Return to Light: Yoga for the Winter Solstice

The shortest day of the year marks a rebirth of the Sun; a return to innocence. Try these yoga sequences to activate your intentions at the Winter Solstice.

„You are what your deepest desire is.
As your desire is, so is your intention.
As your intention is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”
–The Upanishads

The new solar year is upon us as the Earth begins her to tilt back toward the Sun, signifying the completion of another life cycle before the emergence of spring. For thousands of years the Winter Solstice has been celebrated around the world—acknowledging the shortest day of the year as a return to light, a return to innocence; a rebirth along the wheel of life as the great world continues to spin.

This spiritual homecoming has metamorphosed into what we know in Western cultures as Christmas on December 25. Long before that, the Pagan festival Saturnalia had marked the start of winter, as did the birthday of the „invincible” sun god Sol Invictus during the golden age of the Roman Empire. In Ancient Egypt, January 6 was first recognized as winter’s coming, which was later adopted by Christianity as the Feast of the Epiphany.

In modern times, this solar standstill falls on December 21, coinciding with the start of Capricorn season in astrology. During this cycle, we are invited to realign with our goals and ideals as we look toward the new year ahead—despite the chaos of the holiday season as the calendar turns. Capricorn is symbolized by the unusual paradox that is the Sea Goat, a testament to the persistent energy of this ambitious, yet grounded earth sign. Ruled by Saturn, the tough teacher planet known throughout astrological lore as “Father Karma,” Capricorn reminds us that while it is okay to have lofty dreams and grand visions, they must also be rooted in reality.

By setting intentions at the Winter Solstice, we can clarify them during Capricorn season and beyond. As we lay out the framework for our plans, we are building a path that lights the way through the darkness of winter and guides us toward our brightest future. Through continued refinement of our goals, a willingness to understand that mistakes will be made, and that we may need to change course along the way, intentions are little stepping stones that lead us like a compass toward our highest potential. An intention is the starting point of a dream; what makes the unconscious conscious. It is the creative power that fulfills our heart’s desires, be it career or relationships, money or material things, personal or spiritual ascension. In essence, an intention is an epiphany in action. A-ha!

Much like our yoga practices, our intentions are always in flux—and are changing from moment to moment. Through the ritual of practice, the intentions we set in motion will inevitably become second nature, as old layers, habits and selves begin to fall away in this great unraveling toward the Self; our truest nature. And like a seed, an intention must be planted, nourished and given patience. But an intention cannot grow if we cling to it—it must be released outwardly to make itself known to the universe.

Activate your intentions for the new year by turning inward and awakening your inner fire; by learning to see in the proverbial dark. Think of the Winter Solstice as the fourth and final movement of your life-symphony, and try these six yoga circuits: a series of dynamic, core-powered sequences to amplify your practice. Synchronize your breath to movement that’s strong and intuitive. Go slowly, and let go of what no longer serves you so that you may clear the slate for all that is coming your way.

SEQ I. Ancient Eye Activation

Movement: Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) split to high lunge variations.

Straighten the front leg to lift the arms overhead and look up to the heavens. Re-bend through the front knee and release arms outwardly to either side, looking toward the future. Repeat, then reach the back arms up again and return to high lunge. Twist, drawing the navel in toward the spine. Place the left hand down and reach the right hand up.

Optional: Place the right palm at the back of the neck and lean into it for support, inviting more space to flow into your heart. Bring your hands down to frame the front foot and then step back to Downward Dog split before lowering the foot to switch sides.

SEQ II.  Pyramid Power

Movement: Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose) variations to explore hips and hamstrings with buoyancy.

Turn to a wide stance and fold forward, then cross the left elbow over the right and turn the inner elbows out. Turn the heels turn in and toes out. Root to rise: Bend the knees and maintain a long spine as you look forward. Ground into the fingertips and balls of the feet, gathering earthly energy.

Optional: Walk your hands around to the front foot before switching sides, or continue walking the hands all the way to the left to frame the back foot and move into the other side.

SEQ III. Phoenix Rising

Movement: Bound Utkatasana (Chair Pose) to Warrior variations.

Sit low and dive forward, sweeping the hands behind the sacrum and interlacing the fingers, drawing the heels of the palms closer together. Lift halfway, and then shift weight into the right foot, wrapping the back of the left hand at the right side of the waist, hands still interlaced.

Root to rise: Bring the left knee to lift to 90 degrees and then step back to a high lunge, maintaining the clasping of the hands at the right waist. Use the left forearm as a shelf to support the low back for a slight backbend. Lift tall through the heart, then use the back of the left palm to guide the hips to the left and open the arms wide into Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II). Reach hands overhead to Flying Warrior and straighten the legs, then sink to re-bend the front knee.

Reach up first and then reverse, lifting through the heart for Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reverse Warrior). Windmill the hands to shift forward for supported Virabhadrasana III, fingertips to earth. Spine is lengthening; core is engaged. Use the breath to bring in the knee toward your nose. Root to rise: Return to stand, and then sink back into Utkatasana to prepare for the other side.

SEQ IV. Fly Like an Eagle

Movement: High lunge on the right side, lifting and lowering, to Garundasana (Eagle Pose).

Eagle wrap arms (left over right), as you lift and lower. Stabilize the hips and shift forward, flying like an eagle. Bring knee to nose and root to rise; the left knee lifts to 90 degrees.

Slowly descend into Garundasana, wrapping left leg over right. Unwind and send the left foot back, keeping the heart lifted. Land in high lunge and unravel the arms overhead. If at first you don’t succeed, remember: Repetition creates an opportunity to try again. Switch sides.

SEQ V. Center of the Cyclone

Movement: Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose) to Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana) variations.

Shift weight into the right foot and lift the left knee to 90 degrees. Stabilize, and then swing the foot back to arrive in Natarajasana; a warrior’s calm amidst the storm. Engage quadriceps of the standing leg to micro-bend the knee. Bend the knee a little more and lean forward with the heart.

Continue to lengthen the torso and hinge at the waist to lower the fingertips to the earth. Keep hold of the left foot or ankle, and rotate the chest upward for Chapasana (Sugarcane Pose). Open to Ardha Chandrasana. Square hips to supported Warrior III, activating through the tips of all ten fingers as the breath guides the knee back in toward the nose. Root to rise: Return to a standing position.

Optional: Swing the foot back again and repeat, observing what you’ve learned along the way. You just might surprise yourself. Switch sides.

SEQ VI. Open Sesame

Movement: A core-strengthening transition of Downward Dog to Camatkarasana (Wild Thing).

Out and in, opening and closing. In a high plank position, float the hips in line with the low ribs. Take the pose out of the upper body and power it through the abdominal wall and into the legs. Explore a slight bend to the knees. Feel bouncy and boundless. Stack shoulders over wrists and shift weight into the right hand, stacking the hips and spinning of the bottom of the lower right ribs under, lengthening through the crown and entering Vasisthasana (Side Plank). Pause, and then step the ball of the left foot back and bend through the leg as the left hand lifts toward the heavens. Embody your inner Rock Star.

Optional: Place the left palm at the back of the neck and lean into it for support as you offer your heart’s wishes to the universe. Keep the right shoulder stabilized over the right wrist, and press down into all four corners of each palm. Flip over and return to Downward Dog, and then repeat on the other side.

Now rest. Open the doorways to inner perception and release. Reconnect to your reserves and rejuvenate, as you prepare to celebrate and hibernate.

Photography and video by Beth Kessler

Andrea Rice is a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, NY Yoga + Life, SONIMA, mindbodygreen and other online publications. Connect with Andrea on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and her website.