Rebirth of the Light: Tending the Inner Fire at the Winter Solstice – New Year
Inside the fertile darkness the light emerges…
The Winter Solstice on December 21 is the darkest point of the year. At this time, ritual and celebratory fires are lit across the Earth. This includes Yule logs in Northern Europe and the five-day fasting and fire ceremonies of the local Chumash in Malibu. There are more cross-cultural rituals, celebrations and festivals around the Winter Solstice than any other time of the year.
It was just a generation or two ago in the United States that the solar-lunar light and a living flame was replaced by an electric switch. We cannot just erase the memory of the fire we have been tending for over two million years. We have a biological, cultural, and spiritual connection to this turning point. The changing sunlight we receive through our eyes reaches our pineal gland to harmonize our biorhythms with the increasing light. We are born from a primordial fire some 13.7 billion years ago and the elementary molecules of our body are still alive with this original creative explosion.
Fire is center of our origins, our extraordinary solar system, and in our ancestral fire-keeping. At the point of greatest darkness, the living flame speaks to our cellular memory.
Winter Solstice Practices and the Sacred Fire
Agni is the Sanskrit name for the sacred fire. Within the roots of yoga in Tantric and Vedic culture, it symbolically has two faces. One is creative, the other destructive. Agni ignites both cellular metabolism and mental, emotional and spiritual regeneration. This brings inspiration, passion, and new life to every aspect of our being. Agni is also the force of purification. Through purification, it is the dissolution of old cells and old ideas to make room for the new.
In the unbroken continuity of yagna (the Vedic and Tantric fire ritual that has been offered for at least 3,500 years) we find the connection of our microcosm to the macrocosm. The fire altar is in the shape of the vastu purusha or cosmic soul envisioned as a human body with the central fire as the heart and all of the planets and elements as the limbs. Fire is at the center of the altar and of our journey around the extraordinary fireball of our solar star that has been circling for over 4.5 billion years.
Sandhya Tandava – Connecting with the Cosmic Rhythm
Arising from the Winter solstice in the heart, the breath circulates in the bodies of all beings through 12 months before returning to the heart.
—Svacchanda Tantra VII.119ii (Christopher Tompkins, translator)
The Winter Solstice – New Year time is a special sandhya or sacred juncture allowing us to link our bodies with cosmic rhythms. In the mythology of Siva and Shakti, this universe flows from their “sandhya tandava” This is the cosmic dance (tandava) of the sacred junctures of time (sandhya). It creates the rhythm from the quantum pulse, our breath through the lunar and planetary cycles and solar seasons.
Rtucharya (from the Vedic rtam, meaning “cosmic rhythm”) is the knowledge of how to live in rhythm with the changing seasons of the solar year. Like our inhale and exhale, the year is seen as two major movements that connect with the Solstices.
The Cycle of Growth and Manifestation Begins with the Winter Solstice throughout the Spring
The uttarayana cycle follows the time from the greatest darkness to the peak of light, This auspicious solar cycle when the plant world grows from seed to fullness with the waxing light is the optimum time for creative manifestation.
The Cycle of Reflection and Regeneration is from the Summer to the Winter Solstice
During the six-month dakshinayana cycle, after the Summer peak, the Sun’s energy wanes and the Moon’s energy increases, as the lunar period bringing cooling energy back to the Earth towards the Winter Solstice and a natural time for going inward, reflection, and regeneration.
The waxing and waning lunar energy as well as the flow of the day mirrors this same cycle of fullness to release to igniting again on a microcosmic level.
Tending the Inner Fire—The Cosmic Vinyasa
The One who impels the universe is the Source of Consciousness
to be discovered within the flow of one’s own vital breath.
O Beloved One, Shiva gives rise to the year, the month, the half-month, and the day.
Find Siva within time through Shakti, who is the cyclical flow of breath-time in the body
– Svacchanda Tantra
It is important to know as modern yoga practitioners that vinyasa within the Tantra was connected a way of the realizing and embodying the cosmic rhythm as the vinyasa or “sequence of consciousness.” In the early Tantric tradition, every breath is an experience of the waxing and waning, solar-lunar micro-cycle flowing from the sacred juncture within the heart. The oscillation from dawn to dusk, New Moon to Full Moon, from Winter to Summer Solstices and Equinoxes are the way the vinyasa of our breath in connection with the cosmic rhythm.
The Solstices and the Breath
The Winter Solstice is experienced in the body as the peak of the inhale, the kumbhaka moment where mantra is offered to the fire of the heart in the tantric practice of Ucchara. The Winter Solstice in our body as well as our outer world is a moment of great intensity to transform the old into the new.
The peak of the Winter Solstice is when the breath resides in the heart – the moment of internal fire offering. We can ignite our inner heart fire (known in Sanskrit as atma jyotir) with the same intensity of devotion and love.
Whatever offering is made at this sacred juncture is an extraordinary time to resynch your body and soul to the increasing light – the birth of the Sun.
At this time, we are given a cosmic jumpstart as we synch with the macro support of the increasing light of the waxing next six months of the year.
Lighting the Solstice Fire
For many world cultures, the Winter Solstice is the macro new year as the ritual marker to truly let go, honor, and bring closure to the past year and ignite our deepest visions and intentions for the coming year with the living flame From your own home altar, fireplace, bonfire or ritual “kund” or “fire altar womb,” you can have one central fire that connects you to your Solstice-New Year fire.
Winter Solstice Practices for Igniting a Living Flame
- Clear your inner and outer spaces. Release the clutter, stagnant, or unfinished energy of the year.
- Create an altar space for the Winter Solstice-Christmas-New Year with your own connection to a sacred fire in the form of a oil lamp or candle.
- Reflect in the days before the solstice on your dedication and prayers writing on a piece of paper or papers your offerings for dissolution (to give to the fire the night before) and igniting for the Winter Solstice-New Year.
- Unplug and live only with candlelight on the eve or the evening of the Winter Solstice.
- Ignite your fire with your living dedication and prayer in your own authentic ritual way.
- Enjoy creating your own candle yourself from beeswax (easy to roll with beeswax sheets). Or use any other non-polluting substance like soy or hemp. Imbue it with scent and natural color. Tie your prayers to the candle.
- Link the Winter Solstice – Christmas – New Year (which falls on a new moon this year) by keeping a continuous votive candle burning or light with your mediations.
- Learn the simple form of Vedic fire ceremony (homa or agni hotra) to be able to offer mantra to a living flame. agni (www.agnihotra.org).
- Learn the ucchara sadhana connecting to the inner fire altar that my friend and scholar Christopher Tompkins has been dedicated to teaching this meditation (shaivayoga.com).
- Tending our heartfire is staying connected through all the cycles of our life. This is true through the shadow and fertile darkenss to the fires of renewal and organic process of manifestation.
Live the Cycles of the Solstice-New Year
As you ignite the Solstice-New Year, be open to consciously living the vinyasa of the over 800 million breaths, 365 sunrise and sunsets, 26 New and Full Moons and eight solar junctures that form the vinyasa of the year. While the outer world moves in a holiday flurry, dive into the deeper rhythm of inner renewal and feel the extraordinary legacy of our inner fire. Swaha!
Shiva Rea is a shaktidasi—servant of the life-force. She is the dedicated founder of Prana Flow—Energetic Vinyasa and Samudra Global School for Living Yoga offering pilgrimage and yogadventure retreats, teacher trainings, and online programs in collaboration with teachers, artists, and activists around the world: pranaflowyoga.com.