Each Sunday morning, Christopher Key Chapple opens his 8:30 yoga class with eight rounds of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). His students reach their arms toward the sky and then fold forward to the ground as if in prostration to the sun, expressing the same reverence for the life-giving solar energy as did the ancient yogis.
Repeating the sequence in each of the four cardinal directions, the students perform a silent yet powerful ritual of gratitude. Chapple, a professor of Indic and comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University, says the sequence not only wakes up the body but also “calls us to stretch our minds and spirits to the corners of the universe, allowing us to feel the vast expanse of the cosmos within the movement of our bodies.”
To Chapple, Surya Namaskar is nothing less than the embodiment of the Gayatri mantra, a sacred prayer to the sun. “As we sweep our arms up and bow forward, we honour the earth, the heavens and all of life in between that is nourished by the breath cycle,” he says. “As we lower our bodies, we connect with the earth. As we rise up from the earth, we stretch through the atmosphere once more, reaching for the sky. As we bring our hands together in Namaste, we gather the space of the heavens back into our heart and breath, acknowledging that our body forms the centre point between heaven and earth.”
While it’s not always taught with such auspicious intentions, the humble Sun Salutation—performed in studios across the country as an energising sequence that links the body, breath and mind—is nonetheless deeply potent.
“It revitalises every aspect of your being, from physical to spiritual,” says Shiva Rea, creator of Prana Flow Yoga. Rea prefers the Sanskrit name for the sequence, arguing that the translation of “Sun Salutation” doesn’t capture the intention and experience of the word namaskar. “‘Salutation,’” she says, “seems so formal and stiff. It has nothing to do with the heart. Namaskar means ‘to bow,’ to recognise with your whole being. Reaching up, bowing forward to the earth in prostration—the meaning is inherent in the movement. Eventually, you are going to have an ecstatic experience of the life force entering your body.”
Surya Namaskar also embodies the spirit of yoga in the West: it is intensely physical but can be infused with devotion. Understanding its history and meaning will allow you to bring the healing energy of the sun and a connection to the Divine into your own practice.
The original Surya Namaskar wasn’t a sequence of postures, but rather a sequence of sacred words. The Vedic tradition, which predates classical yoga by several thousands of years, honoured the sun as a symbol of the Divine. According to Ganesh Mohan, a Vedic and yoga scholar and teacher in Chennai, India, Vedic mantras to honour the sun were traditionally chanted at sunrise. The full practice includes 132 passages and takes more than an hour to recite. After each passage, the practitioner performs a full prostration, laying his body facedown on the ground in the direction of the sun.
The connection between the sun and the Divine continues to appear throughout the Vedic and yoga traditions. However, the origins of Surya Namaskar in modern hatha yoga are more mysterious. “There is no reference to asanas as ‘Sun Salutation’ in traditional yoga texts,” Mohan says.
The oldest known yoga text to describe the Sun Salutation sequence, the Yoga Makaranda, was written in 1934.
So where did this popular sequence come from? The oldest known yoga text to describe the Sun Salutation sequence, the Yoga Makaranda, was written in 1934 by T. Krishnamacharya, who is considered by many to be the father of modern hatha yoga. It is unclear whether Krishnamacharya learned the sequence from his teacher Ramamohan Brahmachari or from other sources, or whether he invented it himself. In The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, yoga scholar N. E. Sjoman identifies an earlier text called the Vyayama Dipika (or “Light on Exercise”) that illustrates athletic exercises for Indian wrestlers, including some that are strikingly similar to Krishnamacharya’s version of Surya Namaskar.
“Certainly, modern asana practice—and Surya Namaskar, after it was grafted on to it—is an innovation that has no precedent in the ancient Indian tradition, but it was rarely formulated as ‘mere gymnastics,’ ” says Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. “More often, it was conceived within a religious [Hindu] framework, and was seen as a spiritual expression as well as a physical one. But in modern India, for many people, it made complete sense for physical training to be conceived as a form of spiritual practice, with no contradiction implied.”
