Vernal Equinox: Ritual Through Yoga
Over the course of each year, our playful planet performs an elliptic dance around the sun while simultaneously spinning about its own imperfect axis, which tilts roughly 23 degrees from vertical. Born of the primordial fire, the terms of this intricate cosmic relationship are responsible for all of the natural rhythms that inform our daily lives — from changing weather patterns to reliable zeitgebers that regulate our internal clocks.
When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.
The Story of a Blue Sphere and a Fiery Mass
As Earth diligently revolves around the sun each year, there are four distinct sandhis, or junctures, where a clear seasonal shift occurs from our terrestrial perspective. The vernal equinox is one such juncture, marking the transition from winter to spring.
As we welcome the appearance of new life in nature, many of us remain blissfully unaware. We may neglect or even override the innate curiosity that seeks to understand how our cozy blue sphere and its fiery solar star orchestrate this magnificent show year after year. The truth is, when it comes to their relationship status, “it’s complicated.”
A Practical Approach to Visualization
Imagine yourself sitting in a camping chair with your feet warmed by the heat of a well-burning fire. Fortunately, you’re equipped with a warm scarf and hat to dull the chill you might otherwise experience as you recline back (at exactly 23.4°) to enjoy the stars. Now, without adjusting the direction your chair is facing, imagine yourself orbiting around the focal fire to the opposite side, giving the back of your head a chance to enjoy the warmth of the flame.
If your feet were the southern hemisphere and your head where the northern hemisphere, these two positions would represent the winter solstice (with more heat reaching the bottom half of your body) and the summer solstice (with more heat reaching the top half of your body) respectively.
To visualize the vernal equinox, imagine your chair was to revolve just a quarter of the way around this campfire circle. In this position, your body would be leaning neither toward nor away from the fire and the projected plane of your navel (the equator of your body) might pass directly through the center of the glow. Also, the light reaching one side of your body would match the darkness on the opposite side, much like the day and night which are of approximately equal length on the equinox.
Still confused? Don’t sweat it, simply allow yourself to enjoy the fruits of spring with a deep knowing that there are some wildly wonderful forces at play.
Emergence of the Exhale
Played out on a living, organic sphere, the seasons are guided by a unique planetary breath rhythm. The annual breath of the Earth, much like our own cyclical respiration, serves the purpose of bringing nutrients into the system in exchange for that which cannot be utilized. During the Vernal Equinox, our sleepy planet awakens from the depth of its winter inhalation and begins a 6-month out-breath.
Lean into the Light
Illustrated in the table above, the vernal equinox is a point of orbital balance marking the emergence of days that outlive nights as the axis of the planet bows once again, toward the sun. In direct response to increasingly available sunlight, a life that remained dormant in the barren winter months begins to awaken in receipt of new light. All of nature comes to life — hibernating creatures wake up with healthy appetites and germinating plants shed the shackles of their seeds.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” ::Cynthia Occelli
Subtle Body Spring: Melting the Inner Snow
As nature begins to melt the winter snow in spring, rivers and far-reaching tributaries swell with freshwater that sustains the natural environment as well as human communities. Mirroring the wisdom of the planet, now is the time to water any seeds of intention we may have planted at the beginning of the year and evaluate which future crops and creative projects we will irrigate with the melt of our inner snow.
Just as mountain rivers are swelling their waters, our bodies respond in much the same way at this time of year. This is nature’s way of melting the inner “snow” of the body.
::Shiva Rea, Tending the Heart Fire
Like a bear emerging from the deep sleep of hibernation, sometimes it can be difficult to recalibrate the body and mind for the vibrant spring rhythm. During the long period of seasonal darkness that precedes the vernal equinox, the body naturally increases melatonin production, a hormone that promotes the desire for sleep. This is the planet’s way of encouraging us to slow down and regenerate during fall and winter.
However, with the advent of smartphones and 24/7 connectivity, we override many of these environmental signals which can disrupt our natural circadian rhythms. This dissonance may leave energy levels, which were supposed to have been replenished during the winter, somewhat depleted when springtime arrives.
Fortunately, the daily increase in sunlight that occurs during this half of the year, has its own subtle body effects which include an increase in the mood-elevating hormone, serotonin as well as testosterone and estrogen.
While the shift in our internal chemistry generally increases energy and vitality, this period of hormonal recalibration puts a strain on the endocrine system which can leave us feeling a little tired as we meet the seasonal transition. To navigate the changing internal landscape, any effort to cleanse and detoxify the body can help alleviate energetic stagnation in preparation for the luminous spring ahead.
