The month of January sees a big surge in the number of people who are determined to invite exercise and healthy habits into their lives. The new year’s resolutions (especially the ones around health) are still fresh in the memory! This month is also very special to Yoga practitioners, because of Makar Sankranti (also called Pongal, Lohri), a very important day in the Indian Calendar to honor the Sun. The spotlight is on the practice of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), a sequence of 12 postures performed in a gentle flow. Yoga practitioners do many more rounds of Sun Salutations every day of this month.
While there are plenty of wonderful resources (including online resources) that details the practice of Sun Salutation, in this short post I wish to share my thoughts and appreciation on this wonderful practice based on personal experience. First, here is a short video I prepared demonstrating 2 rounds of Sun Salutations. The first round is silent, and the second round is done while chanting the associated mantras:
[Important note: The video is for the purpose of demonstration only; please do not attempt to learn the practice from the video! If you are eager to learn, please approach a qualified Yoga Teacher.]
I learned the Sun Salutation from my Teacher, Yogacharya Ramaswami Subramanian, on the first day I joined the Yoga school 26 years ago. Ever since, this wonderful practice has been an integral component of my Sadhana (spiritual practice).
The Sun Salutation is a universal practice — it is done by most Yogis and Yoginis. Right from beginning students of Yoga to experienced and seasoned practitioners, everyone enjoys this practice. For the body, the Sun Salutation is a complete and well-rounded exercise that benefits all the major muscles, joints, and vital organs. For every pose in the sequence, it’s counterpart appears in it as well, making it a well-balanced exercise. For example, for every forward bending pose in the sequence, you will find a backward arching pose as well. Similarly, the sequence is a balance of strengthening poses as well as stretching poses. The physical benefits of Sun Salutations are many-fold. Regular practice promotes strength, vitality, lightness and agility. Furthermore, it is said that just as darkness cannot abide in the presence of light, illness cannot sustain itself for long in the presence of Sun Salutation practice. The wonder of Sun Salutation is that it is a complete practice for physical, mental and spiritual well-being that is not time consuming at all. One round of Sun Salutation takes only half a minute to two minutes to perform (depending on the pace of the practice), and it is easy to devote time for 6 to 12 rounds everyday.
Sun Salutation can be practiced at different speeds. While fast rounds of Sun Salutation helps to warm up the body and get rid of sluggishness (Tamas), slow and graceful pace can help to invoke a deep meditative state of awareness. Over the years, I have gravitated towards slow Sun Salutations where I coordinate the breath with the flow of postures. Specifically, using long Ujjayi breaths helps to profoundly elevate the quality of the practice. Like a cardio workout, the Sun Salutation increases the pace of the heart beat during the practice. However, the emphasis is to keep the flow of breath smooth and controlled, preferably using the Ujjayi breath. Therefore we have a unique combination of elevated heart beat and slow, deep breaths. This helps to strengthen the diaphragm and the other muscles involved in respiration.
The Sun Salutation is much, much more than just a physical practice. Just few rounds help promote a high degree of alertness and sharpens the intellect. Our awareness, which is represented as a glow of light in Yoga (Jyotismati), shines brightly like the rays of the Sun. Truly, the practice of Sun Salutation is a wonderful way to move from darkness to light (Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya).
Sun Salutation also makes the Prana (life energy) in the system flow in a brisk manner, which allows the cells of the body to thrive in the space of vitality. When the energy flow is sluggish, the Prana does not reach all the cells of the body, and consequently we feel dull and lethargic. Sun Salutation promotes the brisk circulation of Prana so that every cell in the body has access to the fresh supply of Prana. Here is an analogy: a river, which is a moving body of water, allows life around it to thrive; whereas a stagnant pool of water attracts disease and decay. In a similar manner, the healthy flow of Prana in the system infuses every cell of the body with life and vitality. I have also observed that after several rounds, the clog in the nostrils (and all the nadis, or channels that carry prana) are cleared and the breath flows evenly through the two nostrils. This allows the healthy pattern of left and right nostril dominance to alternate during the day.
Traditionally, Sun Salutation is done in the morning, facing the rising Sun. It is a profoundly spiritual practice, and a prayerful expression of gratitude and appreciation to the source of all energy that powers this planet. The Sun Salutation is done along with the Sanskrit Mantras (chants) associated with each of the 12 poses. Each mantra is a synonym for the Sun, and is a way to connect with the Sun. Chanting of the mantras during Sun Salutation helps to promote greater breath control. It is also a way to strengthen the vocal cords and promote voice control. In some of the poses (especially the ones involving arching of the back), beginning practitioners may experience a choking sensation where it becomes difficult to chant the mantra out loud. With continued practice, as we train the muscles of respiration and the vocal cord, it becomes easier to chant in all the 12 postures. No wonder many musicians in India use Sun Salutation with Mantras for voice culture!
As I said in the beginning, there are many wonderful resources on Sun Salutation (my favorite book is Surya Namaskara: A Teachnique of Solar Vitalization, authored by the renowned Yogi Paramahamsa Satyananda Saraswati). If you are eager to learn the practice of Sun Salutation, I encourage you to approach a qualified Yoga Teacher. The Teacher can guide you with practices to warm up and prepare the body first, and then guide you with the proper practice of Sun Salutation. The relaxation (Savasana) after the practice is also equally important and helps the body to unwind and rejuvenate.