Today is the autumnal equinox — roughly equal amounts of daylight and darkness. The fall season has officially begun in the northern hemisphere, although the days have actually been getting shorter since the summer solstice. It just seems that now Earth is in a hurry to get it’s southern half warmed up. But to me autumn is a special season with its cooler days, harvests and food-related festivals, falling leaves, and thoughts of death. In my reflections I organize this article around four themes that dominate the body, mind, and spirit of the season: fitness, food, yoga, and death. Death in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic hangs over all of this in the autumn of 2020.
Warning: some explicit images
As summer turns to autumn, our experience of Earth is changing and our experience of our bodies is changing. The days are getting shorter in the northern hemisphere and the days in early fall are warm but not hot. We feel more invigorated to do physical activities like running, biking, walking, playing sports, and a full yoga practice. Fall is harvest time and there are related food festivals that bring the human community together. Fall is also a time in the northern hemisphere when leaves fall and nature slowly shuts down, reminding us all of our mortality. The COVID-19 pandemic affects all of these typical Autumn activities.
Sports and Fitness
Fall is usually a big season for sports. The major sports, like the end of the baseball season and the beginning of the football season, are being played with fewer games and no fans in the stadiums during the COVID-19. College sports this fall depend on students returning to campus and football being played. Why do college sports depend on football? Because that’s the sport that brings in the revenue that allows other sports to be offered.
Some fall sports can be held, like cross country. Yet even these runners risk breathing on one another and hopefully have tested negative before setting off.
Whether cross country is offered or not, it’s still possible to run through the autumn forests. Running is a great cardio-vascular exercise. Spring and autumn are great times for running because of the cooler weather.
Rowing is a spring and fall sport, with practice in the summer months. Again, rowing this season depends on students returning to colleges.
But even if crew is not an option this fall, it’s easy to rent a kayak and take off into waterways to enjoy fall scenery.
Hiking through the countryside and woods admiring the fall scenery and connecting with the natural world is another fitness activity.
If the sun is out it can generate a lot of external heat to add to the internal heat generated by hiking. Guys can remove their shirts and soak up the remaining vitamin D-producing rays of the sun while we can. Beyond early October in the northern hemisphere the amount of direct sunlight diminishes and we will have to get our vitamin D through fish oil and vitamin supplements.
Cycling through dry autumn leaves is another way to enjoy the autumn colors. (Beware of tire traction on wet leaves.)
Or chop wood to have a supply of logs to burn in your fireplace this winter. Cutting the logs with a saw and then splitting them by swinging the ax is strenuous aerobic exercise.
Food and Feasts
All this expenditure of energy requires the fuel of food to replenish it. Fall is harvest time as crops are gathered in…
Sukkoth or the Feast of Tents commemorated the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and the wilderness sojourn to the promised land. It’s further background may have been the fall harvest when workers lived in huts in the fields. So Sukkoth is usually observed in outdoor huts constructed in backyards suggesting both journeying and harvesting. It features a procession or dance around the table and prayers of thanksgiving. Unfortunately, like Pesach (Passover) this year, far-flung families and friends may not be able to get together. But the household family can gather in their Sukkah.
The U.S. Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November is the biggest holiday in the year for family reunions, and the busiest time for travel. The second wave of COVID-19 is going to discourage especially older people from traveling or even receiving guests into their homes. It’s going to be a Zoom family reunion for many families this year on Thanksgiving Day.
Many of the delights of autumn revolve around food.
Yoga and Food
Yoga is related to the Indian system of medicine and health known as ayurveda. It is a complicated system that suggests that our bodies have three doshas or energies that are related to the cosmic elements. Vata is the energy of movement that is related to the elements of air and space. Pitta is the energy of our metabolic system that is related to the elements of fire and water. Kapha is the energy of of the body’s structure or anatomy and is related to the elements of fire and water. We all have these three energies in our bodies, but in each body one dosha is dominant. Moreover, each dosha is dominant in a season of the year. Vata is dominant in autumn doing into winter. Each season has general dietary recommendations related to the dosha, although it is balanced with the dominant dosha in each body. This is what I mean about ayurveda being a complicated system. It takes an ayurvedic practitioner to work with each person’s body.
It goes without saying that in autumn our diet is changing from the lighter fare of summer (e.g. lots of fresh raw vegetables for salads and berries) to the heavier fare of autumn going into winter (e.g. stews, soups, lentils, nuts). A yoga practice for autumn needs to be slower, but full of powerful poses and lots of twists to wring out the digestive track and help with the digestion of the autumnal change of diet.
