Autumnal Equinox: Ritual Through Yoga
The autumnal equinox marks one of two specific positions of Earth during its year-long orbit around the sun where the celestial equator (the spatial projection of the plane between northern and southern hemispheres) passes through the center of our solar star. In these equinox positions, our planet’s axis is directed neither toward nor away from the sun and the boundary between light and shadow is perpendicular to the equator.
During this significant, albeit brief, moment of cosmic equanimity, the planet is divided into approximately equal parts night and day, hence the word “equinox” with Latin roots meaning “equal night.”
The Macrocosm: What Happens Outside During an Equinox?
On an equinox, the sun spends approximately the same amount of time above and below the horizon; rising due east, setting due west, and appearing directly overhead at midday. The word equinox, however, is something of a misnomer. Due to the curvature of the Earth and the composition of our atmosphere, the amount of visible sunlight reaching a particular location varies with the observer’s distance from the equator. For this reason, the global equinox occurs with slightly different timing than the local equilux, which is the latitude-specific date on which the sun rises and sets at the same time, just 12 hours apart.
An Invitation to Turn Within
As Earth progresses along its orbit, passing through a balanced equinox point at the end of summer, its axis begins to lean away from the sun, bringing the southern hemisphere closer to, and moving the northern hemisphere farther away, from our radiant star. As a result, the sun’s rays hit the northern hemisphere at an indirect angle and less solar energy reaches this part of the world.
This waning sunlight initiates a distinct and perceptible shift in our terrestrial environment as the sweetness of summer begins to fade and the top half of our planet retreats from the heat of the sun.
The autumnal equinox is our invitation to turn toward the light within.
The Earth, like our bodies, breathes with unyielding rhythm and there is no better time to observe this divine truth than during a change of seasons when the breath wave of our planet can be experienced through all the senses. This yearly cycle, mirrored in every breath we take, is described in the table below.
When considering how the planet breathes, the autumnal equinox occurs during the inspiration cycle which can be likened to puraka or the inhalation. With the downward-moving inhale, all elements are magnetized toward the Earth. That which was exhaled during the effulgence of summer is reintegrated. Plants surrender their vegetation in response to shorter days and cooler temperatures. Their leaves drained of life-giving sustenance, eventually fall in the ultimate display of impermanence.
Moisture and heat are absorbed into the ground and air currents begin to circulate near the surface to catalyze these natural processes. As vehicles of the universal breath, we can interpret these environmental cues as a reflection of our internal seasons and emulate the perennial wisdom of the planet by letting go, slowing down and taking time for regenerative practices
The Microcosm: What Happens Inside During an Equinox?
A Cosmic Dunk
The autumnal equinox is the beginning of a cosmic dunk into darkness. With each passing day, nighttime arrives a little earlier and lingers into our waking hours. With this gift of environmental down-time, we are encouraged to welcome and not resist the centripetal force of consciousness that pulls us inward. This is a time for meditation and rest. Use this opportunity to surrender to your inner gravity, ask difficult questions, and listen deeply for what arises. Get curious as you dive into the darkness.
This is the call of the Dark One, The roar of life seeking its source. The union you long for is within reach.
Throw off all hesitation. Become one with the fear. Plunge into uncanny blackness,
Eyes wide open, As if there were no other choice. Vibrating with fierce tenderness, Breathe intimately With the Source of Infinite Space.
Translation by Lorin Roche, Vijnana Bhairava Tantra — Yukti Verses |87|
Summon Your Shadow Side
Occurring roughly in the middle of a 6-month period of waning light, the autumnal equinox represents a confluence of life and death. In agrarian societies, the equinox signals the completion of the harvest season, the fruits of which are gathered and stored for the barren winter months. The fullest expression of vibrant light and activity in summer gives way to the stillness of shadow in fall.
