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Surya Namaskar, sun salutations, and ritualized greetings to the sun

March 10, 2019

Whether you practice Vinyasa, Hatha, Ashtanga, or any other modality of modern-day yoga, sun salutations are key. They are generally a component of most sequences taught in studios worldwide and are used by teachers of all kinds as a way to open the class with and bring your pulse up to speed.

 

But aside of this, how much do you know about the reasons for the ubiquity of sun salutations? Historically speaking, we have been greeting the sun for quite a few millennia now; ever cared to think of the reasons for it? In today’s post, we look at the history of this ever-present routine to help us better appreciate the inherent beauty in this sacred ritual.

 

Sunny sides up!

 

A tiny bit of research yields a plethora of results on sun rituals of all kinds, both ancient and modern. From what we know from past civilizations, most cultures around the world had some form of sun-worshipping ritual or another. From the Sumerians, to the Indo-Europeans, the Aztecs, Egyptians, tribes in Africa, the Japanese or the Indonesian, Pre-Islamic peoples, the Scandinavians, the Indians of North America, and of course, the Celtics with their monumental stones– our ancestors knew the importance of this gorgeous ball of fire for life as we know it in our planet since a very long time ago. So much so, that they built incredible temples and places of worship to celebrate it.

 

The lord Sun has thus always ranked pretty high when it comes to symbolically representing ‘god-like higher life,’ not least because of its literal 'higher standing.' And in a way, this isn’t really that hard to understand when you consider how it must have looked or felt for early individuals to look up to the sky and see this gigantic shiny thing moving from East to West everyday of their lives before telescopes, satellites –let alone a basic understanding of the universe– were a thing.

 

The word magic does not even begin to cut it, because it can't fully live up to the type of awe and wonderment the sun must have instilled in humans back in the day. Even today, a few constant rays of sun have the incredible capacity to brighten up our collective unconscious and bring us all out into the open to enjoy a full day of sun at the beach, the park, a lazy sunset with friends and loved ones while barbecuing, a hike through the mountains or the valley... The options on the sunny side of things are simply inexhaustible. So, the sun is life, and we know it.

 

Our not so little 'Miss Sunshine'

 

As a testament to this star's importance, the innumerable amount of myths referring to it in direct or indirect ways. And so, rituals like the yogic sun salutations, our topic for today, are much more normal and commonplace than we care to think. Still, students (and even teachers) of most yoga styles today don’t always know why sun salutations (also known as Surya Namaskar in the world of yoga) are ‘oh-so-very-special.’ Which is why knowing about the why’s of this little yogic 'Miss Sunshine' can really add something of a very unique dimension to our everyday practice.

 

Indeed, Surya, the name given to the lord Sun in Vedic scriptures (which, on the other hand, is an amalgamation of the attributes of other previous higher Vedic deity figures) stands for the Sun principle in yoga. Some of our past entries have dwelled a little on the concept of polarity and dualism and how certain pairs of opposites are used as symbols to build up meaning in yoga. The Sun and the Moon are thus one of such pairs, where the Sun mainly stands for the so-called ‘masculine’ traits, while the Moon represents the 'feminine' ones –which, in a gendered system like that of ancient India and traditional yoga seemed to somehow make sense.

 

And so, the Sun in yoga is supposed to stand for action, movement, intensity, vigor, warmth, life, for the navel center or Manipura Chakra, the color orange, the Gayatri Mantra, Pingala Nadi, and a long list of et cetera. It connects us to prana (our vital-energy) in its rawest and most dynamic expression, and is thus part of sequences or practices generally intended to energize us or wake us up to the inherent potential in our own body-minds.

 

Thus, the more we manage to kindle the inner light of this basic fire in a controlled and skilful manner, the brighter and stronger we can make it shine on the world around us and into our lives.

 

 

A few notes on the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of surya namaskar

 

Surya Namaskar A sequences, for example, involve some form of these:

  • Samasthiti (Tadasana or Mountain Pose)

  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)

  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)

  • Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Fold)

  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Plank Pose)

  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-facing Dog Pose)

  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog Pose)

  • Transition – feet to hands

  • Ardha Uttanasana

  • Uttanasana

  • Urdhva Hastasana

  • Samasthiti

Surya Namaskar B sequences –a longer, and slightly more dynamic variation of traditional Surya Namaskar– involves these:

  • Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

  • Uttanasana

  • Ardha Uttanasana

  • Chaturanga Dandasana

  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana

  • Adho Mukha Svanasana

  • Virabhadrasana A (Right foot forward)

  • Chaturanga Dandasana

  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana

  • Adho Mukha Svanasana

  • Virabhadrasana A (Left foot forward)

  • Chaturanga Dandasana

  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana

  • Adho Mukha Svanasana

  • Transition – feet to hands

  • Ardha Uttanasana

  • Utkatasana

  • Urdhva Hastasana

  • Samasthiti

Regardless of the specific version we practice, the sequence of postures today has its roots in a highly ritualized early morning / rising-sun practice performed by pandits and yogic aspirants for centuries as part of their daily puja. Their ritual, of course, lacks any sort of meaning beyond that of physical prowess unless we manage to understand (and connect with) the way in which our ancestors ‘did life.’ And what did 'doing life' look like for them? It looked a lot like today in many parts of the world, where the everyday, random and mundane bits of life are inseparable or inextricable from experiencing its magical and spiritual essence as well. And so, welcoming the sun and thanking the mystical, magical, non-human, otherworldly, even pagan side of things for letting us experience one more day alive on earth was just what one was meant to do in order to live in synch with existence as such. You probably get the idea if you have watched George Lucas’ Avatar!

 

Therefore, bowing and praising and exalting ‘all that is’ –be it God, Ishvara Pranidhana, the Divine, the Universe, Mother Earth or, in this case, the Sun– is at the heart of the practice of yoga and of surya namaskar in particular. And so, sun salutations, in any of their slight variations, normally comprehend a series of twelve poses bound together (which may or may not be practiced alongside their different mantras) spanning symmetrical standing poses like Tadasana where our hands go up to the sky, forward folds where we bend down as if bowing to or praising something, backbends where our chins rise to the sky as we 'look up' with admiration, transitional downward dogs or plank flows were we rejoice in introspection, and other asanas that make up a very complete laudatio or laudation sequenceand a great micro-practice in and of its own.

 

The main idea is that it is precisely at the break of dawn, where the land is still, fresh, and moist, as if rejuvenated by the soft quiet of sleep and the gentle touch of atmospheric dew, that prana Shakti, the divine life-giving force, is at its highest concentration. Getting up early to practice and worship ‘all that is’ through a few rounds of surya namaskar correctly and gently performed facing the east while breathing properly, and tuning into chanting those specific mantras, is meant to expand our awareness of the present moment beyond the limits of anything conceivable for this lifetime. Such is the magic inherent in consciously saluting the sun, both literally, and metaphorically: the 'empire of the sun' out there, in the middle of our universe, and the one deep inside each and every single one of us.

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