Thursday, December 12, 2013

Namaste: Celebrate the Light

The Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st, this year and every year. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year. It has been marked and celebrated around the world and throughout the ages to usher in the return of the sun’s light. Our planet and our species rely on the sun’s light and heat for survival. This is a fact that has not changed, even though our beliefs and practices for celebrating the Solstice have evolved.

In ancient Pagan traditions, the return of the sun’s light at this time of the year was celebrated through long festivals dedicated to various deities representing the sun. Modern Pagans still celebrate what is called Yule, the name for one such ancient festival. In our Western society, we have both religious and secular traditions around the holiday of Christmas. Christmas was made to coincide with the celebration of Yule. The season leading up to Christmas, Advent, is a season to prepare Christians for the arrival of a great light, the light of God come to shine on humanity in the form of a living person.

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is celebrated near the time of Christmas and Yule, and it also celebrates light; in fact, it is sometimes called the Festival of Lights. A bit of oil, only sufficient to light the menorah in the Temple for one night, kept the menorah burning through eight consecutive nights. The story of this miracle is the origin of the Chanukah celebration.

Light, as a universal quality and value, is a beautiful thing to celebrate. In Yoga practice, we also celebrate light. Yoga is not usually thought of as a religion; indeed in the West, and even in the rest of the world, people with all sorts of different religious beliefs, or even no religious beliefs, practice Yoga.

We hear Yoga teachers talk about the practice of Yoga uncovering the light of the soul. In Yoga philosophy, the word most often used for the true self, or the light of the soul, is Purusa. This is the big self, as opposed to the small self. Purusa is the self that never changes, the part of us that is not subject to changing conditions and circumstances. My teachers have called Purusa, “pure consciousness.” We use the practice of Yoga to help us come to a direct realization of our pure consciousness. We try to make room for the true light within us to arise and shine through. This is the classical goal of Yoga.

Last week, my teacher talked to the class about refining our consciousness through a three step process: sense consciousness, witness consciousness and God consciousness. This describes the classical progression in Yoga from the gross to the subtle aspects of the self. First, we become fully aware of our body and our senses through breath and movement. Then, through meditation, we develop the ability to be a neutral observer or witness to all that is happening within and around us (this is witness consciousness). Finally, as we achieve that state of balance and equanimity, we can raise our consciousness to a reality that is larger than our small self, something that is greater than, yet shared by all of us. We do not have to call this higher reality God, and there is nothing particularly religious about it. It is simply a recognition and experience of a reality that transcends our suffering and limitations. It is consciousness of the light within us, which we all share, and through which we are all connected.

Welcoming the return of the sun, or the Light of the World, is act that turns our focus outside of ourselves to something greater than us, something we anticipate and depend upon. In a Yoga practice, it doesn’t work quite that way. In Yoga, we begin by focusing and refining our consciousness to fully dwell in the body, in the breath, in our movements. We begin at the gross level, focusing on what is concrete for us right now. Then we gradually move towards meditation, learning to reside in the place of the witness, witnessing rather than engaging with the fluctuating movements of the mind. Finally we progress to the subtler level of opening up to the true light within us, our pure consciousness, the Purusa.

Our yoga practice leads us to the emergence of the light within us, and that is something we can celebrate on our mats every single day. All of these other traditions and festivals around us can remind us that this is a goal we all share as humans, and that because we all carry this light within us, we are all truly One.

Namaste (we say this to honor the light within each of us which reflects a greater, universal light, and connects us all). 

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