As a complement to the light, our shadow side often carries a negative weight when it is mistakenly interpreted as comprising the most troubling parts of ourselves and our experience. The truth is, however, the shadow side encompasses all things outside the light of consciousness, good and bad. Our collective unconscious harbors everything that is unseen or hidden from awareness, like the dark side of the moon. So, in the same way, we might conceal our least desirable qualities, we may also unconsciously hide our brightest attributes on account of shadow forces like shame or lack of self-esteem.
Shadow work is as important to revealing our light as it is to release our darkness and the time to begin this work is now, between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. This is a time to excavate anything that may be churning beneath the surface, a time to invite such thoughts and emotions to gently rise and dissolve. As a guide, you may consider the following contemplation questions either in meditation or in journaling to facilitate this inner exploration.
- What has been my personal harvest this year, what has grown into full expression and brought me joy? Begin each sentence with I celebrate…
- What seeds of insight will I collect and re-plant in the next season? I nourish…
- Where am I holding back or ceding to doubt? What fears are stalling me? I am afraid of…
- Where am I creating struggle or holding on? How can I conserve energy by releasing any unnecessary effort in this cycle? I release…
- Am I housing any latent anger towards myself or others? How can I liberate myself from it? I forgive…
- Do I presently feel ashamed or embarrassed by any behaviors or decisions I have made? How can I lay them to rest? I accept…
- Do I feel guilty for any of my thoughts, words, or actions? How can I make a conscious change? I resolve…
- If my body were to speak, what would it say to me? I hear…
Autumn: The Vata Season
As explained in Ayurveda, Vata is the predominant constitution or dosha during the fall season where the elements of air and space are prevalent. With inherently cool, dry, light, and mobile qualities, Vata is most susceptible to aggravation at this time of year when similar qualities are increasing in nature.
With a direct relationship to Prana, the source of life inside and outside the body, Vata governs all movement and circulation. When in excess, mobility in the body may result in dryness, joint pain, insomnia, and a general feeling of unease. As a result, the positive energy associated with a balanced Vata dosha, the energy that inspires creativity, intellect, and activity, can quickly devolve into fear, anxiety, and irritability. To pacify Vata during the upcoming season, focus on the balancing qualities of earth, fire, and water.
- Get Grounded. Contrary to societal norms, autumn is a time to slow way down. All too often we find the end of the year becoming a time of hurry and overwork. Instead, take every opportunity to reduce your commitments, keep only what is absolutely necessary on your personal, professional, and social calendars. Get more rest by eating an earlier evening meal and committing to a regular bedtime. Develop a fall rhythm and stick to a ritual routine. Be it exercise, nutrition, or self-care, Vata is pacified by steadiness and consistency.
- Stoke the Inner Fire. With decreasing warmth available from the sun, make every effort to minimize the loss of internal heat. Dress warmly, taking care to always cover the head and ears, hands and feet when cold winds are present. Favor warm, cooked foods over raw and allow time for eating as Vata-regulated digestive functions are susceptible to imbalance when we eat on the go. Refrain from drinking cold water or juices and drink room temperature or hot beverages instead.
- Saturate the Senses. Apply Vata-pacifying sesame or olive oil generously after showering as hot water tends to dehydrate the skin. As you lubricate the joints and muscles, use gentle pressure with the hands and fingers to perform self-massage (abhyanga, which grounds upward-moving energy to stabilize Vata. Cook with heating spices like cumin, ginger, and fennel to maintain a steady digestive fire and diffuse warm, earthy scents like geranium, patchouli, and rose. Listen to slow rhythmic music with heavy drumbeats and deep melodic chanting with vibrations that resonate in the lower chakras, drawing energy closer to the earth. Minimize over-stimulating the eyes and during meditation, visualize deep reds and browns.
Practice Regenerative Yoga in Autumn
As we approach the transition from summer to fall, Ayurveda prescribes a gradual shift from cooling breath and postural practices that pacify pitta to those that heat internally to strengthen the fire element in preparation for the colder climate ahead. The Vata dosha also benefits from postures that keep us close to the ground, particularly those that draw energy from the upper centers of the body including the head, throat, and heart, into the lower centers of the belly, sacrum, and hips.
