As inhabitants of high-octane, competitive cultures, Western yogis often gravitate toward practices of fiery, strength-building intensity. In fact, the most ubiquitous sequence in the West is surely the ultimate heat builder, the Sun Salutation. The sequence’s Sanskrit name, Surya Namaskar, is literally translated as “bow to the sun”. And as you lift your arms and then bow down, as you lengthen forward and jump back, you begin to embody solar energy. You stretch, strengthen and warm your whole being from the inside out.
But on days when you’re feeling depleted, overstimulated or overheated, it’s good to know that Surya Namaskar has a soothing sister sequence known as Chandra Namaskar, or Moon Salutation. As the name suggests, Chandra Namaskar is a quieting sequence that invites you to bow to and cultivate the moon’s soothing lunar energy.
“This kind of practice is beneficial for men and women who are under any stress,” says Shiva Rea, the creator of Prana Flow Yoga, who offers the sequence on these pages. “It’s a great way to balance your energy before you get to the point of exhaustion.” Chandra Namaskar is a quieting practice, and the Bihar School of Yoga, where Rea first learned it, teaches the sequence with a meditation at both beginning and end (see page 76) and offers the option of chanting a different mantra related to lunar energy for each pose.
Perhaps Chandra Namaskar isn’t as well known as Surya Namaskar because it hasn’t been around as long. In all likelihood, it’s an invention of the late 20th century. The Bihar School, which is a yoga school in India founded in the 1960s, first published the sequence in Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha in 1969.
But the idea of looking to the moon for rejuvenation is certainly not new. In fact, the Shiva Samhita, a 500-year-old Tantric text, regarded the moon as the source of immortality. In The Alchemical Body, David Gordon White, a professor of religious studies, describes how practitioners of Tantra (a form of yoga that preceded hatha yoga) believed that the “sun” was located in the solar plexus; the “moon”, in the crown of the head. The moon was thought to contain amrita, “the stuff of the macrocosmic moon, the divine nectar of immortality,” which “pours itself into the world in the form of vivifying rain.” While the fiery sun in the abdomen was important for triggering the yogic process, its heat would, over time, cause ageing, decay and death. To reverse this process, yogis did specific practices, such as inversions or mudras (locks, or seals), to both preserve and produce amrita. The act of turning upside down was believed to draw vital fluids from the lower chakras up to the crown, where they would be transformed into amrita (also known as soma).
If you apply this esoteric anatomy to modern hatha yoga practice, you could say that Surya Namaskar triggers the yogic process by heating our bodies and giving us the internal fire and passion to dive deeply into yogic study. And Chandra Namaskar gives us a method for cooling the body, which can help to replenish our vital energy. “The understanding is that we can create soma inside ourselves. It’s cultivated through meditation and through lunar sadhana [practice],” Rea says.
Yogic texts have long acknowledged that the body has both heating and cooling energies and that yoga and pranayama (breathwork) can help bring them into a balanced harmony. Doing so is part of preparing the body for self-realisation. Rea says that, after many years of an intense “solar” practice, a regular practice of Chandra Namaskar has changed her. “On a personal level, Chandra Namaskar has really helped me become a more full-spectrum yogini,” she says. “We all feel this ebb and flow in our energy, and now I totally value both sides. Instead of feeling like having low energy is a bummer, I now see it as having more meditative energy.”
Get in the groove
In Rea’s version of Chandra Namaskar, the poses aren’t all that different from those of Surya Namaskar. But the intention, the pace and the quality of movement are completely different. To support your intention of cultivating lunar energy, Rea suggests taking time to consciously set the mood for your practice. If you can, position yourself so that you can see the moon or—when the weather allows—practise outdoors in the evening. If you are indoors, keep the lights low, light a few candles and create a womb-like atmosphere for yourself. Soothing music can help set the tone, too.
Begin your practice with a short meditation, like the one below, to cultivate your connection with the moon. Draw your attention inward, inviting a sense of receptivity into your practice. To enhance your inward focus, you can repeat a traditional lunar chant, Om somaya namaha, as you move from pose to pose.
Pay special attention to the quality of each movement. Instead of moving quickly, jumping into and out of poses as you would in Sun Salutations, move slowly, as though you were moving through water. You can also add some spontaneous movement within the forms of the poses. For example, instead of pressing immediately into Cobra Pose, which is a heat-building backbend, try circling your shoulders back and swaying side to side until you arrive at your own natural version of Cobra. Rea calls this sahaja, which she describes as “the spontaneous movement that comes when we’re receptive to our innate inner wisdom.”
When you can, practise Chandra Namaskar in the evening. Surya Namaskar is traditionally practised at sunrise as a way to pay homage to the sun and to warm up the body for the coming day. It makes sense, then, to practise Chandra Namaskar in the evening when the moon is out. Not only is it a great way to prepare yourself for sleep, as yoga teacher Richard Rosen points out, sunrise and sunset have always been considered powerful times for practising hatha yoga. “During these times, there’s a balance between light and dark. It’s not day. It’s not night. You’re at a junction between the two,” he says. “This reflects internally in your body: your hot and cold energies are also in balance. It’s a natural time to do the practice.”
In addition to the time of day, you might also consider the time of the month you practise. Rea suggests choosing a few days during the new moon, the full moon and the waning moon (the 14 days after a full moon), since our energy is lower during those times. For women with a menstrual cycle, Chandra Namaskar can be a balm for low-energy days.
Most important, move slowly. This means that you don’t have to sync each movement to an inhalation or an exhalation the way you do with Sun Salutations. Savour the practice, just as you would a carefully prepared meal, and allow it to bring you into a more present state. “You’re not participating in the whole ‘quick fix’ when you do this practice,” Rea says. “Moving slowly and flowing through asanas without a postural goal has an unbelievable ripple effect in terms of one’s own rejuvenation and one’s ability to really be, even if you have only 20 minutes. It’s not about how much you do; it’s about the quality of being.”
This meditation, adapted from the Bihar School of Yoga, can be done before or after you take the final resting pose, Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position. Slowly become aware of the space between your eyebrows. Within this space, visualise a full moon in a clear night sky, shining brightly on the waves of the ocean. The full reflection of the moon penetrates the deep waters, and the cool shade of moonlight catches the tops of the waves as they dance.
See the image clearly and develop an awareness of the feelings and sensations that are created in your mind and body. Slowly let the visualisation fade and again become aware of the whole body.