The Importance of Ritual


Last month I had the pleasure of visiting my good friend and fellow yoga teacher Chrisandra Fox and her husband, Rob, and their winsome pug, Sigmund, in San Francisco. When I left their humble abode, I felt deeply satisfied.

What was it about this experience that made me feel so loved and fulfilled?

Well, firstly, they are exceptional people, no doubt. But there was something else; something super important that we had tapped into, that had been really missing in my life. It was ritual.

Every night, Chrisandra and I would meet in the kitchen to prepare dinner. We would laugh and dance and chop garlic and greens and simmer the days’ problems away. Then, Rob would come in and help us set the table (with a real tablecloth, place mats, and napkins!), and we all would sit down and say grace. With our hands held and the candles lit, we brought our hearts and presence to the space, and honored this time to be together. It felt sacred. In a very deep way, I felt like I had come home, and that I was with family.

A few weeks later and back in Virginia, my own family had received a handwritten (hello, lost rituals?) letter from my stepfather’s 80-year-old mother. It included an article she had clipped out of her daily newspaper (yet another lost art?). It was an opinion column from an older gentleman pleading for the younger generations to not forget the ritual of dinnertime. My step-grandmother had lovingly nudged our own family to do the same by mailing that letter. We all guiltily turned off our cell phones, sat down for dinner, and looked each other in the eye for the first time all day.

All spiritual traditions involve some form of inner and/or outer ritual. Why? Because a ritual returns you to what matters. The very act of beginning a ritual puts us in a state of mind where we can break with the routine patterns of the mundane and remember the sacred.

What makes a ritual sacred?

A ritual is any action we take that has meaning beyond its appearance. Dinner can simply be the fulfillment of a biological need for nutrition, or it can be a way for a family to feel united.

What makes a ritual sacred, however, is the intention behind it. The word “sacred” comes from the Latin word sacrum, which relates to power or strength. So, a sacred ritual is an exchange or action that you imbue with meaning, thus giving it power. And you don’t need a priest, an incense stick, or a user’s manual (although they certainly may help!). Daily life is ripe with opportunities for ritual and ways to turn the mundane into the sacred.

Here are a few easy ways to create ritual in your life:

Make mealtime special Dinner, or any meal, can be made into a sacred ritual by unplugging the phone, turning off the computer, and laying down a place mat. Light candles or a say a prayer of gratitude for the food before you. It helps to have a general time when the meal starts each day, as this conditions the mind (and the digestive system) to tune into being present.

Ritualize your yoga practice Having a special spot where you do yoga and meditation helps create a ritualistic element to your daily practice. Before you begin, energetically clear the space by burning sage, lighting a candle, or saying a prayer. It could even be as simple an act as putting the dog outside so you can practice uninterrupted.

Try a bedtime practice The ancient yogis used the energy of going to sleep as a way of preparing for death itself. While we don’t need to go that far to make a ritual of preparing for bed, you can move more deeply into rest by creating a ritual that makes you feel safe and sweet. (If you have small children, you probably already do this with songs, bedtimes stories, or prayers.) Try this for yourself: Rub sesame oil on your feet and cover them with socks. Lay down, close your eyes, and mentally travel backward through your day in intervals of 30 minutes until you reach the moment you woke up, trying to stay aware of any undigested thoughts and feelings. Simply let the thoughts and feelings arise with a sense of observation and non-attachment. Then let them each go into the flame of your loving, present attention.  This helps you move into sleep with a “digested” mind.

Let the mundane be sacred Even something as seemingly tedious as feeding the cat can be an important ritual. Use this moment to feel your connection and responsibility to these little creatures, and your gratitude for their company in your life.

Anoint your body  Celebrate your body by creating a bath ritual of anointing it with nourishing oils and meaningful symbols. Massage your body with warmed organic oil (grapeseed, jojoba, or almond work nicely) spiced with a few drops of your favorite essential oil. Sink into a hot tubful of water, close your eyes, and soak. Mentally scan your body, part by part.  Imagine placing a tiny ritual offering at the doorway of each of your body parts. For example, see a golden flame in your brain. Imagine a white rose petal at each eye. Taste a drop of honey on the tongue. Smell the smoke of sandalwood at your throat. Use your imagination and intuition. Keep going until you have filled your entire body with ritual offerings. Consider yourself anointed.

This article was originally published in the Yoga Journal Blog on March 16, 2012.

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