A poem by Hafiz of Shiraz, a 14th century Persian poet. The poetry of Hafiz was first translated into English in 1771. It spread through out the Western world, influencing American and European intellectuals from Henry David Thoreau to Friedrich Engles.
The sun will set in New York at 8:31 pm on the summer solstice. Weather permitting, it will shine down on us for 15 hours, 5 minutes, and 40 seconds before then. Not only is this solstice the longest day of the year, it brings us the closest we get to the star that sustains us, the mysterious nuclear reaction that is the source of all potential here on Earth.
In an impersonal universe, the sun is just the remnant of the massive collapse of a molecular cloud that gave birth to galaxies of other stars, many bigger and brighter than our own. It means the world to us, yet it's barely a speck on the Milky Way map. Miraculously, despite its relative insignificance in the universe, our celestial friend still anchors our solar system and lights up our lives. It shapes everything from our cells to our biorhythms to our imagination. It is at once a question and an answer and a question again to the how and why and where of our cosmic journey.
In the Vedic philosophy that forms the foundation of yoga, the sun is the source of all past and future creation on Earth. Drawing on this idea, Hatha yoga emphasizes the relationship between the sun and moon, creating a duality in which the sun represents strength, reason, order, and universality, while the moon symbolizes creativity, emotion, flexibility, and differentiation. In this special time around the solstice, the proximity of the sun to the Earth invites us to explore these images and to make our practice a moving metaphor for our connection to this life-giving star.
Hanging in space, we are utterly dependent on our nuclear neighbor. Born from destruction, creating order from chaos, burning to exhaustion, the sun is the ultimate symbol for the paradoxes of life and death, cycle and chance, eternity and finality. Its constant shine reminds us that energy is forever flowing and changing form, sparking creation from destruction, conception from collapse.
Celebrating the solstice through our practice, let us remember that our flow is an expression of the movement of energy through the universe. Our yoga is a union with that energy and all that springs from it. As the sun moves through the sky today, let's rejoice in the serendipity of our cosmic adventure and take comfort in the connection our practice cultivates with the energy of life.
In celebration of the summer solstice, the asana of the month for June is hasta uttanasana. While hasta translates as "hand" and uttan means "extreme reaching," will we call this pose sun stretch to honor the symbolic moment in sūrya namaskāra, sun salutations, when the sun peaks. Hasta uttanasana is the instant when the body can stretch no further, the lungs can fill no more, and expansion spurs release.
Just as inhalation requires exhalation, hasta uttanasana teaches us that fullness must give way to emptiness. Moving through this metaphor teaches us to embrace life's cyclical nature and shows us that we can expand and contract without attachment. When the mind and body internalize this motion, we learn to see beyond the flux. The sun goes up. The sun goes down. The days get longer. The days get shorter. The light grows. The light fades. Through it all, we fill and empty, adapt and change. With practice, we can distill the constants within ourselves, the eternal truths of the universe, so that we embrace change and feel energized by life's transitions.
As we celebrate the days building up to the solstice, hasta uttanasana reminds us to fill and reach, empty and fold with equanimity. The Vedic philosophers urge that equanimity will let us transcend the apparent duality that surrounds us. It will liberate our hearts from temporal illusions so that we can find union with the True, the Real, the Eternal, the Divine.
Since hasta uttanasana is part of the sun cycle series, we will explore it several times during class, refining the pose as we revisit it. Performing the series with full attention begins with focusing on the breath, the catalyst for all vinyasa motion. Sun salutations are a beautiful reminder that the breath—not the mind—carries us through the practice. Gentle rhythmic breathing sustains the flow, supports our body through transitions, and lulls the brain into alpha wave activity that relaxes everything. Alpha wave activity enhances yoga because it increases a sense of well-being that separates activity from effort. Entering this state of serenity lets us strengthen without strain, balance without tension, deepen without force.
Moving through the sun salutation cycle, focus on the breath without isolating it. The breath should move freely, carrying the body with it. Allow each inhalation and exhalation to usher in a new transition. Sustain the breath through every transition so that it supports the body between poses. Time the movement of air to coincide with each arrival in the next pose. With practice, the body will naturally sync the movements to the breath, and the sun salutation cycle will become an extension of breathing.
As we celebrate the solstice with hasta uttanasana, fill the body with breath as you rise from forward bend. Let the sensation of fullness expand from the lungs until it radiates out from the chest, elongating the spine, lifting the chin, and extending the arms overhead. The back may arch gently if this extension grows naturally out of the standing posture, but it's important not to force the body to bend backward. Instead of pushing to reach back, send the energy all the way through the fingertips and out the top of the head. It will light up the heart, throat, third eye, and crown chakras on the way.
In the days leading up to the solstice, take some time every morning to salute the sun, the source of all creation and potential on Earth. With practice, sun salutations will free your attention instead of diverting it, and the asanas will become part of a moving meditation that transcends the body and unites it with the universe.