Observe the following guidelines in your practice with steadiness and conscious rhythm to bring balance during times of elevated mobility and stress.
- Soft Eyes. Maintain a soft gaze during asana and pranayama, absorb earth energy through the eyes by looking down in postures where the tendency is to look up.
- Keep it Simple. Avoid overly complex sequences and movements which can over-stimulate intellectual thinking and aggravate vata.
- Root Down. Embrace the earth with all points of contact by pressing down firmly to feel the reciprocal support of the ground, particularly with the hands and feet.
- Get Prone. Compress the low belly and pelvis in prone backbends to alleviate any accumulation of vata that generally occurs here when out of balance.
- Marinate. After warming from the inside out, allow the body to marinate in seated or reclined hip openers and gentle twists, focusing on conscious relaxation rather than activation.
- Surrender. Melt into deep forward bends, closing the throat and resting the third eye on the earth or a block where possible.
Autumnal Equinox Yoga Sequence: Moving Meditation for the Whole Body
Let the focus of this practice be illuminating the fire of the heart for the upcoming season of darkness. With steady, focused effort, visualize a magnetic flame that draws heat and energy into the very core of your being, burning brighter with every inhale. Withdraw from distracting thoughts and listen to the rhythm of your breath. Allow the pace to be slow and smooth, transitioning mindfully from one pose to the next.
Practice this sequence with an emphasis on samavrtti pranayama or equal rhythm breathing. With longer time spent in postures, you may elect to count the length of the inhale to inform the exhale. Let this action be fluid and centering, without rigidity or force. Notice how the breath changes and expands throughout your practice. You will also have an opportunity to practice several rounds of Nadi sodhana, alternate nostril breathing toward the end of practice to bring the subtle body into balance.
When attempting to balance the Vata dosha with asana practice, it can be counterproductive to begin immediately with slow, grounding postures and long holds, despite their potential to alleviate Vata-induced distress. When the mind is fluctuating and the body is agitated, any request to be still might be met with frustration and resistance. In this sequence, we begin instead, with strong and simple standing movements to heat the body and discharge any excess nervous energy before settling into deeper postures for longer periods of time. You may also notice the absence of the basic vinyasa, by design, as it can cause us to rush and get ahead of the breath.
The standing waves of class incorporate two complete mandala flows, one initiating with the right (solar) side of the body and one with the left (lunar) side to symbolize the balance of sunlight and shadow available during the equinox.
The standing postures offered will focus on pressing the feet firmly into the ground while stabilizing the gaze to prepare for single-leg balance asanas before lowering to the earth for deeply meditative hip openers and forward bends. The sequence closes with a gentle downward facing twist and optional downward facing Savasana for grounding.
The Glass Ceiling of Yoga: Body Positivity
The picture of a serene and beautiful yoga community that is celebrated by the media actually disguises a disturbing layer of normalized and ubiquitous body type discrimination. However, by unveiling a previously “invisible” glass ceiling over the Western yoga community, students, teachers, and administrators can find ways to effortlessly mold body-positive practice spaces for current, new, and future yoga practitioners.
Gender vs Body Type
I’ve encountered a lot of glass ceilings in my life. Honestly, when you’re black, queer, and born with female genitalia, you encounter them constantly and I’ve grown to expect situations wherein boundaries and limitations are the norm. However, there’s a glass ceiling that limits our Western yoga community to a troubling degree and it’s something I never expected to encounter. I mean, when “glass ceilings” are typically identified in Western society, they are almost invariably related to gender.
Ironically, the yoga community doesn’t really suffer from a gender glass ceiling, at least not one that negatively effects women.
Even though women weren’t taught asana until the 20th century, the vast majority of Western yoga teachers and students are female. And while discrimination against male yoga students and teachers is probably more common than any of us could imagine, it’s still not the most expansive and divisive glass ceiling in the yoga community.
No, the real ceiling within our community is based entirely upon physical presentation and, specifically, body type.
