The dark night

New Year’s Day doesn't have an exclusive on goal-setting. Why today’s winter solstice could be an even better time for reflection and renewal.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, today's alarm clock signaled a mixed blessing: the longest stretch of darkness we'll experience all year coupled with a transition to gradually lighter days. As philosophers and sages have advised through the ages, the winter solstice is also a prime opportunity to prep for 2012 — even better than New Year's Day.

Across the world, millions will celebrate today as the most philosophical and spiritual time of the year, from the Swedish Festival of Lights to the White Ball in Santa Barbara to a masquerade in Tasmania. Despite the diversity in the festivities and populations, each celebration represents a common theme: a community gathered, dedicated to honoring collectively what has passed and together looking forward to what is to come.

"January 1 is actually a made-up date for the new year, which has changed many times over the centuries," says Barbara Bizou, author of the bestselling Joy of Ritual."Many cultures instead celebrate a lunar new year."

For Bizou, who specializes in creating rituals for life passages, the switch from darkness to gradually lighter days is a natural time to take stock of the year behind you as well as articulate hopes for the one ahead — something that’s far more productive than pretending each calendar year is a completely clean slate.

Management consultant and productivity guru David Allen shares this view. Not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, he advises clients not to worry about the future but rather to "clean up" the past. He suggests taking more time to address nagging "stuff" (both literally and figuratively, from the junk drawer to promises not yet kept). His reasoning: Unfinished business acts as a psychic drag and weighs us down, thus making us less likely to successfully commit to anything new, either now or in the new year.

So how do you embark on solstice resolutions, when you’ve also got presents to shop for and cocktail parties to attend? The key is simply stopping for reflection, says Laure Gerber, president of Handel Group Life Coaching. "Take a pause from the pace of the holiday season and use it as an opportunity to bring a sense of deliberate design to your life," she says.

Here, a four-step process for making solstice-style resolutions:

1. Reflect
Make a date with yourself dedicated to looking back at 2011. Turn off the TV, shut down your computer, pour a glass of wine or mug of tea and sit by candlelight or in any environment that inspires you to slow down and listen to your inner voice. Make it fun, not a chore: tradition dictates that we enjoy ourselves as much as possible during the winter solstice in order to bring light back into the world.

2. Revel
First, look back at the successes of last year. Make a list of your accomplishments — what went well, what made you happy and what moments you want more of in life. Write them down and take stock. The idea is to let the energy of your high points set the tone for what’s to come. Next, think about what didn’t happen, and whether or not it matters to you. Chances are that if you abandoned last year’s resolutions, there may be dissonance between your goals and what’s really important to you. With your list of successes in mind, pick three things — adventures, experiences, senses of accomplishment — that you want to have as memories next time you look back.

3. Resolve
Once you've taken the time to do a reality check and clarify what you (not someone else's version of you) truly value, focus on what you need to let go of in order to make your three desires happen. The energy of the solstice is supporting you to leave negative habits behind, so think about what you can say "no" to in order to make room for the "hell, yeah" moments. For example: If you want a healthy and fit body for once and for all, what can you resolve to let go of in your diet and in your daily routine (i.e., working through lunch instead of working out)?

4. Re-commit
The solstice is also a time to bring reflection into your workout. Take time to pause and breathe before you begin a class or session and set forth an intention. Be willing to let go and do the work to go to the next level. Despite our yearning to become more still and sluggish in the winter, it is actually a perfect time to hold the pose a little longer, try the next progression, add a weight training session after a run or take extra time to stretch.

The success or happiness in the next season of your life depends on your ability to reflect, revel and resolve to let go in order to invite in more light — and the life you desire.

Lashaun Dale is the creative manager of group fitness and the creator of Equinox's exclusive Conscious Movement classes. She is certified by NSCA, CHEK, and other organizations specializing in yoga, core strength and flexibility training.