The seasons are in that awkward phase again -- I can tell from the way my sundress reproaches me for pairing her with suede boots. To loosely paraphrase the philosopher Britney Spears, "it's not summer, not yet autumn." But it's nothing I can't deal with by engaging in my seasonal yoga ritual: The practice of 108 Sun Salutations.
Like any transition, the transition from summer to fall presents challenges. The days have been getting shorter, the evenings have been getting colder. It's impossible not to notice that withered leaves are crunching under my feet as I take one last walk in my flip-flops before retiring them until next summer. It's back to school time, but already, the stores are switching their school supply displays for jack-o'-lanterns and candy corn. The end of summer vacation means an increase in rush-hour traffic and a push to catch up on work we put off to go to the beach.
But it's not a matter of simple inconvenience. The transition from summer to autumn cuts deeper. As the first frost approaches, promising to decimate a summer's worth of flowers in one cruel night, as the trees begin to take on a skeletal appearance, we are forced to contemplate and process some highly primal dualities: life and death; hope and regret; desire and fear.
Across the globe, across virtually all (if not all cultures), we take comfort from the stress of transitions by engaging in ritual. We may feel ambivalent about growing older, but nevertheless, we mark our birthdays with cards and gifts and cakes. The prospect of what lies ahead after we finish school might be frightening, yet when we do, we don ceremonial caps and gowns and call it "commencement," rather than "graduation." When a loved one dies, there are the rituals (funeral, visitation, etc.) to ease the transition for those left behind.
The transition from summer to autumn is at its height at the autumnal equinox, which "falls" (sorry, couldn't resist) this year on Sunday, September 22. At the autumnal equinox, daylight and nighttime are of equal length, but immediately thereafter, daylight hours will diminish each day until we reach the shortest day of the year: winter solstice. As darkness increases, so does the cold. The lush green of summer goes dormant (and in the case of "annual" summer flowers that live their entire life in one season and do not come back the next year, it is the end of life). But as much as the autumnal equinox is about the yielding of warmth and light to cold and darkness, it is also about balance: it is one of two days of the year when day and night are of equal length (the other is the vernal equinox in March).
And it is balance that I will contemplate as I perform my yoga practice of 108 Sun Salutations.
But, why 108 Sun Salutations?
The number "108" is an auspicious number across many cultures. A Sun Salutation is a set-sequence of poses that flow rhythmically from one to the next, each movement corresponding to a particular breath. The sequence that I utilize contains nine poses, which when multiplied by 12, equals that auspicious number, 108. The rhythmic nature is soothing, and the body easily remembers what comes next. The sequence is nearly symmetrical, beginning and ending in Tadasana (simply stated: standing with feet together, arms by the sides) and including one vinyasa (a three-pose sequence consisting of chatturanga, upward-facing dog pose and downward-facing dog pose, all of which together take the spine through nearly its entire repertoire of motion: neutral, backward bending, forward bending).
It has been said that the "Sun Salutation" contains the entire practice of yoga within it. This makes sense to me in that the Sun Salutation is conducive to meditation, it contains forward bending poses, backward bending poses, balancing postures both on feet and hands and it is both energizing and energy-centering. As far as practicing 108 Sun Salutations at Solstice, it is perfect.
However, for the autumnal equinox, I believe that the balance of light and dark that distinguishes the equinox calls for a practice that focuses on balance. How to accomplish that? Simple: I will divide the 108 Sun Salutations into 10 sets of 10 and a final set of eight. After each set of 10, I will perform one balancing pose such as those shown here. And to address the lack of poses within the Sun Salutation that twist the spine, immediately following the final set of eight, I will perform one twisting pose (on each side), such as those shown
Ideally, to celebrate the balance inherent in the autumnal equinox, the 108 Sun Salutations should be practiced at sunrise or at sunset on the day of the autumnal equinox. But it would be equally fine to practice 54 Sun Salutations at sunrise and 54 at sunset. But if you can't practice at all on September 22, that's fine too -- practice when you can. And if you can't manage to do all 108? That's fine too. This is yoga, after all. There's no prize. We set an intention and we do what our bodies allow us on that day, whatever day you choose.
But see what you can do. Give it a try. It's a simple nine-step process:
Come to the front of your mat and stand in tadasana. Mouth is closed, breathe through the nose. Set your intention of being fully in the moment of each breath, each posture, no distractions.
1. Inhale -- as you sweep arms up overhead until palms touch. Look up.
2. Exhale -- as you fold forward at the hips to bring your hands to the floor. Relax your head straight down.
3. Inhale -- as you look up, raising your head, neck, shoulders and whatever you can of your torso.
4. Exhale -- as you shift your weight into your hands and step or jump your feet back until you are at the bottom of a push-up -- your elbows at right angles and close to the ribs. Weight is equally distributed across hands and feet.
5. Inhale -- as you shift your weight back into your hands, lifting the balls of your feet off the ground and turning your feet over so that your toenails face down. With toes pointed back and legs strong, look up and curl your chest up. Upward-facing dog pose.
6. Exhale -- into downward-facing dog pose by using your abdominal muscles to lift your buttocks upward until your body makes the shape of an upside down "V," your weight evenly distributed through the soles of your feet and your palms, your eyes seeking your navel.
Pause for five full breaths here.
7. Inhale -- and jump or step your feet back to where your hands are planted -- straightening your legs and looking up (as in Step 3).
8. Exhale -- into the same posture as Step 2.
9. Inhale -- into the same posture as Step 1.
Your exhale breath will bring you back to tadasana.
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