Surya Namaskar, the Sun Salutation, is a series of 12 postures performed in a single, graceful flow. Each movement is coordinated with the breath. Inhale as you extend or stretch, and exhale as you fold or contract. The Sun Salutation builds strength and increases flexibility. Different styles of yoga perform the Sun Saluation with their own variations. However, the flow presented below covers core steps used in most styles.
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, honored 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 honor 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 face-down on the ground in the direction of the sun in an expression of devotion.
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.
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 endeavor. According to Mohan, co-author (with his father, A.G. Mohan) of the forthcoming From Here Flows the River: The Life and Teachings of Krishnamacharya, it was the attitude of Surya Namaskar that Krishnamacharya cared about. Whether he was teaching the Vedic mantras or the sequence of postures, the intention was the same. “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 (recognized 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.
Breath + Mantra Drive Surya Namaskar
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.” 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 yoga practice with the Gayatri mantra, the Vedic mantra that honors the Divine as represented by the sun. Finally, try practicing 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.”
Practice Sun Salutations in the Morning
Although Sun Salutations can be practiced at any time of the day, the early-morning hours are considered especially auspicious for yoga and meditation practice. The hour just before sunrise is called Brahma muhurta (“time of God”). “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. Rising a bit early can allow you to experience inner stillness and offer your energy to a greater intention for your day. 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 to practice yoga before sunrise seems intimidating or impossible, you can 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. “Visualize that you have the sun inside your heart. Part of Surya Namaskar is really being able to see the sun inside yourself.”
Benefits of Sun Salutation
Without the Sun, there will be no life on Earth. Surya Namaskar or Sun Salutation is a very ancient technique of paying respect or expressing gratitude to the Sun that is the source of all forms of life on the planet. Now just knowing how to do Surya Namaskar is not enough. It is also important to understand the science behind this very ancient technique, because a deeper understanding will bring forth the right outlook and approach towards this very sacred and powerful yogic technique.
Surya Namaskar is a set of 12 postures, preferably to be done at the time of sunrise. The regular practice of Surya Namaskar improves circulation of blood throughout the body, maintains health, and helps one remain disease-free. There are numerous benefits of Surya Namaskar for the heart, liver, intestine, stomach, chest, throat, legs. From head to toe, every part of the body is greatly benefitted by Surya Namaskar, which is why it is highly recommended by all yoga experts.
Postures act as a good link between warm-ups and asanas and can be done any time on an empty stomach. However, morning is considered to be the best time for Surya Namaskar as it revitalizes the body and refreshes the mind, making us ready to take on all tasks of the day. If done in the afternoon, it energizes the body instantly and if done at dusk, it helps you unwind. When done at a fast pace, Surya Namaskar is an excellent cardiovascular workout and a good way to lose weight.
How to Do Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar)
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 center. 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. Savor this smaller movement, letting your breath fill you up.
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.
Exhale and step or jump back to Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana). 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, practice 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 Child’s Pose (Balasana).
Feet to Hands (Transition)
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.
Surya Namaskar Practice
Sun salutations also may include lunges, chair pose and the warrior poses, all of which both stabilize and stretch your body. As you practice on your own, expand your sense of playfulness by incorporating your own variations. An excellent way to jump-start your day is with a 15-minute morning practice: 10 minutes of sun salutations followed by five minutes resting in corpse pose.