"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
Libra: Open to the wisdom of your heart, restore peace to a troubled mind, learn to live harmoniously and in a state of equilibrium. Reconcile pairs of opposites in your life so that healing may occur. Make judgements, take action, create a more peaceful, harmonious world for all.
We live in a world where, due to the virus, all the cards have been thrown up in the air, and we are waiting to see how they land. How do we find, peace, harmony, and maintain equilibrium in such uncertain and troubled times? Working with the zodiac sign Libra can help us to open to the wisdom of the heart, and to create some order in our disordered, chaotic lives.
Libra is a cardinal, air sign, ruled by Venus. Its symbol is the weighing scales. The Sanskrit name for the sign was Tula, the Balance. Libra's key words are harmoniously and unitedly. Libra, like yoga, helps us balance pairs of opposites, such as Sun and Moon, light and dark, masculine and feminine, passive and active, pushing and yielding, and order and chaos. This reconciliation of pairs of opposites creates balance and healing.
During this current pandemic we urgently need to balance the intellectual energy of our head with the compassionate wisdom of our heart. It is essential at this time to use our intellect to engage with science, and empower ourselves to stay safe through a base of sound, scientific knowledge. At the same time, we must balance this, by also engaging with the wisdom of the heart, which will guide us safely through the storm, revealing to us the path that will lead us from confusion to clarity.
In the Yoga by the Stars book, the affirmation we use in the Libra practice is My heart balances all. It can be coordinated with the breath:
Inhale: My heart balances all
Exhale: My heart balances all
Libra is the fulcrum balancing the material and spiritual world, reminding us that what is considered “lower” supports that which is above and that the two worlds are united by love. This is beautifully encapsulated in the equilibrium of the figure-eight glyph, the symbol of infinity, which is associated with Libra. This is mirrored in the body’s chakra system, where the heart centre balances the lower and higher chakras in a loving and compassionate way
Below are some meditation questions, from the Libra chapter of the Yoga by the Stars book. They will help you to connect with the wisdom of your heart and find balance in your life:
In the Yoga by the Stars book, you will find a Libra-inspired yoga practice, that balances and realigns the body and mind, both physically and energetically. It is calming and quietly energising and has a centring effect. It soothes a restless mind, restoring balance and equanimity. The heart-centre chakra is gently opened, helping us develop a sense of love and compassion for ourselves and others.
Purity is a theme associated with the zodiac sign Virgo, and purity (sauca) is one of the observances, or the personal disciplines, that make up the second of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. Do you find that purity is a concept that works for you and helps to keep you healthy in body, mind, and spirit? Or has it become another thing to beat yourself up about?
Of course, yoga has a purifying, cleansing effect on a mental, physical, and emotional level. The yoga asanas, coordinated with the breathing, improve circulation and flush out toxins in our system. Deep relaxation allows the body to repair and renew itself. However, the concept of purity can be a double-edged sword. One trap that we can fall into is to become obsessed with self-purification. Some yoga teachers exacerbate this tendency in their students by pushing the idea that we are all impure and need to follow extreme exercise routines and diets, including purging, to detoxify ourselves. Purity shouldn’t become a stick to beat yourself with.
Below are some meditation questions, from my forthcoming book, Yoga by the Stars, that will help you to explore both the negative and positive aspects of working with the Virgo theme of purity:
Purity is not a destination; it’s a way of being. The beauty of yoga is that we experience ourselves from the inside out, rather than responding to the gaze of others, and how they view us from the outside. Perhaps for the first time, we are comfortable in our own skin. This inner confidence helps us bat away projections from others who tell us that we are impure or not good enough. Yoga’s inner journey helps us uncover what is true and pure within: our radiant authentic self.
See also: Virgo Pure Light Visualisation
Virgo: Let the Earth Support You
Virgo is a mutable, earthy sign ruled by Mercury. The symbol for Virgo is a young woman with an ear of corn in her hand and a child in her lap. She symbolises fertility and purity. During the current pandemic, purity, or rather avoiding contamination is a preoccupation for all of us . We are fearful of touching surfaces for fear that the virus is lurking there. We are anxious that the virus might be lingering in the air we breathe. Of course it makes sense to take precautions to stay safe when facing a potentially deadly virus. However, all this airy, worry energy can leave us feeling disconnected from nature, ungrounded, cut off from our inner wisdom, and so less able to navigate the crisis. In this post we'll consider how to harness Virgo's earth energy, to help us to stay grounded and centred.
