Today is the day I have been anticipating for weeks. Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. It is that moment when a cycle stops and begins. The point where the gradual shortening of days comes to a fleeting stillness – only to move in the opposite direction in a journey back to longer days.
It reminds me of that momentary emptiness that comes at the end of an exhale, the lull before drawing prana back into the body, marking the beginning of another cycle of breath. To inhale marks the return to form, the return to life.
It is a common Yogic tradition to do 108 cycles of Surya Namaskar, which is Sanskrit for “Salute to the Sun”, on the solstices. While the exact origin of the significance of 108 is debated, it has long been considered an auspicious number in many Eastern cultures. It is said that 108 represents all of existence. The diameter of the Sun is approximately 108 times that of the Earth. The distance from the Earth to the Sun is 108 times the Sun’s diameter. And the distance from the Earth to the Moon is 108 times the Moon’s diameter. This number also represents the number of beads in a mala (prayer beads), used for counting mantras and chanting.
By samyana [meditation, concentration, contemplation] on the Sun, knowledge of the entire solar system is obtained. ~ Sutra 3-27, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
With one breath matching each movement, the Sun Salutation is considered a moving meditation. And 108 Sun Salutations is no joke. While many studios stick to Surya Namaskara A (the “easier” one), my studio does 60 A’s, 40 B‘s and 8 C‘s. With the B variation containing three times as many Chaturanga Dandasanas, we’re looking at 180 Chaturangas and 40 pairs of Warrior A. It takes a lot of concentration to stay focused on synching breath and movement for that long, and to “tune out” the cries of aching and tiring muscles.
Each solstice, summer and winter both, I look forward to the challenge of completing my 108 Sun Salutations. I love being part of the group of us, flowing as a single entity, moving and breathing imperfectly in synch. I love the challenge it brings to my body and my mind. I revel in the soreness in the days afterward, a staunch reminder of my earthly existence, of my being alive.
This morning, to my dismay, I woke with chest congestion as a mild cough I was battling for days finally overwhelmed me. The cough was worse and my throat felt swollen. But beyond that, I felt fine. I told myself that nothing was going to deter me from my 108 Sun Salutations. As the morning wore on, however, I realized that my body was weakening, my cough worsening. I initially ignored the statement my body was making, finally giving in and admitting that I was not in shape to practice.
I realize now the gift that my body gave me today. In this unsolicited pause, I am able to reflect on all that the practice means. On this shortest of days, at the apex of the death of one cycle and the beginning of another, I am given a lesson that I so desperately need. Today, the Earth is completing an exhale, and the Infinite sits in that tiny, little moment before the next inhale begins. I realize that the 108 Sun Salutations represents the inhale, saluting the closure of the dark and the return to light. We live most of our lives on the inhale; the Yang. When we are frightened, when we want something, when we are excited, we inhale sharply. When we hold our breath, it is at the top of an inhale, retaining the prana that cycles through our bodies. Rarely do we take the time to focus on the exhale, the calming, the Yin, the slowing down, the death.
The dying year, the dying darkness, is what I am meditating on today. I am being still: body and mind. In the quiet moments of the early afternoon, while other members of my kula were deep in the midst of their Sun Salutations, I practiced Yin yoga alone. I exhaled, and paused, reveling in the emptiness that is nothing and everything at the same time.