This ceiling is clear as day to those of us who have atypical yoga practitioner bodies. Instead of being slender, white and heaped with physical ability, there’s a growing wave of yoga teachers and students who are plump, multiethnic and powering through life with a wide range of disabilities. However, those of us who challenge the white washed yoga teacher stereotype face a very different practice landscape than our colleagues. For example, it’s inappropriately common to hear a story about a yoga student being shamed out of a yoga studio, based upon comments made by discriminatory yoga teachers and students.
In some communities, it’s nearly impossible for atypical yoga teachers to find teaching opportunities. And even when teaching opportunities are available, they are not on par with options for more traditionally bodied teachers. This problem is well documented within small communities of “different” yoga teachers, but it’s essentially invisible to those who don’t see themselves as “different”. And, what’s worse, there are way too many practitioners and teachers who don’t see this kind of discrimination as a problem. Thus, an “invisible” glass ceiling has domed over our community, and only those who have been discriminated and oppressed are fully aware of its existence.
What Does This “Glass Ceiling” Actually Look Like?
Here’s the thing, no one in the yoga community is ever going to openly bad mouth someone who looks different from the traditional idea of a practitioner. Ok, let me back up. I’m sure it happens. But being openly mean to people is not condoned in our yoga community. It’s a pretty big no-no, actually. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone reading this article right now is truly shocked by the idea that discrimination exists in a community which oozes the kind of saccharine sweetness that can only be honed by decades of marketing and product advertising. Unfortunately, the prettiest bandages can hide the ugliest wounds.
And beneath the surface of our saccharine sweet, mass media approved industry is a festering wound characterized by offensive language, discriminatory hiring practices and a bunch of other negativity that gets swept under the rug.
Admittedly, it’s not fun to acknowledge discrimination. In most cases, it feels very embarrassing, and many people would prefer to pretend as though they are not part of the problem. But anyone who turns a blind eye to this problem is also a key contributor to its existence. But how does this problem actually manifest and what does it look like? Let me paint a clearer picture for you.
Imagine you’re a curvy person who has finally decided to face your fear of practicing yoga in a group setting. Perhaps you’ve practiced yoga online with free videos, and you’re finally feeling confident enough in your understanding of asana to venture out of your living room and into a communally supportive environment under the watchful gaze of a knowledgeable instructor.
With a yoga mat under your arm and an emotionally swollen heart on your sleeve, you proudly stride into your local yoga studio.
When you approach the reception desk to check-in for class, the teacher (who looks, as expected, like a human Barbie doll) gives you a curt visual once-over. “Is this your first class?” Yoga Teacher Barbie chirps nonchalantly. While your knee jerk reaction may be defensive, you calm yourself down mentally. You remind yourself that she’s not trying to be offensive, and that she’s merely trying to take the proverbial temperature of a student she’s never met before. You smile and shake your head. “Nope, but I’m excited to take your class!” you say. Barbie smirks. “Well, this class is pretty intense,” she says.
You stare at her blankly. You’re wondering why she’s decided to tell you that the class is intense. Is it because she thinks you can’t handle the class? All of a sudden, you’re second guessing yourself and hiding sweaty palms. Why did you think you were strong enough to attend live classes? By the time you’ve rolled out your mat and gotten settled with props, the tissue thin confidence you brought into the studio has been shredded beyond repair by the self-doubt you’d managed to keep at bay prior to arrival.
During the class, you notice for the first time that your expressions of various yoga poses look a little different than other people in the class. Maybe your balance is a little less sharp, or you use props and modifications at times when other students seem to be able to go without. While that acknowledgement makes you a little self-conscious, it pales in comparison to the shame you feel at having your movements constantly corrected by Yoga Teacher Barbie.
Because, yes – Barbie has also noticed that your movements look a little different. And she’s decided to make your differences an opportunity for a teaching exercise by constantly correcting your alignment and offering more physical adjustments than you could have ever wanted. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if she’s offering more or less advice to anyone else in the room – in fact, it’s entirely possible that she offers this level of adjustment to every student. But your confidence has been shattered.