The Kappa Season
The predominant dosha during springtime is kappa, comprising earth and water. With heavy rains and warming temperatures, the elemental density and heaviness of kappa in late winter continues into spring. As we approach the equinox, it becomes necessary to balance these kappa qualities in order to alleviate winter-induced inertia and energetic malaise. The ideal rhythm for springtime is kappa-pacifying: meet the cool, oily, and heavy qualities of earth and water with the arid warmth and lightness of air and fire.
- Lighten Up. The vernal equinox welcomes a thorough spring cleaning, in our homes and in our hearts. Start by addressing any clutter that has accumulated during the winter and dispose of it in a meaningful way. In your home, this might be as simple as donating articles of clothing or re-purposing a piece of furniture. In your heart, you might tune into the presence of any heavy emotions, assimilate what you can learn from, and let the rest dissolve. Write in a journal to rid your subtle body of excess energetic weight and to create space for what is to come. Only once you have cleared any obstructions, can you begin a deep clean.
- Cleanse. Since kappa is able to sustain with or without food, enjoy a short fast or cleanse during the spring season using astringent fruit juices or warming, spiced kitchari. To stimulate the digestive fire before meals, try chewing on a small slice of fresh ginger. Shed layers of winter skin by dry-brushing before bathing and minimize the use of body oils. If you find yourself battling allergies with spring fever, consider cleansing the nasal passages with nasya, herb-infused oil, to facilitate the clear exchange of Prana. Alternatively, this can be done with warm salt water using a neti pot.
- Nourish. Concentrate on slow, mindful meal times so that your body experiences maximum satiety to avoid overeating or emotionally driven consumption which are symptoms of excess kappa. Favor light foods that are easy to digest with pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes. Foods like apples, pears, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and carrots for instance. Avoid heavy, oily foods with sweet, salty and sour tastes which increase kappa.
Invigorating Yoga Practices for the Spring Equinox
To bring balance to the gunas (attributes) of the kappa season, we emerge from the regenerative practice of the cold winter months and transition into the increased energy and mobility of spring. As we adapt to the seasonal rhythm, the most beneficial physical practices are those that enliven vira rasa. The term rasa can be used to define the intrinsic energetic quality or essence of being and vira is a word for hero. Vira rasa is the embodiment of potency and courage which are reinforced by an active, solar practice. This particular movement alchemy is appropriate for any time when we are experiencing a cycle of growth and renewal.
- Summon Your Strength — Enjoy arm balances and core cultivation as well as heating inversions to experiment with a new strength that has developed from the fortifying rest of winter.
- Clear Congestion — Relieve physical and emotional congestion by practicing dynamic postures with a vigorous pace before exploring strong, standing hip-openers, and activation. This can mobilize stagnant earth and water elements that may have accumulated here through winter.
- Burn Bright — Experience the ardent internal cleansing of heat-inducing pranayama such as kapalabhati, bhastrika and surya bhedana.
- Detoxify — Any process of purification requires a great heat. In the same way that steam can disinfect the surfaces in your home, internal heat and massage can assist the body’s natural metabolic processes which rid the system of toxins and purify the cells while reducing inflammation. Focus on postures that stimulate the circulatory, digestive and lymphatic systems like bound twists and activating backbends.
Spring Equinox Sequence: Moving Meditation for the Whole Body
Tap into your innermost virya, meaning vitality, enthusiasm, and effort, with focus and attention. Maintain an affirmative inner dialogue and embody the heart of a warrior. Either internally or aloud, invoke the mantra of supreme light with reverence to the sun, our absolute source of sustenance. Allow this to be a mantra of purification and release as you move toward internal balance.
OM HRIM HAMSA SO’HAM SWAHA
om: the primordial sound of the universe, the vibration of all creation, the guru
hrim: bija, seed sound for clarity and dispelling illusion, mantra for the cosmic light, the sun
hamsa so’ham: the balance of light and dark, sun and moon, Shiva and Shakti, the power of the breath for bringing vitality
swaha: let it be so, dedication to the light
*translations by David Frawley
During this stimulating practice, focus on powerful ujjayi breathing to circulate a steady supply of oxygen through the blood. Maintain a strong, audible breathing rhythm through the nostrils, releasing heat through the mouth on the exhale as needed. With this victorious yogic breath, internal body heat increases as does the circulation of Prana.
This practice is a pilgrimage to Natarajasana that alchemizes twisting and backbends to open the channels of the spine and create space in the body. Beginning with an energizing kriya, we employ the breath to heat and polish the body from the inside out. What follows is a series of progressive twisting namaskars to energize and open before diving into standing backbends. The practice will close with deep-seated hip openers to alleviate emotional congestion before releasing into final relaxation.
To support your self-practice, please refer to the pose breakdown below with links to photos and alignment for each posture or enjoy the complete guided sequence video.
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.