With the winter solstice upon us, the days are getting shorter and as a result we have less sunlight than any other time of the year. Without the sun to keep us warm, we start to feel the effects of the dark cold days of December. Recent studies indicate that more than 10 million Americans suffer from winter depression and many more experience "winter doldrums," a lesser form of winter depression.
There are many tried and true therapies for those who are affected by the lack of sunlight, including light box therapy to mimic outdoor sun light.
There are also several practices in the tradition of yoga that can be supportive to help let the light in. You may want to try one or two of these to pick yourself up and brighten your day.
This is the practice of focusing your attention on a candle flame. It allows the mind to become steady and focused, but it also brings light into the eyes, which stimulates the optic nerve and connects us to the light of the sun and our own inner light.
Simple Steps to Practice A Candle Gazing Meditation
- Make sure to trim the wick so the flame stays steadier.
- Find a comfortable steady seated pose either in a chair or on the floor.
- Place a lit candle in front of you either at eye level or on the floor. (if you set the candle on the floor try not to let your head fall forward in an effort to see the candle. Maintain a balanced and steady seated pose)
- Settle into your seated pose as you take several conscious, slow, deep breaths.
- Let the eyes soften and relax as you gaze upon the candle flame. Notice any sensations you feel. Let your attention rest there for as long as feels comfortable.
- When the eyes grow tired, gently close them and bring the image of the candle flame behind the eyes or to the point between the eyebrows.
- Visualize the flame at that point. When the image of the flame fades, then allow the eyes to softly open again.
- (This may be familiar since many of us have found ourselves staring at candles or even a campfire and feeling drawn in by the sense of stillness it inspires in us.)
- Continue the practice of gazing at the flame and then closing your eyes and holding the image behind your eyes (or the point between your eyebrows).
- At some point you may not want to open the eyes to the external flame. At that point feel free to rest inside of yourself with the image. You may instead find that keeping the eyes fixed on the flame without closing them is more helpful for you. You may even notice that this practice serves as a foundation for moving inward with other practices of breathing and meditation.
- Observe how you feel. Let the practice be fluid.
Rapid Exhale Breathing
This is also known as Kapalabhati or "skull shine." This practice is a traditional yogic breathing practice that creates heat in the body. It is done by forcing the exhalation breath out quickly followed by a passive inhale breath. There is a scene in the movie "Harold and Maude" where Maude played by Ruth Gordon is telling Harold her secrets to her youth and she proceeds to launch into the practice of Kapalabhati. I always smile when I see it knowing full well the extraordinary benefits of the practice. It can be very invigorating, warming and uplifting. It creates a lot of heat in the body, which also supports healthy digestion and immune functions.
How to perform Kapalabhati:
- Sit comfortably and rest your hands on your lower belly.
- Inhale deeply through your nostrils.
- In a quick motion, forcefully expel all the air from your lungs while drawing your navel in toward your spine. The primary movement is from your diaphragm.
- This forced outbreath is followed by a passive, effortless in breath.
- This is done quickly in a cycle 3-7 times, then allow your breathing return to normal and observe the sensations in your body.
- Repeat these cycles 3 to 4 times.
- Contraindication: High blood pressure. You should also stop if you feel dizzy.
They are also known as the 12-part movement which is a series of postures linked together in a flow. They bring heat and vitality to the body while honoring the sun for the light and heat it provides in our lives. It can be done one to three times while facing the direction of the sun. It can be helpful to imagine the sun in your own heart as you practice this with a sense of humility and gratitude. There are many versions and variations to this practice and you could even make up your own version to suit your needs and conditions. Here is just one.
Giving and Receiving
These are powerful practices that can brighten our lives and open our hearts to love. It's no wonder that in the middle of winter and in the darkest time of the year we have holidays that remind us of the power of giving and receiving. Giving of ourselves and letting others touch us deeply through their kindness are important to our emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing. It ignites a light in our hearts that can brighten even the darkest days.
Imagine Light in Your Heart
Imagery is a powerful tool for healing. We can use our power of imagery to warm our hands and feet when they are cold, and to imagine light in our hearts and minds. Just the image of holding light in your heart and letting it expand to every cell can lift your spirits and shift awareness to a brighter vision. There are many ways to practice imagining light in your body.
Here is a simple way to practice light imagery:
- Lie down on the floor or on your bed
- Let the body relax into the support beneath you
- As you relax more deeply, begin to imagine a sphere of bright light just above the crown of the head
- Use your imagination to grow that light. Let it get bigger, brighter, and warmer (this may take several minutes of your focused attention, be patient).
- Now imagine that light coming into the body through the crown of the head.
- Send it over the mind, down the spine, through to the organs and down the arms and legs.
- Now imagine yourself filled with this healing light and the energy it carries.
- Imagine it shining from the inside and radiating out from every cell.
- After several moments of holding that light in the body, imagine it dissolving into every cell. Make a slow transition when finished.
- Any one of these techniques can serve to brighten your life. Use them liberally.
How do you help yourself bring balance to the cold dark days of winter?
Have a questions regarding transforming your way of eating and living, 'Ask Dr. Ornish'!