The emotionally swollen heart you proudly wore on your sleeve is now openly bleeding.
In the best case scenario, you somehow find the strength to believe in yourself again. In the worst case, you vow to never darken the doorstep of another yoga class for fear of ever feeling this way again.
The thing is, if you’re reading this right now, you’ve probably worn the moccasins of either Yoga Teacher Barbie or our Curvy Protagonist. Maybe both. And the weird thing is, I’ve heard this exact same story told by people who are not necessarily “curvy” or “different” in some other way.
In fact, it’s startlingly common for people who look just like Yoga Teacher Barbie to still feel discrimination at the hands of their instructors.
I could be wrong, but I think this is all the result of the fact that we live in a staunchly body negative society.
Body negativity is endorsed by the mass media – let’s face it, that’s how they get us to buy things. We make purchases because we find ourselves wanting or lacking in one way or another. Unfortunately, in addition to the mass media, body negativity has also fully permeated the yoga community. In fact, many teachers believe their discrimination isn’t discrimination at all – they see it as a kind dose of realism to students who don’t meet their personal standards of yoga perfection. Because that’s really all discrimination is – it’s the state of our judgment when we encounter people, places, and things which jibe with our personal definitions of perfection.
It’s sad to see this happen in a community which has the potential to include every single human being on the planet. Frankly, it’s not absurd to imagine a world where everyone practices a style or hybrid blend of yoga. However, that reality will never come to fruition if we don’t resolve the body negativity and discrimination problem. How do we do that? Well, fight fire with fire.
If body negativity is the disease, then body positivity must be the antidote.
The Antidote: Body Positivity
Body positivity is frequently confused concept. It’s pretty confused even within the body positivity community. You could get a different definition depending on the person you ask, the day of the week, etc. Some people think body positivity is solely tied up in body size acceptance, and others might even go so far as to equate it with fat acceptance and fat positivity. While fat positive movements have their rightful place of importance in the evolution of our society, I don’t believe they are synonymous with body positivity. Another popular way of describing body positivity is by equating it with constant self-pep talks. You know, a pattern of methods to remind yourself that “I’m Great! I’m Beautiful! I’m worthy of breathing oxygen in front of other humans without feeling suicidal!” While pep talks are rad and I fully endorse them, I don’t think they speak to the core of body positivity.
You see, body positivity assumes your constant perfection. It assumes that you’re always beautiful. That you’re always worthwhile. That you’re always capable. That you’re always strong.
In a truly body positive world, these statements are not up for debate – instead, they are seen as impenetrable fact. The only perspective up for debate is that of each individual – are you willing to accept your own perfection? Especially when the mass media tells you that those statements are definitely not true. Body positivity is the confidence to accept your constant perfection and beauty, no matter the proverbial weather. And, most importantly, to accept the constant perfection and beauty of those around you, even if they look and act different from yourself.
When we implement body positivity in our yoga studios and spaces, we create environments where students across an infinite spectrum of differences all feel as though they are equal to one another. This type of attitude is absolutely critical in order to see the yoga community grow beyond the one dimensional image offered by the media. Body positivity doesn’t mean teachers aren’t free to offer alignment tips and adjustments to their students without fear of offending someone. But it does mean that every word, every gesture, and every moment is an opportunity to be encouraging. To make someone feel welcome. To actively avoid discouragement.
Eventually, this kind of environment will lead to the end of classes where certain students are viewed as superior to their fellow students. Good riddance, as far as I’m concerned. This is a glass ceiling that desperately needs to be shattered.
We must all take responsibility for the role we play in a yoga culture which is thoroughly embedded in discrimination and negativity.
We need more than a few people who are proud of their bodies. We need a legion of yoga teachers, administrators and advanced practitioners who truly walk the walk of the eight-limbed path, and who will stop at nothing to spread the practice to every soul across the planet.