Note: Yoga practices during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic have gone virtual. Many classes are conducted via Zoom rather than in-person in the studio with everyone wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet of social distance. But as long as the weather permits, yoga can be practiced outdoors.
With the change of seasons at the time of the autumnal equinox, we become more aware of the cosmos and its affect on us. Ancient Indian philosophy that has been embraced by yoga takes a more experiential approach to our apprehension of the cosmos than Western science. The word Samkhya literally means “to count” or “to enumerate.” It is a system that reckons with all the different things we encounter in our external and internal experiences. It differentiates between prakrti, energy that can be enumerated, and perusha, the seer or witness who experiences this energy and is conscious of it.
The basic building blocs of the Samkhya universe are the three gunas or “strands” that braid together the energies of prakrti (matter). These gunas are tamas (inertia, solidity, stability), rajas (activity, effort, motion), and sattva (balance, harmony, synthesis). These three strands have been associated with psychological states. The liability of this association is that we might think of one state as better or more beneficial to us that the others. But experience has shown that if we stay in one state too long we can become imbalanced. As yoga teacher Richard Freeman writes, “The yoga practices teach us to cultivate awareness in all of these different states of being so that we remain fluid, alert, and able to transition from one to the next skillfully” [The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Mind and Body (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2012), 82].
A Yoga Sequence: Tamas, Rajas, Sattva
In fact, skillfully constructed yoga sequences in asana practice lead us through the three gunas. We move from experiencing tamas on the ground in initial warm-up poses to experiencing rajas as we move up from our bellies to more vigorous standing poses to experiencing sattva as we return to the ground for a final synthesis and prepare for the final meditation. One way to look at this complete structure of practice is that each practice is an experience of the whole of life, from our emerging from Earth, to our striving in life, to our return to Earth from which we came.
Thus our practices often flow from initial stretches while seated on the ground to table pose with cat and cow stretches, to cobra, plank, and downward dog. This sequence often constitutes a repeated vinyasa or flow. These are tamas practices; they are warm-up and they are grounding
Then we move up to lunges and standing poses. These poses are rajas practices; they require more effort. The standing poses such as lunges, mountain pose, chair pose, warrior poses, geometrical poses (e.g. triangle), balance poses, and twisting poses, reflect the activities of life.
For sattva practices we move back down to the ground, perhaps for some form of pigeon pose, which is a strenuous hip opener.
On the ground there is usually a final spinal twist and a symmetrical pose such as bridge, happy baby, or butterfly.
Finally, savasana (corpse pose) integrates into our bodies and minds the whole practice while connecting with Earth that supports us and will finally receive us. It is said by yoga teachers that in corpse pose, as in death, there is nothing further to do. Death is often referred to as “rest.” Requiescat in pace. “Rest in peace.”
Yoga and Death
The COVID-19 pandemic causes many of us to think about our mortality because of the sheer number of deaths we are having in the USA and around the world. This is a topic we seldom think about, and many would prefer not to. We approach yoga as life-embracing because it is a good all-around fitness practice. And, most especially, it focuses on the breath, which is the very sign of life. But the standard Hatha Yoga sequence I referenced above kind of acts out our life cycle as it moves from the floor, where we begin by crawling, to standing poses as we surge upward in life, taking us through the twists and turns of life, and finally back down to the floor for the final stretches before succumbing into the stillness of savasana, the corpse pose. Practicing alone at home during this COVID-time might offer an opportunity for a more intentional practice at being a corpse and sensing what our dead body might be like, laid out for its final disposal.
Traditional Indian views of death and immortality have sometimes been included in yoga philosophy. This teaching generally runs like this: we should not fear death because it is a transition to our next life. If we fear death, it’s because we misidentify the body with our real, eternal Self. Ancient Indian philosophy regarded the soul as the real self — the immortal self. The object of yoga practice is to transcend bodily and physical life. Only Tantra saw a value in focusing on bodily experiences. Mircea Eliade wrote in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Princeton University Press, 1958) that “In tantrism, the human body acquires an importance it had never before attained in the spiritual history of India” (p. 227). This was because, as Georg Feuerstein wrote in Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy (Shambhala, 1998), Tantra’s ,etaphysics regarded this world as “a manifestation of the supreme Reality. If the world is real, the body must be real as well” (p. 53).
Unlike Indian or Greek philosophy, Biblical religion offers no view of the soul. It regards the body as God’s good creation and projects the hope of the resurrection of the body in God’s good time. Christian theology regards the self as both body and soul. But Thomas Aquinas taught that while the soul may be immortal and survive death, it needs the body to be a living essence both in this life and in the resurrection life.
