From an early age we understand that the sun is the life source of all things. A sun salutation, or Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit, is our opportunity to say thanks to this heavenly ball of fire for all it does for our planet every day. It is the chance to show our gratitude. The Sanskrit word Namaskar stems from namas, which means “to bow to” or “to adore.” Surya translates as “sun.” The word namaskar breaks down like this: Na: “not” Ma: “mine” Kara: “to do” It’s a word that means, “Not of my own doing, but of the Divine.”
Traditionally, Sun Salutations are best performed outside, facing east, the location of the rising sun, a symbol of the dawn of consciousness. This might be a perfect morning routine in India, where it’s usually warm outside, but it’s probably not feasible most of the year in many places. In most modern Yoga practices, Sun Salutations are used as a preliminary warm-up for an asana practice.
Each Sun Salutation begins and ends with the joined-hands of Anjali (to offer or to salute) mudra (to seal) touched to the heart. This placement is no accident; only the heart can know our inner most truth.
Sun salutations are not just about the spiritual, they also many physical benefits. This series of yoga postures have an impact on the heart, liver, intestine, stomach, chest, throat and legs; it was designed as a whole body workout. A sun salutation will also improve blood circulation to all the major organs throughout the body; ensure proper functioning of the stomach, bowels and nerve center.
You will also of course find that muscles are strengthened in a sun salutation, particularly in the arms and waist, as many of you will know from doing all those challenging Chaturangas
It is helpful to pay attention to the breath and notice how your breath is originating the movement. This conscious breathing, or pranayama, is the bridge between the mind and the body. It quiets mind chatter and brings the Yogi into a more relaxed state. You then begin to feel more and think less. The body reflects this back to the Yogi with a devotional energy and then this energy becomes the offering to the sun.
I always like a good story and if you have practiced with me you know that I like to weave some of the mythology of Yoga Asana into my class. The story of Hanuman, the great monkey hero and his relationship to Surya, is one of my favorites.
When Hanuman was a baby he noticed the sun in the sky and mistook it for a delicious mango. Pushing off from the earth with his strong legs and stretching up with his long arms, he seized the sun and quickly stuffed it into his mouth and began to chew. The universe immediately went dark, which got the attention of the gods. The sun burnt Hanuman’s mouth, but he would not spit the sun out (the folly of youth), until Indra the god of war hurled his diamond thunderbolt (vajra) straight at Hanuman’s jaw.
That worked. Hanuman opened his mouth and dropped the sun, and the universe’s light returned. Hanuman was left with broken jaw (hanu), giving him his nickname. Indra took away Hanuman’s powers, but, he was sorry about hurting Hanuman, so he gave him a whole bunch of new and different powers.
As Hanuman grew older he needed an education. “Why not ask Surya?” his mother suggested. “He drives his chariot all over the world every day and sees everything. He knows all the scriptures and he can fly even higher and farther than you. Surely he has forgotten all about that little mistake when you were a baby.”
So Hanuman humbly asked Surya to be his teacher. At first Surya refused. He had forgiven Hanuman for trying to eat him, but he thought that the monkey had no discipline. “I have a strict schedule and no time for fooling around. I must keep moving. I can’t stop to teach you and how will you be able to learn when I am in constant motion?”
“What if I can keep up with you?” asked Hanuman. “Will you let me study with you?”
“If you can keep up with me, I will teach you” replied Surya.
Hanuman flew up and positioned himself with his face to Surya’s, and Surya who was growing to like his student, started speeding across the sky, lecturing on scripture as he went. This arrangement meant that Hanuman was always traveling backward, with his face to his teacher. But isn’t this just good manners, you shouldn’t turn your back on your teacher or someone that is talking to you.
It is said that Hanuman’s backward moving path was the origin of surya namaskar (sun salutes) and if you think about it, you understand as you perform the movements of surya namaskar, you do wind up at the back of your mat and then have to return to the front in order to continue the series, just like the rising and setting sun in the sky.
Hanuman was a good student and he mastered all the Vedas in short order. When Hanuman offered Surya payment, Surya declined “Watching a devoted student learn was its own reward,” he said.
