The Winter Solstice is marked by the dance between the poles of light and dark: in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year with the longest night.
Now, if you know me you know I'm a sucker for metaphors, and the inherent power they possess within our psyches, our actions, and our lives. While the winter season represents the Yin qualities of slowness, reflection, and receptivity, this season also marks the cyclical return to sunlight. It's no wonder Winter Solstice themes are Rebirth and Renewal (yes, I'm capitalizing certain words like an old transcendentalist).
Yin is lunar and Yang is solar.
While some traditions celebrate this time as Light's triumph over Darkness (the tired old tale of Good vs Evil)...
it's essential to honor the darkness.
To slow down despite holiday mania.
To pause and reflect so that our forward motion may be filled with intention.
The more Shadow Work I practice, the more I realize the key to deep, profound healing requires me to become my own ally.
This means that I can no longer ignore the parts of myself I've shamed and judged for years: I need to open up those old skeleton closets and dig around the beautiful dark. This is one of the reasons why I love the natural quiet and introspection that winter affords -- even in Florida, where winter means 60 degrees.
So let's celebrate the darkness just as much as we welcome the return of the sun's radiance, because we need both.
The truth is, we are an indelible part of nature, composed of the cosmos itself, and we can't escape our connection to its rhythms.
This is true despite the fact that many people are completed disconnected from nature. And yet, tuning into and aligning ourselves with nature can provide key insights and connections in our lives.
This is why I've put together a Yoga practice that involves my favorite calming pranayama technique and yin- and yang-style yoga postures. Many of the foundational yoga postures below can be experienced with a focus on grounding -- an essential quality to cultivate during the busy holiday season, when we typically rush around (in a very Yang way) versus aligning our energy with the Yin season. Hope you enjoy, and here's to being on this wild, wondrous journey.
1. Nadi Shodhana: Alternate Nostril Breath
Begin in a comfortable seat, with your hips slightly elevated over your knees (this usually means sitting on the front edge of a meditation cushion, yoga bolster, or a rolled blanket). Create length across your spine, soften your shoulders, and tune into the natural rhythm of your breath.
As you become centered, bring your right hand into Vishnu Mudra: curl your index and mid finger into the palm of your hand with the other three fingers extended. You can also rest the index and mid fingertips on your brow point instead.
The right thumb lightly closes the right nostril: inhale gently and easily through the left nostril. At the top of the breath bring the right ring finger to close the left nostril, release the thumb, and exhale down the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril, exhale down the left, toggling your thumb and ring finger back and forth.
Continue for at least 3-5 minutes.
Alternate Nostril breath is a wonderful pranayama technique to create more balance, harmony, and ease within all of the layers of your being: mental, physical, emotional, energetic, and spiritual. This technique can help soothe the nervous system, which promotes a sense of relaxation and well-being. It's excellent for the Winter Solstice because this breath symbolizes the equilibrium between the solar and lunar qualities (the left nostril breath representing Chandra, or the moon/Yin energy, while the right nostril represents Surya, the sun/Yang energy).
2. Baddha Konasana -- Butterfly Pose
Ah, one of my favorite yoga poses! This sweet hip opener can be practiced in both Yin and Yang ways:
the Yang expression (pictured here) is great to warm up the body by keeping the spine elongated and lifting through the abdomen. You can add spinal waves here, a la cat/cow, or spiral the torso around. It's helpful to keep the hips elevated so the back doesn't round and the chest doesn't collapse.
In a more Yin variation, you can gently fold over the legs, letting the muscles relax. Since your muscles will still be cool, this is a more classical way to practice Yin, which targets the connective tissue. Furthermore, the Yin postures encourage stillness and inward reflection.
3. Parivritta Ardha Padmasana -- Half Lotus Seated Twist
From butterfly, draw one foot up into the opposite hip crease. Make sure both hips remain evenly grounded (keeping those hips elevated on a prop helps alignment and restores the natural curvatures of the spine).
