"There is a light that shines beyond all things on earth, beyond us all, beyond the heavens, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."
Chandogya Upanishad 3. 13. 7
Sagittarius is a mutable, positive, fire sign, ruled by Jupiter. The poet, Louis MacNeice, writes that the fire of Sagittarius is the purifying blue fire at the heart of the flame, and this can be a beautiful image to explore and seek out in your yoga practice. In the Northern Hemisphere the Sagittarian dates correspond with our entering into the depths of winter, so this blue flame image, when introduced into a yoga practice or meditation, can be a way of bringing light into the darkness.
Over the autumn I’ve really enjoyed seeing Jupiter, the ruling planet of Sagittarius, bright and jewel like in the night sky. Our ancestors looked up at the stars and saw them as sacred. They perceived divinity within the stars and felt that same spark of divinity within themselves. To them, the cosmos was a soulful place that they were part of and at one with. You can engender that same sense of reverence and wonder by regularly taking time to be mindful of the night sky. Take a few minutes each day to mindfully connect with the night sky. This can be as simple as looking up at the sky out of your window or stopping your car (when it’s safe to do so) and parking somewhere to look up at the sky.
A great way to promote a good night’s sleep is to take a mindful walk an hour or so before bedtime. This is an enjoyable exercise to do with a companion. Every so often stop and look up at the sky. What do you see? Some nights you will see a splendid Moon; other nights it will be cloudy and no stars in sight; and on a clear night the stars will stretch out before you.
Whether you live in the city or the country, the sky is always there for you, and it provides the perfect way to connect with the cosmos. At any time, looking up at the sky and being mindful of it creates a sense of spaciousness and freedom. It gives us a sense of perspective, and our problems shrink back down to size. It provides a canvas for our creativity, and we find our ideas flow more freely. Gazing mindfully at the sky allows us to connect with a universe that is constantly changing. In the day you’ll see clouds passing by, and at night you’ll be treated to a changing starscape. It also engenders a sense of union and oneness with the world around you.
In the Yoga by the Stars book you will find a Mindfulness of the Night Sky Meditation and a Sagittarius-inspired yoga practice.
The Power of Clear Intention
Expand Your Horizons
The symbol for Sagittarius is the centaur with bow and arrow. In Rome the constellation of Sagittarius was associated with Diana, the goddess of the bow. In the Sagittarius-inspired yoga practice, in the Yoga by the Stars book, we use asanas inspired by archery imagery. We combine the arm movements of drawing your bow and releasing an arrow with familiar poses such as the Lunge Pose (Anjaneyasana) and Warrior Pose (Virabhadrasana). We also explore the tautness of the archer’s bow through poses such as a Lunge Pose variation and Bow Pose (Dhanurasana). The practice is calming, grounding, centring, energizing and improves focus.
Warrior Archer Pose (Virabhadrasana variation)
It can be enriching for the yoga practitioner to find out more about the skills and discipline of archery, some of which are very similar to those we cultivate in yoga, such as balancing effort (sthira) and relaxation (sukha).
The affirmation we use in the Sagittarius-inspired yoga practice is:
My intention is clear, and opportunities arise.
It can be coordinated with the breath:
Inhale: Clear intention
Exhale: Opportunities arise
Intention is a powerful force that can work miracles when combined with wisdom. The Scottish mountaineer, William Hutchison Murray, wrote, “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”
Like an archer drawing back the string of her bow, eye fixed upon the target, yoga teaches us to set our intention. When we practice yoga, we consciously direct our intention to a chosen object. Even though our mind might be flitting all over the place, we continue to draw our attention back to a fixed point, such as the flow of the breath, sensations in the body, or whatever we have chosen to focus on during that session. This concentrated narrowing of our attention leads to an expansive, spacious, state of consciousness.
Expand Your Horizons
Expansion is one of the key words associated with the sign Sagittarius, other key words are widely, deeply, and free-ranging. The symbol for the sign is a centaur, which is half-horse and half-human. The power of the hips and thighs are said to be Sagittarian, and this correlates with the desire to travel far and wide. The sign conjures up images of freedom, wide open spaces, blue skies, and wild horses roaming free across moorland. At a time when the virus has imposed many restrictions on our lives, regardless of what our own sign is, we can look to Sagittarius to inspire us to expand our sense of what is possible.
