Winter Solstice / Yule - 20-23 December
The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year. We have arrived at the point in the year when the darkness is at its fullness. It’s the time to quiet down but also to cultivate ideas for new beginnings when the light comes back. Important to practice yoga that nourishes, supports and grounds as well as practices that can uplift us out of the winter blues and energise you.
Winter is a time to rest and restore, a time to conserve energy in these colder months, withdraw, reflect, replenish, and relax. Discover courage and take responsibility of how you feel and let go of any fear or unnecessary anxiety - don't hold onto the past or worry about the future ... stay present and flow gently in these winter months.
Solstice literally means 'Standing-Still-Sun' and happens twice a year, once in the winter and once in the summer. Sol means “Sun” and sistere means “to stand still.”
Time to pause just like the sun and look back over the journey that we have taken over the dark half of the year. This has been a journey that has followed a path that has spiralled inwards to the centre of our being. And now we reflect upon what we have learned along the way and consider what wisdom we will be taking with us into the new solar year. Like the Sun we stand still and prepare to change direction. What do you want to bring out in to the light over the coming months?
However, although it is not apparent to us yet, the Earth’s energy has shifted from: darkness to light; moon to sun; yin to yang; water to fire; inner to outer; and from contemplation to action.
The new solar year has begun; the light is expanding, and the days will gradually lengthen again. The light will continue to expand up until the Summer Solstice in June, when having reached its fullness, it will once again begin to wane.
Ancient practices for a modern world
Traditions and Celebrations
This important point in the sun's cycle has been celebrated all over the world for thousands of years.
For the Norse and Celts, it was Yule, for the Romans, Saturnalia, and it has now been Christianised into Christmas. But all these celebrations have the same theme in common - the rebirth of the sun (or 'the son' in Christian terms).
Our ancestors were very keen to honour this time of the year and designed some of their stone circles/barrows to exactly pinpoint this turning point in the sun's journey.
Stonehenge is a perfect marker of both solstices and the amazing New Grange barrow in Ireland is designed to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on the winter solstice.
One way in which this time is acknowledged in Wiltshire (and possibly other places that have white horses), is the by the lighting up of the white horse at Alton Barnes. Following an old tradition, people gather with tea lights in jars that are placed on the chalk so that the horse glows with candlelight.
Bring the ‘return of the sun’ into your home with lots of light - fairy lights, candles, and anything else that sparkles!
The Celts believed the sun stood still during the winter solstice. They thought by keeping the Yule log burning for these 12 days encouraged the sun to move, making the days longer.
In the Celtic times, druids observed the festival of Yule at the time of Winter solstice. They gathered mistletoe from oak trees, to ward off evil spirits and grant them good luck. also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.
Things like kissing under a mistletoe, carolling, wreaths, and even gift-giving were all aspects of pagan holidays that were adapted into Christmas celebrations in the early years.
Decorating trees, feasting with loved ones, hanging up socks by the fireplace – they’re all a part of pagan history and sacred holidays. In fact, most of the cultural aspects we associate with Christmas are steeped in pagan roots.
Some pagan traditions that have become associated with Christmas: Gift-giving, the image of Santa Claus, Christmas stockings, decking the halls with holly, and decorating trees.
But even before St. Nicholas, there was another bearded old man called Odin. This deity was worshipped by early Germanic pagan tribes, traditionally portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard with an 8-legged horse called Sleipnir who he would ride through the skies (just like Santa’s reindeer). During the winter, kids would fill their booties with carrots and straw and leave them by the chimney for Sleipnir to feed on. Odin would fly by and reward the children with little presents in their booties, much like we do with Christmas stockings today.
We sure have taken a lot of inspiration from the Romans, and tree decorating is just another borrowed tradition! Besides feasting, drinking, and exchanging gifts during Saturnalia, Romans also hung small metal ornaments on trees outside their homes. Each of these little ornaments represented a god, either Saturn or the family’s personal patron saint.
Early Germanic tribes practiced a similar tree decorating tradition, this time with fruits and candles to honour the god Odin throughout winter solstice. Christians seemed to have merged the tree decorating with ornaments, candles, and fruits to make Christmas tree decorating one extravagant tradition.