The Virgo symbol of a young woman, a babe in arms, and corn in her hand, gives us a few clues about how to stay grounded. Grounding activities include; spending time with children, pets, gardening, baking (especially kneading bread), and walks in nature. Whereas worry energy takes us up into our head and away from the present moment; grounding activities bring us back into our body, our feet firmly planted on the earth, and back to the present moment. When you are grounded you are reunited with a sense of hope, optimism, and a clarity of purpose.
Below are two meditations that you can use when you need to ground yourself. The first, the Mantra Lam Meditation, is from the Yoga by the Stars book. The great thing about chanting is that it releases tension and helps to restore a healthy breathing pattern; this in turn is calming and soothes worry energy. The second meditation, Standing Like a Tree, is from my first book, Yoga Through the Year.
Mantra Lam Meditation
Come to a sitting position and rest your hands on your belly. Notice the gentle rise and fall of the belly with each in and out-breath. Then with each out-breath, silently repeat the mantra Lam (pronounced lum). This is the bija (seed) mantra associated with the base chakra (muladhara), and it is very grounding. After a few silent repetitions, begin to sound the Lam mantra on each exhale. With each repetition of the mantra bring your awareness down to the belly and the lower half of the body. After a few repetitions, let go of chanting.
Spend a few more minutes here, quietly observing your breath and noticing the contact between your body and the earth. When you are ready, carry on with your day.
Standing Like a Tree
This exercise can be used at any time of year as a stand-alone exercise or as part of your yoga practice. It can be used as a way of centring and grounding yourself at the start of a yoga practice. In daily life it is particularly helpful for those times when you feel thrown off balance by a situation and need to regain your equilibrium and ground yourself.
Stand tall like a tree. Your feet are parallel and about hip width apart. Your knees are soft, your face relaxed, shoulders down away from the ears. Your tailbone feels heavy as though it is weighted, and the crown of your head feels light and floats skyward. Picture in your mind’s eye a tree that you love or feel a connection to.
Bring your awareness to your feet. Be aware of where your feet are in contact with the earth beneath you. Allow your toes to spread and your heels to drop down into the earth. Imagine that there are roots growing from the soles of your feet, going deep down into the earth below you, spreading in a wide circle, and giving you stability.
With each inhale imagine that you are drawing healing energy and nourishment up though your roots into the soles of your feet, up through the legs, torso, and to the lungs.
With each exhale imagine that the out-breath is travelling down both legs, through your feet, and back down into your roots. Imagine with each exhale that you are letting go of anything that you do not wish to hold on to, letting go of tension, worries, anxiety, persistent thoughts, discomfort, or pain. Imagine that any negativity that you let go of is then cleansed and purified by the soil.
Inhale: Healing energy
Exhale: Letting go
Repeat over several breaths until you feel centred and grounded.
See also: Virgo Pure Light Visualisation
The ancient yogis believed that within each of us there is a Divine spark. It is like a candle flame at the heart centre, that burns steadily unmoved by the winds of change. It is always there, constant, light and bright, guiding our way. Although sometimes, like a dusty lamp, the light can become obscured and dimmed. Our yoga practice helps us to clean up the lamp and to uncover this light within, bringing light into the darkness.
The Virgo-inspired yoga practice, in the Yoga by the Stars book, uses visualisation and affirmation to help us to reconnect with this guiding light within. Inspired by the zodiac sign Virgo, this practice has a devotional feel. It is deeply relaxing and grounding, and it will help you to access a deep source of strength and wisdom. It enables you to cultivate a sense of being comfortable in your own skin and to get in touch with the purity of your authentic self.
The affirmation we use in the practice is The light within guides my way. It can be shortened and coordinated with the breath:
Inhale: The light within
Exhale: Guides my way
During the practice we also coordinate the affirmation with movements in the asanas, and with the breath. Or you can repeat the affirmation, The light within guides my way, at the start of each round of a sequence, such as Salute to the Sun (Surya Namaskar).
Below is a simple meditation that we use to begin and conclude the Virgo practice. You can use it yourself at home to start or finish your own yoga practice. Also, during the practice, between poses, in a pose such as Mountain Pose (Tadasana), you might wish to place your hands at your heart and picture a candle flame burning steadily there.
Virgo Pure Light Visualisation
Find yourself a comfortable seated position. Draw an imaginary circle of light around yourself. If it feels right, silently say, I surround myself with love and light, and I am safe. Bring your hands to your heart and visualise a candle flame burning steadily at the heart space. Then silently repeat your affirmation 3 times: The light within guides my way.
Ask to be given an image that symbolises purity for you. If an image does not immediately come to mind, trust that at some point one will arise. If an image does arise, hold it in your heart as you do your yoga practice.
The above practice is from the Virgo chapter of the Yoga by the Stars book, to be published by Llewellyn in December 2020.
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.