Lighting the Inner Bealtaine Fire
May, the month of Bealtaine, surely the loveliest of the year, with all its promise and budding beauty. Bealtaine, an ancient Celtic fertility festival, traditionally celebrated in Ireland from the most ancient times, and held on the first of May, half-way between the Spring equinox and the Summer Solstice. This is known as a 'sandhya', a liminal, in-between time, auspicious for Yoga practice. By Michael McCann
'As I roved out one bright May morning' ….
Bealtaine, marking the beginning of Summer, a time from yore when cattle were driven out to enjoy the Summer pastures; a time of ritual to bring fertility and protection for the people, the animals and crops. Bonfires traditionally lit in every district and, from Druid times, the leading of cattle between two bonfires to protect them from disease, all to the chant of mantras many now forgotten, or perhaps not. Some would walk around the bonfires, and those seized by the exuberance of Spring, would leap over them.
The great bonfire lit on the Westmeath Hill of Uisneach, 'the omphalos' and sacred navel of Ireland, the signal for lighting all the bonfires in Ireland. What a sight it must have been! House-hold fires doused from the day before now lit from the Bealtaine bonfire. Doors, windows, cattle, byres, all adorned with yellow May flowers- primrose, rowan, yellow gorse and marsh marigolds; and May bushes: thorn bushes garlanded with flowers, ribbons and shells; and visitations to holy wells, and song and dance.
Rituals to appease the fairie folk (sidhe) and to ward off malign and mischievous spirits; but also, to celebrate the great Mother Goddess under various names of Danu, Brigit or Eriu, and her consort Lugh or Bile, in their abode on the legendary Hill of Uisneach. Also known as the Hill of Ushnagh, a name which strikingly resembles the Sanskrit word 'Usha' for the Vedic Goddess of Dawn.
Danu, worshipped alike by the Vedic people of India and the Celtic people, from whom the ancient Irish people took their name the 'Tuatha de Danann'. The Roman historians recorded the similarities between the Vedic Brahmins and the Celtic Druids, from their ritual morning bathing in rivers, to the topknots in which they wore their hair.
The Irish yogi, AE Russell, wrote: 'Our Gaelic ancestors beheld the same over-world as revealed in the Upanishads; of Danu, the Hibernian Mother of gods, I have already said she is the first spiritual form of matter, and therefore beauty'.
The month of May is reputedly named after a Roman Goddess 'Maia', a fertility Goddess. However, the word has a more ancient source: 'Maya' the feminine creative energy that weaves the fabric of all that exists; the Shakti or Prakriti, that veils, and yet reveals, the underlying unity of creation.
One of the meanings of the word 'Danu', a water and river Goddess, is 'the flowing one'. This surely refers to the flow of prana-shakti, the waves of blissful creative energy, and ultimately, in yogic terms, the Kundalini.
The Cosmic Mother energy of Kundlaini coiled in the sacred well of the mooladhara chakra rises up the central channel in the spine between the two energy channels of Ida and Pingala. The image of a cow being led between two fires springs to mind; the cow, sacred in India and Celtic culture as symbol of Mother (Amma).
And other resonances: with Saraswati, another river Goddess: 'She who curls or winds', the 'curling' being, of course, the winding flows of shakti. Saraswati is also the Goddess of wisdom, learning, poetry and song; and therefore, Danu or Brigit are muses of the Celtic arts, inhabiting the Liffey as the river Goddess named so eloquently by James Joyce as 'Anna Livia Plurabelle'.
The annual Bealtaine bonfire on the Hill of Uisneach so reminiscent of the great annual fire on the sacred Hill of Arunachala, dwelling place of Ramana Maharshi. Arunachala is the abode of Shiva and the fire represents the spiritual light. Pilgrims climb the hill and bring little lamps (deepas) of its fire back to their homes. The Celtic God 'Lugh' with his associations with 'light' has clear connections with Shiva.
Uisneach, the 'omphalos' of Ireland, where once stood a massive sacred nabhi stone. In India such a stone is sacred and known as a lingham. Shiva linghams are a common feature of Shiva worship in India and symbolise the awakened third eye or Agya Chakra.
The word 'omphalos' is also replete with esoteric meaning: we have the syllable OM associated with the Druid runic script 'Ogham'; and 'phalos' or phallus, which brings us back to the upright standing stone. Omphalos is also 'umbilicus' and here we have again the connection with the Mother Goddess.