Hanuman replied, “I can only offer you my gratitude and namaskars (respectful greetings).”
The surya namaskar series was born as Hanuman’s guru dakshina (the tradition of repaying one’s teacher or guru after a period of study) to Surya.
Since the sequence of Sun Salutation is, a humble celebration of the light and insight of the self, it’s essential to practice Sun Salutation in a spirit of devotion and with your awareness turned inward toward to your heart. Make each movement as mindful and precise as possible, especially as you near the end of your rounds, when you become tired. Success with Sun Salutations, as with all aspects of a yoga practice, depends on commitment and regularity. An everyday practice would be best, but you might at first aim for three times a week.
The Asana (please note this sequence is the traditional form of Sun Salutation)
My model for these postures is Kru Apple , our in house Sivanada teacher
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Stand with your feet together, base of big toes touching, heels slightly apart, or with your feet hip distance apart.
Feel your feet and connect with the ground.
Lift knee caps, without overextending the legs.
Lift quadriceps (thigh muscles), lift top of femur (thighbone) up and back. Inner thighs slightly turn in.
Soften flesh of buttocks down away from lumbar, (dropping the tailbone) so pelvis is in a neutral position.
Draw your abdomen slightly in and up to open your chest, top of sternum lifts towards the ceiling. Keep ribs soft.
Broaden collarbones, widening between the shoulder blades, base of the shoulder blades are lifting up and in.
Ears over the shoulders, crown of the head lifting up.
Soften the face.
Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
Standing in Tadasana, inhale and stretch your arms out to the sides and over your head, fingers reaching up toward the sky.
Stretch the arms away from the body while slightly relaxing the shoulders down and away from the ears. The legs remain firmly rooted into the floor. Reach through your fingertips, while breathing smoothly and deeply, taking your breath into the entire length of the body.
Pay attention the chest, shoulder blades, the feeling of the upper body moving away from the waist. Take your awareness to the feeling and energy traveling through the arms all the way down through your legs into the feet.
Eyes are looking straight ahead or looking upward at about 45°, keeping the sides of the neck extended, yet comfortable.
Be playful with this pose. Your body may want to get onto the tippy toes and move the legs around, while stretching each arm individually into the air creating a rhythm of movement. You may want to wiggle the fingers and move the hands around the wrist for a variation.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Begin in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), with your hands on your hips.
Exhale as you bend forward at the hips, lengthening the front of your torso.
Bend your elbows and hold on to each elbow with the opposite hand. Let the crown of your head hang down. Press your heels into the floor as you lift your sit bones toward the ceiling. Turn the tops of your thighs slightly inward. Do not lock your knees.
If you can keep the front of your torso long and your knees straight, place your palms or fingertips on the floor beside your feet. Bring your fingertips in line with your toes and press your palms on the mat. Those with more flexibility can place their palms on the backs of their ankles.
Engage your quadriceps (the front thigh muscles) and draw them up toward the ceiling. The more you engage your quadriceps, the more your hamstrings (the rear thigh muscles) will release.
Bring your weight to the balls of your feet. Keep your hips aligned over your ankles.
Slightly lift and lengthen your torso with each inhalation. Allow yourself to release deeper into the pose with each exhalation. Let your head hang.
Hold the pose for up to one minute. To release, place your hands on your hips. Draw down through your tailbone and keep your back flat as you inhale and return to Tadasana
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
Start in the Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Exhale and shift your right foot forward until it is in between your hands, and your right knee is aligned with your right heel.
Shift your left knee down until it rests on the ground, then slide it back as far as is comfortable. Make sure the top of your left foot is touching the ground and the sole faces up towards the sky.
Inhale and shift your torso until it is upright. Simultaneously swing your arms up from the side of your body and reach straight up towards the sky.
Move your head so that you are looking up at your fingers. Continue to reach through the fingertips, keeping your arm muscles engaged.
Hold for 30-60 seconds, breathing deeply. Switch legs and repeat.
Utthita Chaturanga Dandasana (Plank Pose)
Begin in all fours (hands and knees). Press your hands actively in the floor, fingers spread wide, the creases of the wrist parallel to the front of the mat.
