As we discussed in our post about the Summer Solstice, the sun and its light are symbols of consciousness in many cultures. The Navajo construct their hogans with the door facing east so they can greet the sun each morning upon awakening. One of the most important festivals of the year for the ancient Inca was an eight-day feast that included ritual chanting every day to the rising sun. And for thousands of years, the Hindu have revered the sun, which they call Surya, as both the physical and spiritual heart of the world and the creator of all life. One of the best means of honoring the sun is through the dynamic asana (postures) sequence called Surya Namaskar (better known in English as the Sun Salutation).
Origins of the Sun Salutation
The Sanskrit word namaskar stems from namas, which means “to bow to”or “to adore.” The familiar phrase, namaste, (“te” means “you”), often used at the end of yoga classes, also comes from this root. The Sun Salutation usually begins with the joined hands gesture or mudra touches to the heart. This is because only the heart can know the truth. Ancient yogis taught that each individual replicates the world at large, embodying our own rivers, seas, mountains, fields, stars and planets, and the sun and moon. The outer sun is a reflection of the inner sun, which corresponds to our hearts.
There is some disagreement about the origins of the Sun Salutation. Some contend it is at least 2,500 years old and originated as a ritual prostration to the dawn. Others maintain it was invented by the raja of Aundh in the early 1900s. In any case, it has evolved over the years and there are many variations. Most consist of about 12 “stations,” composed of eight different postures. The last four are the same as the first four, but performed in reverse order. The asanas or postures are ordered so that they alternately stretch the spine backwards and forwards, and each is moved into with alternate inhalation and exhalation, except for the sixth, when the breath is held.
Benefits and How to Perform a Sun Salutation
Traditionally, the Sun Salutation is performed outdoors, facing east in the direction of the rising sun. If possible, perform it at sunrise, which the orthodox consider the most spiritually favorable time of the day. Sun Salutations are generally performed on a mat, not the floor, and only on an empty stomach—so first thing upon arising is ideal. Sun Salutations can be used as the beginning of your practice or as a full practice in and of itself. The Sun Salutation is a spiritual, as well as physical exercise, so it is essential to practice it in a spirit of devotion, making each movement as mindful and precise as possible. As with all aspects of yoga practice, success depends on commitment and regularity. Launch your practice slowly, with as little as one round and work your way up to as many as you feel comfortable with. Maybe true yoga fanatics will consider this heresy, but I’ve found that even as little as one round is a wonderful energizer to start the day.
Performed regularly, this series of twelve poses will help with your flexibility and will strengthen your spinal column and many of the main muscles in your body. With all of the yoga benefits rolled up into one smooth flowing routine, and the ease of practicing it wherever you may be, the Yoga Sun Salutation is an excellent, all-encompassing routine for people on the go.
Step-by-Step Sun Salutation
As mentioned before, there are numerous variations—and you will see some in the examples I’ve provided below. Here are the steps for the way I was taught to do it—it’s no better or worse than some of the others—just what I know and have become comfortable with…
1. Mountain Pose
Stand with feet together or 2-3 inches apart and palms pressed lightly together at your heart. Head lifted up and chin parallel to the floor. Exhale.
2. Upward Salute
Inhale and reach up. Lift out of the waist and reach toward the sky, metaphorically kissing the sun, representing our source of sustenance as well as the light that burns within.
3. Forward Fold
Exhale and bend forward, pressing the forehead in toward the legs and the palms flat on the floor (bending your knees if necessary). Bowing to the earth. This stretches the hamstrings, calf muscles, and lower back.
4. High Lunge
Inhale and step the right foot back into a High Lunge. The left knee should be directly over the ankle, chest presses forward, head is lifted, and the back leg is straight.
5. Plank Pose
Exhale and step the left foot back into Plank Pose. The body is in one straight line in a push-up position.
Bend the knees and elbows, lowering the chin, chest and knees to the floor. Suspend breathing.
7. Upward Facing Dog
Inhale and scoop the chest forward. Straightening the arms and rolling onto the tops of the feet. Lift the head up and press the chest forward. Lift the hips and legs off the floor.
8. Downward Facing Dog
Exhale and bend the elbows, lifting the hips and back up. Press the heels to the floor. Press firmly into the hands and arms and let the head hang down
9. High Lunge
Inhale and repeat the posture from step #4, but this time with the right knee forward and the left leg to the back.
10. Forward Fold
Exhale and repeat the posture from step # 3
11. Upward Salute
Inhale and repeat the posture from step #2
12. Mountain Pose
Exhale and return to your starting posture (#1).
I realize some additional visuals may be helpful, so here they are… Bear in mind that you will see some of the variations we talked about in these:
- An animated version from abc-of-yoga.com
- A printable version from livingwordsofwisdom.com
- And, last but not least, this beautiful video from YouTube:
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