Patanjali 3:26- “From perfect discipline of the sun, one has knowledge of the worlds.”
On June 21st we celebrate the Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere. Many cultures for billions of years have done this in different ways for different reasons, and cultures today, including yogis, still carry on solstice traditions.
The word “solstice” is a combination of the words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) to form the term that means “sun standing still”. The Summer Solstice happens once per year in each hemisphere, when the planet’s rotational axis is most greatly inclined toward the sun. When this happens, there is daylight for more time than any other day of the year, and in turn, the shortest night. At high noon, if you were to step outside, you would witness your shortest shadow of the entire year.
Here in Charleston, South Carolina, the solstice will occur at approximately 6:00am. The sun will rise at 6:12am, and it will set at 8:31pm. Twilight will be visible from 5:43 am until 8:59 pm. Over 15 hours of our day will be illuminated by our galaxy’s energy source, leaving us with only 9 hours of darkness. This is nothing compared to the more extreme solstice in Reykjavik, Iceland, that provides almost 22 hours of daylight.
The summer solstice has been observed worldwide throughout history. There is evidence that as early as the stone age, Neolithic humans depended on the solstice to mark when to plant crops.The ancient Egyptians not only celebrated the solstice for its light, but also for the fact that it coincided with the rise of its life source; the Nile river. Ancient Greeks marked the solstice as the first day of the year, and they held the Olympic games 30 days after that. Taoist in China saw the solstice as the beginning of the “Yin”, or feminine, darkening, cooling energy period. Pre-Christian pagans in northern Europe had bonfire ceremonies to carry on the energy of the longest day, and Vikings held meetings to resolve disputes on the solstice.
It can be difficult for a person of today’s technological conveniences to understand the gravity that the solstice would hold for a person or a culture that lived by the rise and fall of the sun, and the natural rhythm of the planet. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who spent an entire winter scavenging for food and trying to stay warm, and just imagine the glory of the warmest, longest day of the year! Forty percent of the world’s population currently lives in temperate climates, and almost all of the world is affected in some way by seasons. It is innate and instinctive to observe the longest day of the year, because nothing is as fundamental for nature as sunlight.
For Yogis there are many ways to interpret the symbolism of the standing sun. The solstice is a time to pause, and turn focus inward. Metaphorically, it is the summit of an annual spiritual mountain climb. On the way up the mountain we are seeking outward, searching, and being externally aware. At the top of the mountain everything is illuminated and clear, and on the way down we have time to reflect, cultivate, and nurture intentions within.
The solstice is also a time to bring universal balance, and the ebb and flow of life to the forefront of our minds. The solstice, just like any point on a circle, is both an extreme and a median. We consider that while it is the longest, brightest day where we are, it is also the shortest, darkest day on the opposite side of the planet. We understand that just as we celebrate the radiance of light and warmth, we are also welcoming back it’s cold, dark counterpart. We focus on the balance of energies, and the divine timing and purpose of circumstance. We celebrate this turning point as an opportunity to pause, reflect, connect, and consider what we would like to nurture in the coming months. We meditate on the yogic niyamas of tapas and saucha, or burning away impurities with inner fire, and inner and outer purity. The solstice is a reminder to return to our connectedness with nature, and to cultivate gratitude for the countless gifts of the sun.
So how do yogis celebrate the solstice today? The sun salutation was originally created to… well… salute the sun. It was an exercise of physical devotion, humility, and gratitude done facing to the east first thing in the morning. Yes, it also can be a great aerobic workout that creates toned triceps, but physical exercise was not the original point. On solstices and equinoxes, it is common for yogis to practice 108 sun salutations. The significance of the number 108 is up for interpretation, but we do know that there are 108 Upanishads (ancient Hindu scriptures), and there are 108 marma points (sacred places in the body). Hindu and Buddhist malas and mantras are usually in strings or sets of 108 beads or stones. The average distance of the sun and moon to the earth is roughly 108 times their respective diameters. And just in case that wasn’t nerdy enough for you, it just so happens that 1 to the first power X 2 to the 2nd power X 3 to the 3rd power = 108. Long story short, it’s a great number with some major divine and mathematical significance.
Doing these 108 sun salutations outdoors is powerful for connecting with the energy of the sun, and its physically and metaphysically illuminating properties.
Most importantly, yogis spend time alone in meditation to set intentions and ponder inner revelations on this day of total illumination.
Solstice mantras and intentions:
“I am purging”
“I am purifying”
“I am igniting”
“I trust the timing of my life”
“I am light”
“I am nurturing”