Meath, not only navel but also navel chakra of Ireland; sacred geography tells us that countries are living spiritual beings with their own chakra points and flows of energy. The navel (Manipura Chakra) is a powerful energy reservoir in the human body, its element is fire and its colour vibration yellow. Hence the importance of ritual fire in Bealtaine ritual and the profusive adornment of yellow flowers.
Meath, 'midhe', middle is also symbolic centre of Ireland. As such, we may also associate it with the heart chakra and with Danu, Devi as Mother Ireland.
In what way may we celebrate Bealtaine in our Yoga practice? There is much scope to be creative, but here are some suggestions.
In solstice, equinox and cross-quarter dates such as Bealtaine, we should attune to the solar rhythms. It is therefore auspicious to incorporate the Vedic solar practices of Surya Namsakara and Gayatri Mantra. These are prayers to the sun as both source of light and energy. The yogis realised that the solar body was a symbol of sun of the Divine Light (Shiva) and the Mother Energy (Shakti); in Celtic terms, Lugh and Danu. We may wish to chant the beautiful solar mantras which we wrote about in a recent edition of this magazine.
Perhaps you may wish to adorn your yoga room with yellow flowers or an image of a Devi or female saint such as Sri Ananda Maya Ma (the bliss-filled mother). You may also wish to chant along to a Devi prayer such as 'The 108 Names of Devi', or Devi Strotram. As Bealtaine has strong navel associations you may wish to incorporate Yoga practices to awaken the manipura chakra. These could include Agnisar Kriya (kindling the gastric fire); Uddiyana Bandha (the abdominal lock); Bhastrika (the fire-bellows breath); and Surya Bheda Pranayama (breathing through the solar nostril).
Another entirely appropriate practice is Prana Mudra. This ancient mudra awakens the five pranas and the chakras in the manner of an 'Inner Bealtaine':
• Sit in a comfortable meditative position with hands on top of one another, palms facing upwards
• Rest your awareness on the root chakra and feel a build- up of energy; if you wish, you can perform moola bandha
• Inhale, visualising a stream of prana rising in the chakras as you raise the hands until palms face the navel
• Hands are open, fingers pointing towards each other- but not touching
• Inhalation and visualisation continues until palms face the heart centre
• Likewise, until the palms pass in front of the throat and eyebrow centre
• Take arms outward, away from the body, until arms are wide apart and slightly bent- with palms turned upwards towards the heavens, level with the ears; the muscles are relaxed and lungs full
• Visualise a stream of energy surging up from the crown chakra and cascading around the body forming a cocoon of vibrating prana. Radiate peaceful vibrations to the world, cosmos and all beings
• Remain motionless with inhaled breath held without strain
• Then exhale in reverse manner
After this, you may wish to sit for a Bealtaine Meditation; relying on your own creativity, as I have done, in the following improvisation on a Yoga candle-gazing meditation (Trataka).
• Sit comfortably, in front of a lit candle arm’s length away, with the flame at eye- level
• Open your eyes and gaze at the top of the wick, in the middle of the flame
• This is your Bealtaine Fire
• Your eyes are wide open, but relaxed, and not straining; relax the eye muscles
• Keep the eyes open as long as is comfortable without blinking
• If you feel discomfort, blink the eyes, and then continue with the practice
• Maintain your gaze on the wick of the candle
• If the mind wanders, gently steer it back to the flame
• Don’t strain, but try as best you can to maintain the gaze without blinking for at least half a minute
• With practice you will be able to do so for up to 3 minutes
• Then, close the eyes and visualise the after-image of the candle flame in front of the closed eyes
• You can then open your eyes and repeat the process
• Gaze at the candle flame for up to 3 minutes
• And now close the eyes
• Visualise the candle flame now established at the crown or top of the head
• It is as if your body is the Hill of Uisneach and the flame is the Bealtaine Fire
• Now visualise that you are taking a deepa from the fire and creating a little flame at the eye-brow centre, as you silently intone OM
• Continue in this manner, successively creating flames at the throat centre, the heart centre, the navel, the pelvic centre and finally at the root chakra
• Pausing to rest your attention and meditate in turn on each inner light (jyoti) as you intone OM or the seed mantras for the chakras
• Finally, visualising your entire spine as a Hill of Uisneach illumined by seven Bealtaine fires
• Which then merge, once more, into a single flame either at the crown of the head or at the heart centre. Hari Ogham Tat Sat!