankalpa?
The practice of Yoga Nidra is guided by the sankalpa, which can be defined as the positive future-directed intention for the next stage of our lives. If we bring ourselves to a relaxed meditative state and affirm our sankalpa, it is said that nothing can stop it from being fulfilled. This might be a more powerful practice to take on than the New Year’s Resolution. Resolutions are often forgotten a few weeks, or even days, into the New Year. A sankalpa on the other hand is affirmed and reaffirmed in a meditative state throughout the year or longer, until it has born its fruit. As with most good things, this takes time. And has we patiently and consistently work with the sankalpa, we learn to work with nature’s cycles, and to trust the process of Life itself.
The Power of Ceremony
Working intentionally with this time might consist of a simple ceremony of lighting a candle and remembering what we are grateful for in our lives. Or resting into the stillness of Yoga Nidra practice at the end of the day, holding our intention in our mind as we relax and let go of our everyday concerns. It might be taking time out to watch the sunrise throughout these darker months, honouring the light of the Sun and all the energy it provides for the benefit of all life on earth. We might spend our evenings in a gentler way, with less bright light and a more calming atmosphere. These practices are connecting, grounding and deeply restorative to our health and wellbeing. They weave us back into Nature, a process which inherently restores our nervous system and inherent wellbeing.
The Benefits of Aligning with Natural Cycles
Solstice ceremonial practices are just as beneficial to us modern humans as they were to our Ancestors. If we struggle with hormonal imbalance, insomnia, chronic aliments, anxiety or depression, such rituals can help us to shift out of unhealthy routines and realign us with Universal energy, the forces of light and dark. These little changes or additions to our routines cost nothing but our effort and intention. Yet, they provide a myriad of benefits including improved mental health, better sleep, more balanced hormones and a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.