Celebrating the Summer Solstice

21 June 2021

The Solstice and its traditions

The two points of the year when the Sun is at its furthest from the celestial equator are called the summer and winter solstices. These points, when the sun appears from earth’s viewpoint to “stand still”, occur in mid-summer and mid-winter. The word 'solstice' comes from the Latin solstitium meaning 'Sun stands still', because the apparent movement of the Sun's path north or south stops before changing direction.

In ancient times the date of the June solstice was an important marker to help people manage their calendars and organize when to plant and harvest crops. This time of year was also a traditional month for weddings.

Stonehenge, built around 3100 BCE. is believed to have been constructed to help establish when the summer solstice occurred. Each year the sun rises at a particular point on the horizon, as viewed from the centre of the stone circle, on the day of the June solstice. At that point people may have started counting the days of the year. Many other megalith structures in Europe may also have been built for similar purposes.

In many countries in Europe, Midsummer festivals or celebrations were held around the time of the June solstice. In ancient Gaul, the Midsummer celebration was called the Feast of Epona, named after a mare goddess who personified fertility and protected horses. In ancient Germanic, Slav and Celtic tribes, many pagans celebrated Midsummer with bonfires. After Christianity spread in Europe and other parts of the world, many pagan customs were incorporated into the Christian religion. In parts of Scandinavia the Midsummer celebrations continued but were observed around the time of St John’s Day, on June 24, to honour St John the Baptist instead of the pagan gods.

The Sun in Yoga

For thousands of years Hindus have revered the sun, Surya in Sanskrit, as both the physical and spiritual heart of our world and our lives. One of the ways we can honour the sun is through the flowing sequence of poses collectively known as Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutations.

The Sanskrit word Namaskar is derived from namas, which means “to bow to” or “to adore.” Each Sun Salutation begins and ends with Anjali mudra, palms together at the heart centre, connecting to anahata chakra and internally mirroring the light and brightness of the external Sun. This reminds us that the heart is our spiritual centre. Surya Namaskar, or saluting the sun, is now practiced around the world as a regular morning ritual, or as an intrinsic part of a longer practice. Its flow of poses is a particularly beautiful way to honour Lord Surya, the god of health and the bringer of light to our universe.

The Sun Salutation sequence is a meditation in motion. It allows us to experience our body as a tool for achieving higher awareness, allowing us to receive wisdom and knowledge. The ancient yogis taught that each of us is a mirror of the world at large. According the the Shiva Samhita (II.1-3), we embody “rivers, seas, mountains, fields…stars and planets…the sun and moon”. The outer sun reflects our own “inner sun,” which corresponds to our spiritual heart. This in turn is our seat of consciousness and higher wisdom (jnana).

The traditional Sun Salutation consists of 12 postures brought together and practiced as a continuous flow. When one round ends, another one begins in a perfect circle. Nowadays there are many different types of sun salutation, with many variations to enjoy. Ashtanga Yoga traditionally begins with 5 Sun Salutation A’s, and now 3 (5 when I was taught it!) Sun Salutation B’s. Other variations include Sivananda Sun Salutations, Sun Salutation C which incorporates crescent moon lunge, and many other versions which have been developed by schools and practitioners of yoga, for example Jivamukti Yoga has its own Sun Salutations, and you could also try out the wonderful Dancing Warrior sequences of world renowned yogini Shiva Rea.

Surya Namaskar invigorates, tones, strengthens and warms the entire body. It can be done on its own as a standalone practice, or as a warm-up before further yoga asanas. As well as warming the body, Sun Salutations are said to remove tension, improve circulation, stimulate the nervous system and strengthen both body and mind. The movements loosen and lubricate the joints and spine. The muscles of the abdomen, pelvis and spine are toned and strengthened. The breathing is regulated, calming the mind, and bringing us to a more meditative state as we progress through multiple rounds of the sequence. If practiced slowly, it has a calming effect. If practiced briskly, it is invigorating.

To honour Lord Surya on this the day of the Summer Solstice, try chanting The Gayatri Mantra as you flow in your moving meditation. One of the oldest and best loved mantras, it honours the sun and inspires us in our rhythmic sequence as we absorb the positive potential such a simple and beautiful practice ignites within us.

The Gayatri Mantra

Om bhur bhuvah svaha

Tat savitur varenyam

Bhargo devasya dheemahi

Diyo yo nah prachodayat

“O splendid and playful sun, we offer this prayer to thee; enlighten this craving mind; be our protector; may the radiance of the divine ruler guide our destiny; wise men salute your magnificence with oblations and words of praise”.


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