There are many obstacles that prevent us from travelling far and wide at present. Here in the UK we are just beginning a month long lock down. However, although we are limited in where we can physically travel, there is no limit to where we can go in our imagination! We can visualise beautiful places without all the hassle of airport security! We can also practice mindfulness so that we fully enjoy the beauty of where we are now. We can be present to and savour the sound of autumn leaves underfoot, clouds rushing across a blue sky, wind on our face, a child's smile, the sun setting, the moon rising, or stars in the night sky.
A few years ago I heard an interview with a blind man who had climbed Kilimanjaro and he was making a tough expedition to the South Pole. He said, "Whatever your disability, think about what you can do, not your limitations." At the time I heard those words I was struggling with anxiety, and it was causing me to avoid certain situations, which was creating limitations in my life. I decided to adopt the mantra, "Think about what you can do, and not your limitations", and this enabled me to stop being so focussed on what anxiety was preventing me from doing, and to start doing the things I was able to do. In turn, once I was doing more, my confidence increased and I was more able to tolerate the inevitable anxiety that comes from taking on new challenges. I've also found this positive can-do approach has helped during the current Coronavirus crisis. Although I think it is important to acknowledge our sadness and sense of loss over the things we are no longer able to do because of the virus restrictions, at the same time I think it's good to be on the lookout for those activities that we are safely able to do, and so expand our horizons.
Our yoga practice can also help to stop our world from shrinking, and help us to maintain an expansive, open attitude. With all the uncertainty in the world it's easy to develop a pattern of anxiously holding your breath in anticipation of events to come. Your yoga practice will remind you to breathe. You will feel yourself expanding and drawing in life energy as you inhale, and relaxing a you exhale. Life comes alive again.
Our meditation practice can also help us to cultivate an attitude of joyfulness, even in the face of difficulties, and bring light into the darkness. The Breathe and Smile Meditation, included in the Sagittarius chapter of the Yoga by the Stars book, encourages you to maintain a clear, focused attention while at the same time joyfully lightening up. The meditation fits in with the cheerful optimism and joviality that is associated with the Sagittarius sign.
The Breathe and Smile Meditation
Each chapter in the Yoga by the Stars book has an affirmation that relates to the chapter’s zodiac-inspired yoga theme and condenses it down into one short inspirational phrase. The affirmations are a simple and effective way of steering yourself in the direction of developing positive qualities and attitudes.
The affirmation for the Scorpio chapter, which is the sign we are focussing on this month, is Love surrounds all my feelings. You can silently repeat it at any time during the day to uplift and inspire. Or say it just before going to bed in the evening or upon waking in the morning. For example, when you wake up in the morning, you could repeat the affirmation Love surrounds all my feelings three times, and this would set a loving and courageous tone for the day. You could also repeat it just before you go to bed, and then it will be working in your subconscious overnight.
The affirmation can be repeated a few times at the start and end of your yoga practice or silently repeated while you hold a yoga pose. When you step onto your yoga mat, you could begin your practice with the affirmation. Then, when you are holding a pose, you could repeat, Love surrounds all my feelings.
The shortened version of the affirmations can be coordinated with the breath as a meditation or used when you are coordinating dynamic yoga movements with the breath. If you’re using poses dynamically by, for example, going into Up-face-Dog on the inhalation and into Child Pose on the exhalation (see below), you could say Love surrounds as you inhale and All my feelings as you exhale.
Inhale: Love surrounds
Exhale: All my feelings
At the end of the session, just before you go into relaxation, repeat the affirmation a few more times. During your relaxation, you could silently repeat the affirmation coordinated with a slow, relaxed breathing pattern as a meditative way of focusing and calming the mind.
Our yoga practice can provide us with the stability to do the warrior work of approaching and befriending our fears. In the more challenging asanas, we learn how to lean into discomfort, finding our edge without leaping off it into full-blown pain. We also cultivate compassion for our struggles and difficulties, surrounding them with love and understanding, and the affirmation Love surrounds all my feelings helps us to do this.
You can find more Scorpio-inspired yoga ideas in the Scorpio chapter of the Yoga by the Stars book.
Suffering is not Enough
Face Fear and Find Freedom
Last week I noticed a low-level feeling of sadness clouding over my otherwise blue skies. I had a deadline to meet, so I pushed down a growing sense of nostalgia arising in me, that was craving the everyday pleasures that I took for granted before the virus. I was missing simple things, like not having to remember my mask every time I leave the house, relaxed meals with friends, wider family meet-ups, and most of all girls' days out with my my lovely daughter. It wasn't convenient for me to give these feelings space by allowing myself to feel them. I had to review and revise the final proof and artwork for my Yoga by the Stars book. I resolved to put these feelings aside and make one final push to get the book over the finishing line, ready to go to the printers.
