Finding Light in Winter’s Darkness

I just can’t get that holiday carol, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” out of my head. I heard it at my sweet little grocery store the other day, and since then its been with me like a seasonal mantra. Lately, everywhere I turn I’m offered spiced cider, party invitations, and gift ideas. The holiday season brings an abundance of words like happy and merry—declarations that urge as much as they proclaim. It’s as if these classic seasonal phrases are saying, “Stay uplifted, sister!”

But is it the most wonderful time of the year?

From an Ayurvedic perspective, its actually kind of a tough time of year. The drying, cooling aspect of vata dominates. Vata is the energy of movement and change. Its the force that dries up the leaves, flower petals and rivers. Its also the force that dries out our skin, our hair, and what feels like our bones. Quite honestly, its the energy of dying off.

Not long ago, our ancestors had to work really hard just to make it through this time of year.

And yet, behind all the dark, long nights and cold winter mornings, there is something incredibly beautiful happening. As a collective group of human beings, we have consciously, or unconsciously, decided to cope with winter’s darkness byritualizing the light. We string lights to trees that have lost their leaves. We give each other gifts to increase life’s sweetness. We hand out cards during the holiday that let our family and loved ones know we care. We bundle up in ridiculous amounts of clothing and head out into the night-time air to sing to one another. We place a single white candle in each window of our home—a potent reminder to passersby that underneath the cold, barren landscape rests the bright warm light of the soul.

This is what makes this season truly mystical and important: the unfailing human ability to find light in the middle of the darkest season. These old rituals were important because they offered hope. Behind dark is light. Beyond death is immortality. Quite yogic if you think about it …

So, on that note, as we approach the shortest day of the year, I want offer you some light-infusing, warmth-bringing holiday habits. I promise to do each and every single one of them if you do.

Fire and spice Make something warm and spicy, like a rich hot cocoa with a splash of cayenne pepper, or a cardamom-heavy chai. Make a fire in your fireplace, outdoor pit or chimey. If you don’t have access to these, light six candles of differing sizes. Sip in the glow of the light.

Tell stories It’s wonderful to gather in a circular form to hear stories. In Hawaii, people get together to “talk story.” Gather your kids, friends, or neighbors. Everyone can agree to share their favorite tale, or bring a short story to read.

Share food  Nothing makes me feel more loved than my sister’s stews. Now, I’m a pretty darn good cook, but there is something about her food that acts as a loving affirmation for my soul. Make a huge pot of your favorite winter stew. Surprise your neighbor (sister, brother, friend) with an unexpected winter meal.

Deck the halls  Bringing greenery into the home infuses the spirit with unseen plant medicine. Effervescent plant smells bypass the “thinking-brain” and go straight to the heart. Great winter smells include cinnamon, thyme, nutmeg, clove, fir needle, pine, cedar, sage, frankincense and myrrh. Add some mistletoe, holly, ivy, evergreens and acorns to your mantle or dining room table.

Tend and befriend  Winter is truly the time of Kali, the Hindu Goddess who reminds us of impermanence. It is a time when we may feel more of the energies of despair, confusion, frustration and grief. Winter is a key time to lean into those that love us. Have friends around and make an even bigger effort to be a good friend.

Make a hot Ayurvedic toddy  Take a huge chunk of fresh ginger and peel it. Slice it up. Throw it in a medium-sized glass bell jar and fill it up with some nice brandy or whiskey. After two weeks have a teaspoon or so before bed.

Surrender to winter’s shadow  If we truly allow winter to be our teacher, this time can act as something of a seasonal womb. Like a womb, winter prepares us as a creative vortex that will burst forth during the spring. Interestingly, most babies are actually conceived in winter (of course). Use the dark times to go inward. Make friends with stillness, and allow that stillness to show you what lies inside, be it grief, overwhelm, fear, impatience, or joy. Trying laying down once a day and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Once you identify the feeling, find where it lives in your body. Practice being in loving silence as you watch and feel the energy of the emotional color shift, change and teach you.

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This article originally appeared in the Yoga Journal Blog on December 7, 2012.

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