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If you’ve ever watched the sunrise, you’ll know the beautiful feeling of energy, warmth and light that the sun brings. It is exactly this gift that we honour by practising Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutations.
The Sun Salutations of modern yoga have their roots in the Vedic practice of greeting and worshipping the morning sun with mantras. Although the act of celebrating the sun through devotional rituals is undoubtedly ancient, the origins of what we practise today as Sun Salutations is less clear.1
A “modern” Sun Salutation sequence was first written down by Krishnamacharya in 1934,2 but it is unclear whether this was his own creation or something older that he was recording and passing on.
Either way, Sun Salutations can be thought of as a moving meditation, or even a sacred prayer to the sun. The sun is the source of the energy for all life on Earth, including your own. By saluting the sun outside of you, you also acknowledge and respect your own inner sun and energy within.
Surya Namaskar comes from Sanskrit root words. Surya means “sun” and Namaskar, which comes from namas, and means “to bow” or even “to adore”. Some say that the English translation of “Sun Salutation” does not sufficiently convey the elements of devotion and worship expressed in the Sanskrit name. As such the name Surya Namaskar is widely used, even in the west. In this article, we focus on Surya Namaskar A, although the history and benefits are largely the same for all Sun Salutation variations.
There are a many significant benefits of practising Sun Salutations.
These are 5 of the most important:
- They dynamically warm up and release the body, mobilising the joints and increasing blood flow to the muscles. They are often included towards the beginning of yoga classes, because they prepare the body for the deeper work of the rest of the postures. If they are practised on their own, they simply ready the body to face the day feeling more open and alive.
- They benefit the internal systems of the whole physical body, and are believed to be beneficial for the circulatory system, the digestive system, the glandular system and the nervous system. They help the body to function more efficiently and effectively.
- They provide a cardiovascular workout when practised rapidly. This can help to boost the metabolism and improve heart health. The postures also strengthen the muscles of the limbs and core.
- They are a moving meditation, and help to calm and focus the mind. They unite the mind, body and breath in a flowing sequence, bringing the sense of oneness that you wish to cultivate through your yoga practice.
- They help you to connect with the energy of the sun. In doing so, you awaken the body and mind to your union with the life force for all beings.
Surya Namaskar A
This is one of the most well-known variations of the Sun Salutation sequence. It is simpler and shorter than Surya Namaskar B, and contains 9 postures. It is often practised before Surya Namaskar B or other more complex yoga sequences in order to prepare the body and mind for the rest of the practice.
Pattabhi Jois includes Surya Namaskar A in his sequence for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. In this, Surya Namaskar A is practised 5 times at the beginning of the practice.
Surya Namaskar A should be practised using ujjayi breathing - the upwards, victorious breath. This cultivates the energy and stamina to sustain the body through the sequence.
The sequence is as follows:
- Urdhva Vrksasana or Upward Tree Pose - From Tadasana or Mountain Pose, inhale and sweep the arms over the head. Bring the palms together and gaze up.
- Uttanasana A or Standing Forward Bend A - Exhale to hinge forwards from the hips with the spine long. Reach the arms out the the sides as you swan dive forwards, taking the hands to the ground beside the feet. The lower belly touches the thighs. To modify, bend the knees.
- Uttanasana B or Standing Forward Bend B - Inhale to lift the head and chest, looking up. The back remains straight and the hands stay touching the mat.
- Chaturanga Dandasana or Four-Limbed Staff Pose - Exhaling float the feet back and bend the elbows to 90 degrees, taking the body forward. To modify, step back to plank, then press the heels forward and bend the elbows, keeping them tucked in close to the body as you lower to Chaturanga Dandasana.
- Urdhva Mukha Svanasana or Upward Facing Dog - Inhale to roll over the toes, pulling the body through the arms and lift the chest, coming into a backbend. Broaden across the collarbones and lift the gaze.
- Adho Mukha Svanasana or Downward Facing Dog - Exhale to roll back over the toes, lifting the hips back and up. The head releases down and the gaze is to the navel. Draw the lower belly in and allow the heels to sink towards the mat. Create one line of energy from the ends of the middle fingers through to the tailbone. To modify, bend the knees as much as you need to in order to find alignment in the front part of the posture. Take five steady breaths here.
- Uttanasana B or Standing Forward Bend B - At the end of your last exhale, gaze between the hands and move the head and shoulders forward. Inhale as you bend the knees and float or step the feet through between the hands. Lift the head and shoulders.
- Uttanasana A or Standing Forward Bend A - Exhale to release the head and neck, folding the body forwards over the thighs with the palms flat on the floor. Modify by bending the knees as much as you need to.
- Urdhva Vrksasana or Upward Tree Pose - Inhale and press into the feet as you lift the body up, stretching the arms over the head with palms together. Exhale to bring the palms down into heart centre and stand in Samasthithi.
Sun Salutations are clearly a highly beneficial part of yoga practice. In fact, Pattabhi Jois went as far as to say that “No asana practice is complete without sun worship.” Enjoy them as a beautiful way to bring sunshine into your yoga practice and your day.
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