This week marked the winter solstice -- the day of the year on which the sun appears at noon at its lowest altitude above the horizon, which also makes for the day of the year with the shortest duration of sunlight. But just as it is always darkest before the dawn, the shortest day of the year means that longer days are coming. To celebrate the longer, more light-filled days to come, I like to perform 108 sun salutations in the late afternoon as the sun is going down.
At 4:30 p.m., in my quiet home yoga studio with the French doors that reveal the sun's downward arc in the western sky, that is what I did.
In "Get In Shape for 108," I wrote about the roots of the ritual of performing 108 sun salutations at the change of seasons and at other times, as well as the significance of the number 108. In "Salute the Sun to Calm Your Soul," I discussed the way in which I use the performing of sun salutations to reset my mood and recharge my soul. Today, I share with you the life lessons I learned while performing my 108 sun salutations that afternoon:
1. Doing the same thing over and over again can be monotonous.
I started to feel vaguely annoyed, and sort of bored-in-advance, at the repetitious task that lay before me after I had completed roughly 15 sun salutations. I thought about my kids at the start of a school day, looking at six long hours ahead of them, every day for 180 days. For one moment of pure clarity, I could understand what all the belly aching was about.
2. Monotonous activities can create a favorable condition for meditation to happen.
After my 25th sun salutation, I realized that although I was engaged in a repetitious activity, I was no longer feeling annoyed or bored. I found that I was "in the zone." Gardening is like this for me, as is hiking. A task may seem monotonous, but after a while, time passes, and you don't remember what you were thinking about or if you were even thinking at all.
3. Engaging in monotonous activity can spark creativity.
At my 50th sun salutation, I had a "light bulb" moment. Realizing that as the number of repetitions got higher, my ability to keep count might diminish, I immediately came up with a solution: After every five sun salutations, I would perform one pose from the Fundamental Poses of the Ashtanga Yoga Standing Sequence, in sequence. Thus, I wouldn't have to count at all. I would simply get through the 11 poses in the sequence, and then I would know that I had completed another 55 sun salutations. Since I had already completed 50, that would make 105... with only three more to go to complete 108.
I don't think that the notion of creative sparks happening during monotonous activity is unique to performing sun salutations. People say "Let me meditate on that!" for a reason. When we are in the zone of a monotonous activity, we begin to lose track of conscious thought. And that leaves room for insights.
4. Breaking up a monotonous activity can make it far less "monotonous."
Performing a yoga pose after every five sun salutations made the repetitions not only less monotonous, but actually fun. I found myself looking forward to performing another five and then another five because after each five, there was a reward of another pose to practice.
The off-the-mat lesson is clear: You can't keep doing the same thing over and over again without a break, because that may indeed be the definition of "insanity."
5. Completing a seemingly-daunting task is a fantastic exercise in discipline.
I completed 108 sun salutations. I felt a sense of mastery as a result. It doesn't matter what seemingly-daunting task you complete, though. If you set your mind to it and do it, you will feel good about yourself for having exercised the discipline.
6. Feelings are fleeting.
Sometimes I was bored. Sometimes I was having fun. Sometimes I felt like my form was great. Sometimes not so much. I realized that I was "surfing" my feelings -- going over some, going under some, letting some carry me with effort, letting some carry me without -- exactly the way I would like to see myself surfing them when I am "off" the yoga mat.
7. Repetition increases competence.
The more sun salutations I did, the better my form got. By the end, there were moments when my core was so completely engaged that my feet were practically floating as I transitioned between the various movements that made up a given sun salutation. After doing 108 repetitions of anything, you are going to be somewhat "better" at it than before doing the first.
8. When you "fall down," you can pick yourself back up again and keep going.
OK, so this one time, at the end of one of my 108 sun salutations, I landed kind of weird and ended up springing onto my hands and knees. I felt like a klutz, but I wasn't particularly hurt. And then I kept going. That's useful to remember in life. Even if you do get hurt, you can choose to keep moving forward (assuming you haven't broken anything).
9. When you are not attached to the results, the process becomes easier.
Back to my klutz moment: I really had no particular attachment to my "performance." No one was watching. No one was holding up score cards. So, I fell. So what? In another moment, I would be beautifully executing another sun salutation. Or I would be falling again. Either way, it didn't matter, and that made it easier to let go of the moment of "fall" (or in life, "fail") and press on.
10. Difficult tasks are more difficult when faced alone.
I have performed 108 sun salutations in group settings. At times, I have led groups in performing the ritual, in fact. It is far more difficult to do it alone. Anything is easier, even more pleasurable, when you have someone with whom to share it.
Today, my arms are a bit achy, but I have a pleasant spiritual "hangover": After 108 sun salutations, I not only feel fitter, but wiser. I invite you to step onto the mat and accept the challenge of 108... or eight. It doesn't matter really as long as you make it a challenge. Then, listen to your thoughts as they go by and see what life lessons are in store for you.
As I always do when discussing the topic of sun salutations, I will leave you with a nine-step instruction guide on how to salute the sun:
Begin by standing at the front of your mat, feet touching, shoulders back, chin level with the ground, arms relaxed at sides. Mouth is closed; breathe through the nose.
Step 1. Inhale (through the nose) as you sweep the arms up overhead until palms touch. Look up.
Step 2. Exhale (through the nose) as you bow forward to touch the floor with hands.
Step 3. Inhale to lift only the head up to look up.
Step 4. Exhale to jump back (or step back if you're not ready to jump) to the bottom of a push up, feet hip distance apart, eyes gazed forward.
(That's right, a push up! Draw elbows close to ribs. Hips are level with shoulders -- you're flat like a board. If you can't manage hovering there, then lower to the floor.)
Step 5. Inhale as you press hands down to straighten arms into upward facing dog pose, curving chest and chin up. Feet are still hip width apart. Look up.
Step 6. Exhale as you lift your hips and roll over your toes to come into downward facing dog pose. Downward dog is the shape of an upside-down "V," with your hands flat on the floor, the balls of your feet on the floor and your hips high. Feet are still hip width apart. Look to the navel (or if you can't see it, then the thighs). Remain in this pose as you take five in-out breaths (through the nose, of course).
Step 7. Inhale as you jump (or walk) your feet to between your hands. When you land, the feet come together, your hands touch the floor, and you lift the head to look up. This is the same position as in Step 3.
Step 8. Exhale to drop your head down as far as it goes, getting as much of your palm on the floor as you can. This is the same position as in Step 2.
Step 9. Inhale and sweep your arms up as you raise your torso to stand with your arms over your head, palms touching if possible. Look up. This is the same position as in Step 1.
Finish: Exhale and bring your arms to rest by your sides, just like you started.
Your next inhale begins your very next sun salutation.
Namaste, and I hope your winter brings you much light.
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