In almost every yoga class I teach, I lead people through at least one round of sun salutation sequence. Why? Because no matter what theme the class takes – and I change themes every week – I know that by doing this sun salutation sequence, everyone will get a great full-body warm up. Each posture that makes up the salutations brings strength and flexibility to all parts of the body, and done quickly enough can also bring a cardiovascular element to your practice. More importantly, though, everyone will (hopefully, if my teaching is effective!) fully tune into their bodies and their breath, thereby really bringing their conscious awareness into what they will be doing in the rest of their practice, rather than thinking about the next thing on their ‘to do’ list. The flow of the sequence allows the mind to be totally present and a sense of calm arises as you move from one round to another.
You may have noticed that the words ‘namaskar’ and ‘namaste’ are similar. Both have the same root word in Sanskrit – namas, meaning ‘bowing or homage’. Both are a sign of greeting and respect offered towards another. But whereas ‘namaste’ roughly translates as ‘I bow to you‘, ‘surya namaskar’ means – again, roughly! – ‘I bow to the sun’.
According to Hindu tradition and Vedic literature, the sun is the source of energy for every single thing in the universe. The Rig Veda – an ancient Indian collection of Vedic chants and hymns written over 3,500 years ago – describes the sun as The Soul both of moving and unmoving things. Surya Namaskar then is not just a yoga sequence to keep the body fit, but a moving meditation and a religious and spiritual one at that.
Prostration is very much a key element to the traditional namaskars and actually, prostration is still very much a part of the current rituals of Indian life. The modern, Western variants of the Surya Namaskar however have removed full prostration – we see it being replaced with chaturanga. In fact, those early rounds of movement ritual would have looked very different to the rounds of sun salutations that we see in yoga studios today.
The earliest text to describe this more familiar sequence was written in 1934 by T. Krishnamacharya, considered by many to be the founding father of modern Hatha Yoga. By the way, many people think of Hatha Yoga as being a particular style. Hatha is translated as ‘effort’ or ‘exertion’ and technically refers to the fact that hatha is the physical aspect of yoga, a discipline that – unfortunately forgotten by many Westerners – is much much more than just physical. Doing Hatha Yoga then, really just means you are including asanas (postures) into your practice.
You will find different teachers teach sun salutations in a slightly different way, unless they have been trained in a particular lineage like Ashtanga in which case it will always be taught in the same manner. The traditional sun salutation sequence is made up of 12 postures on each side of the body and this is how I teach it. However, some of the postures can be moderated to suit individual needs – which is also very much how I teach! And please, I don’t mean just that if you don’t have strong shoulders and arms, you won’t be doing the chaturangas.
I try to encourage my students to practice from a place that is right for them ON THAT PARTICULAR DAY. We are a constantly evolving mass of energy that responds to varying stimuli on a second-by-second basis. What works for us on one day, won’t work for us on another. I so often find that people practice from a place of a) ego and b) habit and neither of which should be welcome in your practice. The guy on the mat next to you may well be throwing in an extra couple of chaturanga per round, but ask yourself why. Chances are he’s doing it to show off. Or because he is being led by harder, faster, bigger, stronger = better. (And men are by no means the only ones to do this). You may well be able to do 15 chaturanga without breaking a sweat. But who do you need to prove that to? Yourself? But you already know you can. Your teacher? Chances are they’re watching your scapular and wishing you’d give yourself a break. Your classmates? Trust me, they’re not looking at you half as much as you think they are.
Please, for all that is holy, come to your mat in order to honour and nourish your body and your mind. Have you had the kind of day that means you need to break a sweat? Great, knock yourself out with full on rounds of the sun salutation sequence. Or have you had the kind of day that has depleted you and you have nothing left in the tank? In which case, LISTEN. Take it down a notch and I promise you, you will still leave class feeling revived, like you have given your body what it needs, and you will have started down a road that long term will take your yoga practice to a whole new level.