Death and Mystery
Savasana is a good segue into considering that Autumn gives signs of dying all around, especially in the leaves that fall to the ground and decay. It is a great tradition of Autumn to rake up the leaves into piles on the lawn and for children to jump in the piles and lie on beds of leaves, feeling their dry warmth in the waning autumn sun.
But you really shouldn’t rake up the fall leaves. It’s better to leave them on the ground and let nature take care of decomposing them and thereby adding nutrients to the soil. Also, a lot of caterpillars hang pupa in the leaf litter and emerge as butterflies next summer. But play in them while they are freshly fallen and dry? Yes!
Halloween, which has become the most popular folk festival, is really about death. It is All Hallows’ Eve (All Saints’ Eve, October 31). A Festival of All Saints was being observed in the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, which embraced much of France and Germany. It bumped into pagan end of the agricultural year folk customs, including among the barely Christianized Celtic peoples of Western France and Spain, Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall who purportedly had a festival called Samhain.
In Celtic lore it was believed that the dead come haunting the living at the change of seasons, looking for warmth and welcome. Their reception was ambiguous. Jack-O’Lanterns warded them off, but treats also placated them. Christian bishops wanted the faithful to think of the saints who were in God’s keeping and would not hurt them. The people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. Children in costumes still go out to collect their treats. This year some creative ways need to be found to give the little tricksters their treats in a socially-distant way.
All Saints’ Day is followed by All Souls’ Day (November 2) on which all the faithful departed are remembered. A suitable way of remembering the dead would be to visit their burial place and leave flowers. The Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico by people of Mexican heritage elsewhere. The whole of November has expanded into the Month of the Dead in the Hispanic and many other cultures around the world as a way of honoring ancestors.
Witches are associated with Halloween. It’s a favorite costume among the girls.
The Celts believed that Samhain, or at least this time of the year, was when the veil between the spirit realm and the living was at its thinnest, allowing spirits and other supernatural forces to come back to the living and cause mischief or harm. For example, people could be transformed into cats or bats or other animals as a punishment for their bad deeds — black cats, of course. After the coming of Christianity, it was believed that witches had relations with the Devil. This led to the burning of witches (and sodomites) in the late Middle Ages in response to the threat of plagues.
Witches were also associated with cooking (even children — remember Hansel and Gretel!). But in reality they were women whom the peasant people looked to for wisdom and medicine using herbal remedies. They were not necessarily old hags, but people with a knowledge of the healing powers of nature. That’s why medicine men in tribal societies were called “witch doctors.”
How did witches become associated with devil worship? As women who prepared natural remedies they became associated with the horned Celtic nature god Cernnunos. By a merger of the antlered god of the Continental Celts with the Greco-Roman horned god Pan/Faunus, who also had cloven hoofs, a new deity was created, around which the remaining pagans who resisted conversion to Christianity, rallied.
This deity provided the prototype for later Christian conceptions of Satan or the devil, and his worshipers were cast by the Church as witches. Being the devil, as well as witches, has become a popular Halloween costume.
In “Frank Answers About the Green Man and Friends,” I commented on the Celtic god Cernunnos. With his antlers he was lord of the forest. But he wasn’t always associated with life and green growth. He was also the lord of death and decay since the vegetation itself will decay and return to the Earth during the winter.
The bare trees and moss of wet November give the forest a more haunting appearance. Cernunnos kept the dead in the underworld until the coming of spring, when new life could spring forth from the earth.
Another aspect of Cernunnos is that in Berkshire, England he is also identified as Herne the god of the hunt. In Margaret Murray’s 1931 book, God of the Witches, she posits that Herne is a manifestation of Cernunnos. Because Herne is found only in Berkshire, he is considered a “localized” god, and could indeed be the Berkshire version of Cernunnos.
Herne, like Cernunnos, is depicted wearing the antlers of a great stag. He is the god of the wild hunt of game in the forest, equipped with bow and arrow. Herne’s antlers connect him to the deer, which were given a position of great honor in Celtic culture. After all, killing a single stag could mean the difference between survival and starvation. So this was a powerful thing indeed.
There are several folk legends in the Berkshire area that Herne was the hunter for King Richard II and out of jealousy other nobles hanged him from a tree in the forest. During hunts the ghost of Herne haunts the forest.
These are the myths and legends of late fall that can be told around the campfire of those willing to sit outside during a spooky night in Autumn in these days before Earth goes to sleep under a cover of snow.