So, it appears that Krishnamacharya was influenced by both athletics and spiritual practice, and it was the emphasis he placed on the breath and on devotion that set his teaching of yoga asana apart from a purely athletic endeavour. “One is offering salutation to the Divine, represented by the sun, as a source of light removing the darkness of a clouded mind and as a source of vitality removing the diseases of the body,” says Mohan.
Krishnamacharya taught the sequence to his students, including K. Pattabhi Jois (founder of the Ashtanga Yoga system), B. K. S. Iyengar (founder of the Iyengar Yoga system) and Indra Devi (recognised as the first Western woman to teach yoga around the world). These students went on to become internationally prominent teachers and to inspire much of the practice in the West. As a result, Sun Salutations became an integral part of our modern practice.
To enjoy the full experience of Surya Namaskar, Shiva Rea recommends four things. First, let the breath lead the movement. Each inhalation and exhalation should draw you into and through the next pose, and not be forced to fit a predetermined pace. “When you go into that state of following the breath, you are following the source,” she says. “That is the heart of yoga.”
Take the time to fully contemplate the meaning of what Surya Namaskar is and to sense your authentic gratitude to the sun.
Also, take the time to fully contemplate the meaning of what Surya Namaskar is and to sense your authentic gratitude to the sun. “All of life on Earth depends on the sun,” says Rea. “Contemplating the vitality you receive from the elements allows you to go to a deeper level of participation with the movements of the sequence.” Rea also recommends adding mantra to the movements. “With mantra, you really start to feel the spiritual activation of Namaskar,” she explains. She integrates traditional mantras into the sequence, but you can use any sacred sound, including Om, on the exhalations. You can also open and close your practice with the Gayatri mantra, the Vedic mantra that honours the Divine as represented by the sun (see opposite page).
Finally, try practising outdoors, in the presence of the sun, at least occasionally. “It’s really important to experience a Namaskar outside of a studio,” Rea says. “Experience it with the rising sun, feeling the rays of the sun on your body.”
Greet The Sun
Although Sun Salutations can be practised at any time, the early morning hours are considered especially auspicious for yoga and meditation practice. “The mind is supposed to be most calm and clear at this time. Ayurveda recommends that one awake at this time every day,” says Mohan.
For most of us, early morning is one time of the day we can be alone, without demands and distractions. Surya Namaskar is the perfect morning practice to awaken the body, focus the mind and connect to a sense of gratitude for the new day. “An extra one to two hours of sleep cannot equal the energy of the sunrise,” Rea says. “Celebrating being alive is the essence of a spiritual experience.”
If getting up before sunrise seems intimidating or impossible, you can also capture the feeling of Surya Namaskar by doing a simple morning ritual whenever you wake up. Bring the attitude of the Sun Salutation to your heart and mind, face the direction of the rising sun, and offer a formal bow of gratitude. “Even in long winters, you can face the sun,” says Rea. “Visualise that you have the sun inside your heart. Part of Surya Namaskar is really being able to see the sun inside yourself.”
Light up your life
As a moving meditation, Surya Namaskar develops focus and peace of mind. Let your breath guide each movement and extend the movement over the entire length of each inhalation or exhalation. Your gaze should follow the direction of movement, linking your mental energy with your physical action. In the spirit of the Sun Salutation, bring to mind and heart a sense of gratitude for life, and let the movement remind you of your connection to something bigger.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Start by establishing equal weight on both feet and a tall, bright posture through the spine and crown of the head. Bring your palms together in front of the heart centre. Pause and imagine a sun at your heart, shining brighter with each inhalation. Sense gratitude for the life-giving energy of the sun, for the prana (life force) that flows through you and all beings.
Inhale, turn your palms out and sweep your arms up and overhead. The spine can take a gentle backbend,
lifting the heart and expanding the chest. Let this movement be a gesture of opening to life. Gaze up, keeping the forehead relaxed and the face soft.
