In The Way of the Happy Woman, Sara Avant Stover shows how simple, natural, and refreshingly accessible practices can minimize stress and put us back in sync with our own cycles and those of nature. Here she offers insights into how we can make the most out of winter.
When we let it, death and destruction can bring us much closer together as human beings. We remember our vulnerability and the preciousness of being alive. We remember that we need one another and that we never know when death will come for us. We need to partake in the full ritual of death — however gritty it may be to witness — and the ensuing descent into the darkness of our own souls in order to sing loud and clear when the dawn comes again.
In the yearly cycle it’s winter, in the daily cycle it’s nighttime, and in the monthly cycle it’s the new moon and menstruation that give us the opportunity to practice dying. However, these little deaths that compel us to grope through the dark nights of our souls are what most of us avoid the most. We’d rather just take a pill and be happy all the time than feel the searing pain of loss and of being lost. But there’s a huge folly here. If we don’t surrender and let things die away and dissolve into mystery and darkness, there’s no space from which anything new can be reborn.
How can we rest in the stark stillness of the season without grasping for a plan or rushing on to the next big thing?
Winter, while it can be one of the hardest seasons to embrace, has a lot to teach us about true beauty and wisdom. Stripped of her flowers, leaves, and warmth, the earth reveals her naked self through her skeleton branches and barren ground. She becomes completely simple, having discarded everything but the bare essentials. Her scarcity and fierceness command our respect and attention, and, without apology for not being a warm and gracious hostess, she retreats into frozen silence. When we look to nature as our teacher, we see that she’s reflecting back to us a prolonged opportunity to hibernate and renew. Arriving with the shortest day of the year on the winter solstice, December 21 (June 21 in the southern hemisphere), winter slowly grows brighter from this day on as the sun’s presence gradually beams stronger and stronger until its apex on the next summer solstice. Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas, and Kwanza, along with many other holidays and rituals, celebrate the return of this light. We’re reminded to connect with the sun within us, which is the bright potential of our souls, even amid the darkness and the holiday frenzy. We also celebrate New Year’s, a call to reflect on the past, appreciate the present, and dream our future. This truly is the time of year to go inside and ripen in our womanly wisdom before stepping out into the world again.
Use the darkness all around you to explore your inner world. There you will find that flame inside you that can never be extinguished. You can only make this descent when you commit to stillness, solitude, and deep soul-searching. You must become quiet, less social, more introverted, and — despite the negative connotations in most cultures — lazy. Just as fields need to remain fallow at times for their soil to stay fertile, we need to leave our innermost beings barren of new projects, adventures, and activities. We’ve done this in smaller doses during menstruation and the new moon, but this is downtime in a much bigger sense.
If we don’t take time each year for deep rest, then authentic healing, rejuvenation, wisdom, and softening are not possible. It takes so much energy to burst forth into the world and to birth something new. This winter, treat yourself like a pregnant mama. Rest, nurture yourself, rebuild your vital life force, and prepare for the coming of new life. And if you don’t live in an area with a pronounced winter season, you need to be more disciplined about getting quiet. This is also an opportunity to listen to the subtler rhythms of nature.
Yet while nature’s saying one thing, society’s saying another. We need to acknowledge that there is a reason why winter’s wisdom is ignored in modern society. We’ve come to see rest as lazy and unproductive and have fallen in love with constant, linear progress. Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays are designated off days, and at all other times we’re expected to be on. Within the cycle of life, late adulthood isn’t valued either. Our elders are hidden away in old-age homes, no longer able to enrich the youth with their wisdom. There’s a sad ignorance in this, a forgetting of how to honor the sacred balance by holding in equal esteem all of life’s stages.
You, I know, are here because you’ve seen the fallacy in this denial of the dark, quiet point in the circle. You’ve seen how destructive it is for your health and happiness as a woman — as well as for your family and community. But we haven’t just thumbed our noses at winter repose because of our prejudices about becoming soft and rested; we have also done this because we’re afraid to face our own shadow sides. We’re afraid of uncertainty. We don’t want to look our sadness, our anger, or our fear in the eye and really ask what each has to teach us. When we avoid facing these less savory parts of ourselves, we’re missing out on the opportunity to become who we truly are. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it feels uncomfortable. But by going to those depths you call in the light. You heal the parts of yourself that you have never wanted to acknowledge, much less learn to love. You must become the loving mother who calls all her lost children, or the estranged parts of yourself, home.
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Sara Avant Stover
is the author of The Way of the Happy Woman
. She pioneered yoga teaching in Thailand and is a Yoga Alliance teacher trainer at the 500-hour level. She travels the world leading women’s events and lives in Boulder, Colorado.