You can add a twist here to further warm up the spine. The secret to any twist is maintaining length in the spine. If the right foot is in the left hip crease, breathe in and lift through your crown: breathe out to twist to the right, floating your right arm behind you and crossing the left arm to the right leg. You may explore a bind here, flipping the right palm away form you (thumb faces up to the sky), wrapping the right arm behind your lower back. Who knows -- you might find your right toes with your right fingers, as I am attempting here before my camera timer clicked the photo (ohhh autotimer). ;)
4. Marjariasana -- Cat/Cow
Come to tabletop position with the shoulders stacked over the wrists and the hips stacked over the knees.
As you inhale, lift the sternum and broaden across your collarbones, while also allowing the navel to gently dip toward the earth (pictured).
As you exhale, round the back, drawing the ridge of your spine toward the sky while your tailbone draws downward.
Continue for a few rounds, allowing your breath to synchronize with the movements (inhaling as the heart lifts, exhaling as the chin draws to chest and the back rounds).
5. Anjaneyasana -- Low Lunge
This is another fav pose that I practice nearly every day to open the hip flexors, quadriceps, and slowwwly get into the psoas.
For the Winter Solstice I prefer this variation with hands in prayer position, or Anjali Mudra, which further encourages the Yin qualities of centeredness, grounding, and inner connection.
From tabletop or downward-facing dog, you can simply step one leg forward between the hands, stacking the knee over the ankle (make sure toes and the center of your knee joint are facing forward and in line with one another).
Feel rooted through your front footsole as well as your back shin and top of the back foot. This sense of anchoring will help you lift and lengthen from the abdomen through the crown of the head. Pause for a few breaths, then transition back through tabletop, child's pose, or down dog and move to the other side.
6. Adho Mukha Svanasana -- Downward-Facing Dog
Another daily pose: for the Winter Solstice, it helps to focus on the grounding elements of the posture, while simultaneously using the shape as a metaphor to turn inward.
From tabletop, walk your hands forward about one hand print (so wrists are in front of shoulders, no longer stacked), curl toes under and lift hips up and back. Create length across the back and activate through the core to stabilize the center of the pose.
As the heels root toward the earth, your upper hamstrings and hips lift toward up and away from the shoulders. Generally, it helps to keep the ears between the biceps.
Breathe. Sense the earth's energy rising up through these points of connection: your palms, your feet.
7. Trikonasana -- Triangle Pose
Triangle pose is another foundational yoga posture -- for the Winter Solstice we can draw our attention to rooting through the legs while simultaneously drawing energy up the legs, across the pelvic bowl, and through the spine all the way to the crown. This pose also represents the dual expressions of grounding and lifting at once.
Alignment is key in this pose (and full alignment is beyond the scope of this article). However, here are some tips:
~ Keep the spine long: don't collapse the bottom side of the torso or round the back. That often means bringing the bottom hand up juuust a little higher along the bottom leg.
~ Speaking of the bottom leg, don't use it as a crutch. Engage your core and lengthen the bottom side torso, while actively drawing the bottom outer thigh muscles up and back (don't let the bottom hip stick out).
~ Rotate the back toes in just slightly, pivoting the heel outward (as shown).
8. Parivritta Anjaneyasana -- Lunge with Prayer Twist
The dance between Yin and Yang elements continues with this revolved lunge (the above is obviously not a direct translation of this pose).
Flowing from Triangle to Downdog, you can step a foot forward between your hands. Keep the front knee stacked over the front ankle, draw the abdominal wall inward and upward to rise up with integrity, hands on heart.
Press back actively through the back heel, firing up both thighs. As you twist to the side of the front bent leg, press the top palm down just as much as you press the bottom palm up. Try to keep the thumbs at your sternum, rotating from the low waist.
Keep a soft gaze, breathe, and root down through your legs.
9. Utkatasana -- Chair Pose
We build the Yang fire for the Solstice with Chair Pose, keep the knees in line with the toes as you sit back and ground through your heels (different lineages of yoga have different directions in terms of relation to knees and feet: I prefer to keep my feet hip-distance apart).