Extend one leg back, toes tucked on the floor, then the other leg, so you are in a high push up position, plank pose. Position your shoulders right over your wrist, your body in a straight line.
Shoulder blades move down along the spine, and firm them into the back, but press the part between the shoulder blades up towards the ceiling. Lift the front of the body into the back of the body.
Spread the collarbones, and lift the top of the shoulders.
Pull the navel in and up slightly.
Pull up the thighs press the top of the thighbones up towards the ceiling. At the same time lengthen the tailbone towards your heels.
Bring your heels towards the wall behind you.
Draw the legs together without actually moving them, an inner rotation, creating more core strength and stability.
Look at the floor to a point some distance in front of you, eyes soft, jaw relaxed.
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
From Plank Pose
Firm your shoulders flat on your back and make your back muscles strong. Tuck your tailbone in and firm the front of your body into the back of your body.
Rock forward a little over the toes, so you are projecting your body first foreword and then down.
Look a little in front of you to keep the neck long. Keep the elbows close to the torso pointing back the whole time.
On an out-breath lower the whole body like a plank to the floor, keeping your forearms at a right angle to the floor. Lower only so far that the upper arms stay parallel to the floor and that there is a right angle between the upper and lower arms. Lift the front of the shoulders away from the floor the whole time.
This pose is part of sun salutations / surya namaskar, or you can practice it by itself and hold it for between 10 to 30 seconds.
Release to the floor on an out-breath and move to Cobra or Upward facing dog pose. If you are strong enough and you can keep your back in plank (no collapsing) you can also push back up to Plank pose on an out-breath.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward – Facing Dog Pose)
Lie on your stomach, forehead on the floor, your hands next to the ribs, fingers lining up with the lower ribs pointing forward. The top of your feet pressing in the floor and just as in Cobra pose lift the thighs and knees and keep the tailbone pointing towards the heels.
On an inhalation press into your hands and feet, straighten the arms and lift the chest and also legs of the floor.
Draw the shoulder blades onto your back and lift your sternum but draw the front lower ribs slightly back, Bring your tailbone towards your pubic bone and draw the navel slightly in and up to keep the lower back long.
You can look straight ahead, or advanced students may look up, if they know they are open enough to not compress the back of your neck when you look up.
Open your heart.
You can hold this pose anywhere between 5-15 breaths.
To come out you lower yourself down on the floor on an outbreath, or lift yourself into downward facing dog .
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
From all fours (on your hands and knees) place your hands firmly down, fingers spread, base of index finger grounded.
Keep your upper arms and shoulders rotated outwards while your forearms rotate in.
On an exhalation, push the floor away from you, lift your hips and push yourself back into the down dog pose, an upside down V pose.
Keep your knees initially bent to lengthen the spine, taking the hips up and away from you. Then if possible straighten the legs, while maintaining the length in the spine, allowing the top of the thighs and knees to draw back.
Press upper arms towards each other, shoulder blades down along the spine, but keeping the space across the tops of the shoulders.
For me one of the greatest pleasures of being a yoga teacher is, like Surya the rewards of watching a devoted student learn is the greatest tribute and I offer all of you that practice with me, my own guru dakshina.
“… let me repeat that no asana practice is complete without sun worship. Without its focusing of mental energies, yoga practice amounts to little more than gymnastics and, as such, loses meaning and proves fruitless. Indeed the Surya Namaskara should never be mistaken for mere physical exercise –for something incidental, that is, that simply precedes the asanas of yoga. Therefore, it is necessary, before beginning the sun salutations, to pray to Surya is to bestow upon us the good fortune of having only good thoughts, of hearing and speaking only good words, and of attaining a sound and strong body, so that we may have a long life and, one day, achieve oneness with God.”
-Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Sherri (Minh) Lowe is an Anshtanga inspired 200 E-RYT teacher and co-founder of Yogatique Bangkok. She is a fifty-one year old Canadian transplant living in Bangkok. Minh loves to live her yoga. When not rolling around on the floor Minh can be found practicing yoga in a myriad of ways. She enjoys cycling, trying new vegan recipes, a cold beer, lingering in coffee shops and exploring Bangkok. When not pursing these activities, she is writing about them