Exhale and fold forward at the hips. Let the descent be an offering of gratitude. Keep the spine straight as long as you can, then let it softly round into a full forward bend. You can bend your knees to ease strain on your back or hips. At the end of the exhalation, draw your chin in and gaze at your legs.
Inhale and lift your chin, your chest and your gaze. Stay rooted through strong legs, reaching down through your heels. Press your hands into your shins to help lift your heart and straighten your spine. Savour this smaller movement, letting your breath fill you up.
Exhale and step or jump back to Plank Pose. On the same exhalation, shift your weight slightly forward, bend at the elbows and lower your body halfway to the ground until your upper arms are parallel to the floor and close to your side ribs. Be careful not to sink your hips or collapse your core. Let this action be an offering of the heart, a surrendering of the ego, a full-body prostration to the earth. To modify, lower your knees or whole body to the ground.
Inhale and press back through your toes to come to the tops of your feet. Simultaneously, press down through your hands and draw your shoulders back to broaden your chest, letting the inhalation expand your heart. Activate your feet and legs to float your kneecaps, thighs and hips. Lift your gaze past the tip of your nose. For a modification, practise Bhujangasana, keeping your elbows bent and your legs and pelvis rooted to the earth.
Exhale, tuck your toes under and use the strength of your belly to pull your hips up and back. Establish a straight line from your wrists through your shoulders, spine and hips. If this is difficult, you can bend your knees, take your feet wider apart or lift your heels away from the ground. Relax the back of your neck. Stay for 5 breaths, feeling the flow of breath and holding the pose with strength but not strain. If you need to rest, drop to your knees and bow into Balasana (Child’s Pose).
At the end of the fifth exhalation, jump or step your feet forward to your hands.
Inhale and lift your chin, chest, and gaze, straightening the spine.
Exhale and fold forward completely, softening the back.
Inhale, rise fully and radiantly with a straight spine, and look up.
Exhale and return to Mountain Pose. Pause and feel the heart-opening effects of this sequence.
Inspire your practice with the Gayatri mantra, a prayer to the divine light.
Om bhur bhuvah svah
tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayat.
The eternal, earth, air, heaven
That glory, that resplendence of the sun
May we contemplate the brilliance of that light
May the sun inspire our minds.
Translation by Douglas Brooks
The Gayatri mantra first appeared in the Rig Veda, an early Vedic text written between 1800 and 1500 BCE. It is mentioned in the Upanishads as an important ritual, and in the Bhagavad Gita as the poem of the Divine. According to Douglas Brooks, professor of religion at the University of Rochester and a teacher in the Rajanaka yoga tradition, the Gayatri is the most sacred phrase uttered in the Vedas. “It doesn’t get more ancient, more sacred, than this. It’s an ecstatic poetic moment.”
The mantra is a hymn to Savitur, the sun god. According to Brooks, the sun in the mantra represents both the physical sun and the Divine in all things. “The Vedic mind doesn’t separate the physical presence of the sun from its spiritual or symbolic meaning,” he says.
Chanting the mantra serves three purposes, Brooks explains. The first is to give back to the sun. “My teacher used to say the sun gives but never receives. The mantra is a gift back to the sun, an offering of gratitude to refuel the sun’s gracious offering.” The second purpose is to seek wisdom and enlightenment. The mantra is a request to the sun: may we meditate upon your form and be illumined by who you are? (Consider that the sun offers its gift of illumination and energy to all beings, without judgement and without attachment to the outcome of the gift.)
Finally, the mantra is an expression of gratitude, to both the life-giving sun and the Divine. Brooks encourages taking a heart-centred approach to the mantra. “The sensibility it evokes is more important than the literal meaning. It’s an offering, a way to open to grace, to inspire oneself to connect to the ancient vision of India,” he says. “Its effect is to inspire modern yogis to participate in the most ancient aspiration of illumination that connects modern yoga to the Vedic tradition.”
Kelly McGonigal is the author of Yoga for Pain Relief and teaches yoga and psychology at Stanford University (www.kellymcgonigal.com).