You can begin with hands at your heart center, and then extend the arms out radiantly, while not sinking into the saddle of your low back. Maintain integrity in the torso by continuing to engage the core and lift across the heart.
Play with the dance of effort and ease, rooting and lifting, Yin and Yang.
10. Parivritta Utkatasana -- Revolved Chair
We continue to build Yang energy here and tap into the fire within with this wonderful shape. From chair pose, twist to one side bringing your palms together, utilizing the same alignment cues from the lunge twist.
As you twist, anchor back evenly through your heels and make sure your knees are still both pointing forward -- check that one hasn't shifted forward to compensate for tightness in the back.
Throughout, check in with your shoulders as well, ensuring they broaden away from your ears. Smiling also helps. ;)
11. Eka Pada Utkatasana -- One-Foot Chair Pose Variation
Return to chair pose from your twist, pick up the right foot and place the right outer ankle on top of your left thigh (the left thigh acts a bit like a shelf here).
This requires a deep connection to your midline, as you draw energy up the inner thighs, pelvis, and abdomen. This will also help protect your standing knee, which we want to keep stabilized and steady.
This pose not only builds heat, develops strength, and cultivates balance, but it's also a faaaaaaantastic outer hip stretch. It's like good in a bad way. You know what I mean.
Note: If you're working with knee sensitivities go right ahead and skip this one. Same is true for every yoga posture: listen to your body, never force anything, and take real-time classes with an experienced teacher if you can.
12. Anahatasana -- Melting Heart Pose
This wonderful heart opener brings us back to Yin energies to round out the practice. From chair pose, you can flow back through doward-facing dog, before coming to the hands and knees on the ground.
Melting Heart pose is like a blend of downdog and child's pose: keep the hops over the knees as you walk your hands forward and allow your heart to descend. Your chin or forehead can come to the ground, or a block if available.
Draw the hips up and back to lengthen the spine. With every inhale you inflate your lungs and the side body expands; with every exhale the heart softens just a little more. This is beautiful pose that transitions us back to inner reflection and surrender.
13. Virasana -- Hero's Pose
From puppy pose, slide back and sit on the heels (or place a block or two under sitting bones). Keep the back upright with shoulders soft. Relax your gaze and continue to slow down the breath rhythm.
Observe the effects of your practice so far: without analyzing or coming up with answers, simply notice how you feel.
14. Agni Stalambasana -- Fire Log Pose
The final pose in this sequence is both soothing and fiery: quite a good symbol of polarity, methinks.
Fire Log Pose is usually one people love or hate: again, if you're working with knee sensitivities or recovering from an injury this pose may not be appropriate.
It's key to keep the hips level as you stack your right shin on top of your left. Looking down, your legs will look a bit like a triangle.
The sensation in the outer hip that you cultivated in one-legged chair pose will resurface here, but in a much more grounded way.
This is also a classic Yin Yoga posture, so you can practice it with the muscles relaxed while folding forward (not pictured). In the photo, my hands are in Bhu Mudra. This gesture is profoundly grounding: the index and middle fingers point down to earth like diving rods, while the other three fingers tuck into the palm.
As you lie back in savasana or remain seated for meditation, take a moment to honor the light and dark aspects within yourself. Acknowledge the sun and the moon: different yet essential components to the whole.
Acknowledge one radiant quality you possess, and wrap gratitude around it like a shimmering bow. Feel the love for this wonderful aspect of yourself. Now, acknowledge a part of you that you've judged in the past (You don't have to begin with your biggest, baddest, most loathed quality: start small and build up. Shadow work takes time.) Take a long while to breathe love and appreciation into this quality. Embrace this piece of the great puzzle of who you are: unique, valuable, weird and wacky and absolutely wondrous.
Then, send gratitude to the earth and to the sky. Once again to the sun and the moon. And to yourself, Divine Wonder that you are, here experiencing life.