Once I'd met my deadline, and spent some time feeling exhilarated that my editor had signed the book off, I noticed that those wistful feelings, I mentioned earlier in this post, were still lingering in the background of my mind. The wise part of me knew that the best thing to do was to stop and be with the feelings. Another part, less wise, whispered to just carry on, ignore them, minimising and invalidating the feelings. A low-level migraine had also been hanging around for a few days too.
Yesterday, in preparation for writing my monthly Yoga by the Stars newsletter, I read through the Scorpio chapter of the Yoga by the Stars book. It reminded me of the importance of doing the warrior work of approaching and befriending our fears, and how we must learn to cultivate compassion for our struggles and difficulties, surrounding them with love and understanding. It reminded me to stop and feel my feelings, which I did using a tried and tested way of doing this, the Surrounding a Difficulty with Love Meditation (page 126 of my Yoga Through the Year book). The amazing and unexpected benefit of doing this meditation, on this occasion, which included a good cry, was that my migraine completely disappeared and I felt better than I had for days!
The Surrounding a Difficulty with Love Meditation allowed me to turn towards and feel all the difficult feelings of loss and yearning that I had been pushing aside. I noticed where I was feeling the feelings in my body. I surrounded these tight, tense areas with love and compassion. I gave myself up to the tears that arose, staying aware of bodily sensations and my breathing. I followed this with a Mindfulness of Body and Breath meditation, to bring me back down to earth and ground myself, and I finished with a 3 Minute Breathing Meditation. This whole process took about 30-40 minutes. Afterwards I felt lighter, energised, and my migraine had disappeared. What a relief!
So, how are you feeling? Before you say, "I'm fine thanks", pause for a minute, and ask yourself how are you really feeling? We all have losses during this pandemic. Our lives have changed irrevocably, and it is worthwhile to stop and allow our selves to recognise how we feel about the monumental changes that are occurring in our lives and the wider world. The lesson of the zodiac sign Scorpio is that if we face fear, we can find freedom.
See also: Mindfulness to Manage Difficult Emotions for a script of the Surrounding a Difficulty with Love Meditation (or page 126 of the Yoga Through the Year book).
In the next few posts we will be exploring how the wisdom of Scorpio offers us the gift of facing fear and finding freedom. Currently there is an epidemic of fear due to the pandemic. Naturally, we all feel a heightened sense of alertness as we negotiate the risks of doing everyday activities in the face of the dangers posed by the virus. Regardless of your own Sun sign, Scorpio will help you to cultivate the resilience you need to approach your fear and move through it.
Scorpio teaches us the wisdom of facing fear and finding freedom. This is also the approach that mindfulness uses too. From personal experience I know how debilitating anxiety can be. I also know that practising yoga and mindfulness gives us a toolbox to manage overwhelming feelings. Anxiety is all-consuming, it narrows our focus, and shrinks our world view. Whereas our mindfulness practice delivers us from the small confines of our fearfulness and allows us to see the bigger picture.
Turning towards your fear and allowing yourself to experience it is warrior work! You put your fear under the microscope of your awareness, and allow yourself to feel it both emotionally, and where it resides in your body, whilst at the same time holding in your mind the bigger picture. Then with practise you realise that yes, your fear is there, but you also notice that you are breathing in, and you are breathing out. Mindfulness gives you an anchor, such as the breath, that prevents you from being overwhelmed by the waves of emotion that accompany fear and anxiety. In turn you also learn to carry this mindful awareness into your daily life, noticing what you can see, smell, hear, and feel. You are aware of suffering, and you are also aware of the beauty in the world around you.
The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, reminds us that suffering is not enough. He teaches that one part of our meditation practice is to be aware of suffering in the world; whereas the other part is to appreciate all of the beauty in the world. This practice of turning towards suffering and simultaneously noticing the joyful and the beautiful, allows us to experience the totality of life as it is, without getting overwhelmed by it.
"Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.
Meditation is to be aware of what is going on- in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world. Each day 40,000 children die of hunger. The superpowers now have more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy our planet many times. Yet the sunrise is beautiful, and the rose that bloomed this morning along the wall is a miracle. Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects. Please do not think we need to be solemn in order to meditate. In fact, to meditate well, we have to smile a lot"
Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
Hello, I am Jilly Shipway, the author of Yoga Through the Year, and my forthcoming book Yoga by the Stars. In this Yoga by the Stars blog I will share with you zodiac-inspired yoga insights and inspiration. I also have another blog on my Yoga Through the Year website.