Imbolc and St Brigid’s Day
St Brigid’s Day (1st February), and the Celtic festival of Imbolc traditionally mark the start of Spring: a time when most life is still dormant, and the first stirrings are taking place under the ground – very different from the pretty, frilly blossoming of April. It feels to me like a special, almost sacred time – tuning into the energy under the earth means looking, listening, feeling, with great respect and honesty; with no expectations or judgment.
I’ve been curious as to why early February is the start of Spring in Ireland. Growing up in England, Spring began at the vernal equinox, 21st March. The brighter sun and more blooming gardens speak more loudly – they’re more external, more obviously and overtly springlike. Early February still feels pretty wintry – stormy seas, bitter winds and flash snowstorms. My Irish friends smile and shake their heads knowingly: there’s something of Spring which they understand and I need to learn. Tuning into Imbolc/St Brigid allows me access to something deep, dark and full of potential – an essentially female energy that goes to the very beginnings of conception and new growth, starts deep underground, in the earth, or in the dark place within…
A fertile terrain, potent – which I’ve always found difficult to navigate, and requires a special attention…
Meaning in Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day
The Irish word ‘Imbolc’ seems to have multiple meanings, all evoking this early emergence or awakening. One meaning is ‘in the belly of the mother’ – associations with pregnant ewes and new lambs, with milk, nourishment and new life. There’s also a link with seeds, fertility, sprouting… coming out of the darkest season and gradually into the light. Imbolc can be celebrated on the full moon closest to 1st February – this year, that’s Saturday, 4th. I’m hoping this piece will see the light of day by then…
St Brigid, who lived in the 5th century, is an important symbol for fertility, new growth, protection and hope as the year turns. Her feast-day coincides with Imbolc, and the two form a potent force to mark the changing season.
Prāṇa – life-force
Prāṇa is stirring at Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day. This is the life-force which calls these early plants to put out shoots and to flower. It’s the life-force within all life. In each life-form it’s uniquely expressed, but it also connects and interconnects all life. Prāṇa is like ch’i or qi in Chinese medicine – and in early February it’s still delicate. With the sun moving just a little higher in the sky, and when the wind off the sea calms down just a little, I can feel the soft warmth – promise… In me, too, Prāṇa is still quiet – I still need time inside to look, listen and feel my way into the turning of the year.
Practising – inside and out
Since the start of the year, I’ve been consciously practising attuning to what’s under the surface. The quietness draws me in, almost preventing me from acting outwards. It’s as though I’m being invited on an inner journey of opportunity – but only if I look, listen and feel from a place of integrity.
I’ve been connecting with the land and landscape. Over the new year period it was the browns on the hills of the Sheep’s Head peninsula in West Cork. I loved the winter textures, and the sleeping hillsides – so much life there, resting…
In my tiny garden at home, I realise that there’s actually something green all year round. Although it’s lovely, this can be distracting – too much external stuff tempting me away from connecting beneath the soil… The hellebores are proliferating, and I’ve cut back the old growth to reveal the shy flowers, still in bud, which will open out as this early spring period rolls on. Some tiny rose-leaves are coming out now, primulas coming up in sheltered spots and the apple-trees are showing small, tight bulges – buds biding their time …
Earth and pause as teacher
In my practice, too, I need to feel into what’s still dormant, but just stirring. I need to weed and prune. I’m seeing how I can allow the movement and the in-breath to emerge from the ground upwards. Finding a place of rest and nourishment after each exhalation and dropping my awareness into the ground to allow for a ‘pushing-back’ or ‘pushing-up’. This is Prāṇa, coursing through my whole body. My teacher Peter Hersnack coined the word repoussé to describe this double energetic movement in yoga. The French word pousser, ‘to push’, also describes a growing plant: how it pushes its way out and up – towards the sun. The yoga repoussé is our way of connecting deeply to what we share with all life. It’s helping me to feel the interconnectedness of everything in our fragmented world.
In the weekly yoga class, we’re deliberately spending time connecting with the physical sensation of the ground underneath us: feet, hands, back, depending on the posture. We’re taking time to rest in the natural pause after the exhalation, and to feel this as a time of looking, listening and feeling into what’s beneath the surface; the nourishment of the earth and the aeration of the soil that allows Prāṇa to circulate, and us to send out shoots. From there, our movements are free – less constrained by old, stuck stuff and more able to know intuitively where and how far it feels right to go – the body expressing something essential in us through movement.
Sounding Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day
I’m also experimenting in a creative project with two visual artists. We’re playing with knots, nets and tangles, and the spaces in between. To me, these nodal points are like clusters of potential, which need the spaces in between to grow into life – to find direction and expression. I’ve been experimenting with this idea in relation to the meaning in Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day, with clusters of sounds, seeds and shoots – and the spaces for Prāṇa to circulate. My friend and mentor Sheila Baker has shared her image of St Brigid’s Day, which resonates with my sonic nodules, squiggles and spaces:
I look at a few aspects of this date when I do St.Brigid days.
One is about honouring female creativity so I link it to Sarasvati [the Indian goddess of creativity].
The other is the concept of this time of year being the time when the earth and trees etc look to be dead, when in fact it is the time when there is the most energy stirring beneath the surface preparing to burst forth.
Yatna – the effort to stay here - watching, listening, feeling
Yatna is a potent Sanskrit word which describes the effort we bring to our practice. It describes the quality of attention needed to create the stability in the body-mind which is necessary for Prāṇa to move freely. The quality of yatna is crucial; not too much strain, yet just enough to remain present. Yatna has to come first: the ‘ecosystem’ needs to become steady, and ready… and then there’s a spontaneous unravelling or letting-go, which allows for something to grow freely.
It is the effort which is indispensable for coming into a practice and staying with it […]
The effort itself is not what is important: the importance is more in its quality: a judicious effort to move towards an ‘effortless’ stability.
(Peter Hersnack on yatna)
For me just now, there seems to be an urgency to be attentive in this way – looking, listening, feeling deeply while the energy of the sun is still quiet. There’s a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on my internal space, which also says ‘Handle with Care’! I can’t emerge until the time is right. If I can stay here, in the moment, after the exhale, then something true can begin to articulate – to move, to speak, to sing, in alignment with my needs, and with the cycling of the year.
Attuning from buddhi
In Sanskrit, the intuitive, non-analytical part of the mind is called buddhi. The word is connected to awakening and related to Buddha – the ‘awakened one’. Looking, listening and feeling from buddhi, my perception is clearer and has a quality of truth, of rightness. It’s a very delicate thing, like the first brave shoots appearing from the earth. Aligning myself to what’s right at any given moment. Not being pulled out before I’m ready… Emerging to my own rhythm.
Unlike the more extrovert, later phase of spring, the feminine energy celebrated at Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day refuses to be rushed, but its potency is powerful. All life is interconnected, but for each of us, the rhythm of emergence is unique.