TCM - WATER ELEMENT
The Winter season is related to the Water Element so think of this as a time for containment, concentration, stillness & creating tranquillity.
The kidney and bladder are the organs governed by the water element, and these are responsible for regulating the water in our body.
These organs are linked to the fight-or-flight instincts of our adrenal glands and hormones of the endocrine system.
Water is also associated with the emotion of fear so check in on how you are feeling.
Enjoy this Winter Solstice practice as you take the time to pause and create a quiet space to welcome the sun back into your life. At this time of year in the natural world, most plants and animals have slowed down, they seem to be resting, taking a well-deserved break. This is exactly what we should be doing in our yoga practise too. Slow down the pace, maybe introduce some repetition so that the body can absorb the benefits of the poses. Include lots of forward and back bends which will help strengthen the spine and which are grounding and cleansing for the kidneys and bladder.
For a shorter practice just use the first part of the practice, the part we do in class on the floor.
Add in some rolling, waving movements in your yoga practice to tap into the water element and meridians in TCM.
For a longer practice include a few rounds of Salute to the sun and the Warrior pose
Performing Sun Salutations are a wonderful way to welcome back the Sun at the Winter Solstice. You can bring warmth into a cold winter’s day by picturing a warm glowing sun at
your solar plexus as you perform Salute to the Sun.
Rejuvenate and bring a sense of calm by using breathing techniques and daily meditation. Become aware of your breath, try to detach yourself from external sounds and direct your breath and thoughts internally to relax muscles, reduce anxiety and still the mind.
Meditation – Sunshine In Your Belly!
This visualisation combined with breathing can boost self-confidence. It is energising and uplifting and can induce a feeling of well-being and happiness:
Close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and relax. In your solar plexus, imagine a sun radiating light and energy. Feel warmth and light there. As you inhale see the sun brighten and expand inside your solar plexus. As you exhale, feel this sun radiate energy through your whole body.
Meditation – Light up!
This exercise can help the mind heal the body and helps keep the mind in the now. It is also a wonderful aid to promote deep, restful sleep.
Imagine you have little holes in the ends of your toes and as you breath in, breathe light through all the bones and joints in your feet and legs up into the thighs. As you exhale, imagine all the tension being taken away.
Next imagine holes in the ends of your fingers and as you inhale, bring the light into the bones of your hands, wrist, arm and up into your shoulder blades and as you exhale, feel tension being taken away
Lastly imagine inhaling light into tiny holes in the crown of your head and then exhale it out. Repeat several times
Pranayama – Breath Practice
Ujjayi breathing – Ocean Breathing for Warmth
This helps us to feel warm on the inside as it take more effort to breath in this way than our usual way of breathing.
Breathing in and out through your nose but semi closing the epiglottis valve at the back of the throat.
You can first try it with your mouth open whispering the syllable HA (like Darth Vader!)
Continue with the lips lightly closed so that you’re making an oceanic sound as you breath in and out.
Health and Lifestyle
Rest! Sleep longer if you can. Avoid being stressed and try to stay calm and warm.
Do things that make you feel pampered and nourished
Eat hearty hot food to keep warm. Stews, soups with seasonal root vegetables, fish, sweet potatoes. A little spice if you like that.
Try to avoid excess salt and cold foods
Self-massage with Use essential oils that warm, such as juniper, ginger, turmeric and rub oils into your skin to boost the blood flow, create heat and stimulate your lymphatic system
Celtic Tree Wisdom in Winter
Spending time around trees is the perfect way to connect to the importance nature places upon conserving energy and resting during this cold, dark winter period. When you are out and about stop and spend some time mindfully observing a tree bare of all its leaves. Notice the shape the bare tree forms. Notice the space around the tree and the sky above it. Do the same mindful observations with an evergreen tree. As you do this mindfulness exercise notice how you are feeling, what you are thinking, how your body is feeling, and the rhythm of your natural breath. If you are feeling cold notice how it feels to be cold. If you are feeling snug and warm in your winter gear, notice how that feels too. Look at plants and trees associated with wonder, mistletoe, holly which is quite striking with its spikey, misshaped, hard leaves and red berries.