If you’ve attended a yoga class, you’ve likely practiced sun salutations, or Surya Namaskar – even if you didn’t know it. Most yoga practices include at least a couple of sun salutations, and others might have upwards of eight or ten.
But why is this specific sequence of poses so common and so integral to yoga, and where did it come from? The postures practiced in Surya Namaskar are all foundational to yoga and offer practitioners a host of physical benefits. Though its origins are contested, the sequence grew out of the sun worship that is central to Hinduism, becoming prominent in both India and the West during the 20th century.Advertisement
What is Surya Namaskar?
Surya Namaskar is a sequence of yoga poses that are linked together and often practiced as one continuous movement. Surya is the Hindu god of the sun, and Namaskar is a traditional Indian greeting and parting phrase accompanied with a slight bow. It follows, then, that Surya Namaskar is translated as “sun salutation,” though some argue that “devotion” or “worship” would be more accurate.
While many people today do the sequence purely as physical exercise, it was traditionally a practice to revere Surya, to honor the sun as the source of all life, and to acknowledge the divine in oneself.
There are a few variations of the sequence, but all start and end in mountain pose (tadasana) and include forward fold (uttanasa), chaturanga, upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana), and downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana). The classical Sun Salutation A as done in Ashtanga yoga is made up of only these poses, though some yogis incorporate a low lunge (anjaneyasana) on each side as well. Sun Salutation B, which adds a chair pose (utkatasana) at the beginning and end and a warrior I (virabhadrasana I) on each side, is also practiced in Ashtanga yoga.
In any variation of Surya Namaskar, the breath is linked to the movement in a very specific way. Because the sequence is made up of opposing actions, the poses correspond alternately to inhales and exhales. While poses may be held for multiple breaths, each movement happens at the appropriate point in the breath cycle.
Benefits of Surya Namaskar
While it may seem like Surya Namaskar is a random selection of poses, this specific sequence actually builds the foundation of a yoga practice and offers yogis many benefits. This is part of why it has become such an integral part of the modern yoga practice. It works very well as a warm-up, building heat and reducing stiffness, and it offers a full body workout, engaging the arms, legs, and core. Because nearly all of the poses in a sun salutation can be modified, it is accessible to yogis at all levels.
The poses of Surya Namaskar are intended to build both strength (particularly in chaturanga and downward facing dog) and flexibility (especially in forward fold and downward facing dog). Different benefits of the sequence are more prominent depending on the speed at which it is practiced: a slower practice (several breaths per pose) is best for building flexibility, while a faster practice (one breath per pose) makes it more of a cardiovascular workout.
In addition to these benefits, sun salutations teach students many foundational poses of yoga. Mountain pose, the initial position in the sequence, is one of yoga’s most neutral postures and is the foundation for all other standing poses. Forward fold and upward facing dog introduce forward bends and backbends, respectively, and downward facing dog starts to take students upside down. Taken together, the full sequence teaches the fundamental movements that students need in order to practice yoga. In addition to the physical poses, sun salutations also introduce the link between breath and movement, and start to teach students how inhales and exhales correspond to different poses.
Various other things are also attributed to the Surya Namaskar sequence, though there is limited evidence that it provides these benefits more than other forms of exercise. Regardless, some credit the sequence with relieving tension and stress, reducing depression and anxiety, improving digestion and circulation, stimulating the nervous and respiratory systems, and contributing to weight loss.Advertisement
Sun Worship in Hinduism
The history and origins of the sun salutation sequence are contested; some argue that it was created over 2,000 years ago, while others believe it has existed only since the 20th century. But what is known for sure is that Hindus have long revered the sun.
Worship of the sun is a core tenet of Hinduism, going back thousands of years, and records of the sun’s importance date back to the Vedas, the oldest Hindu scriptures. Hindus see the sun as the source of all life, and also as a symbol of the divine in each of us.
The sun god, Surya, is considered to be the soul of the universe, and the source of both physical life and inner enlightenment. Traditionally, the Vedic mantras that honor the sun were chanted at sunrise. After completing the mantras, Hindu worshippers would lie facedown in the direction of the sun, a posture of devotion. Eventually, worshippers began to take other poses after each different mantra was chanted.
Surya Namaskar and the Sun
To Hindus, because the sun represents the divine within us, practicing Surya Namaskar is a means of striving for the divine. It is considered a full body prayer, and by doing the sequence, Hindus (and other yogis) use the body as an instrument to reach for a higher level of consciousness. Because it is done in devotion to the sun, Surya Namaskar is traditionally practiced first thing in the morning. Devoted practitioners do the sequence facing the rising sun, with empty bowels and an empty stomach.
Some yogis repeat chants before, during, or after the sequence to praise Surya, ask for blessings, and give thanks for all the sun provides. The Gayatri mantra, a hymn honoring the sun or Surya, is commonly recited. In addition, some devotees chant twelve mantras during the practice for each of Hindu’s twelve names for the sun. Even for students who do not repeat the words of a mantra, the sequence of Surya Namaskar, considered a prayer in motion, is said to embody the mantras that revere the sun.Advertisement
Krishnamacharya and Surya Namaskar
There is no mention of a physical component of sun worship in traditional Hindu texts, nor much evidence of the modern sequence’s origins. Some argue that an early version of sun salutations was practiced in Vedic times, while others argue that it comes from the Indian epic Ramayana. But the first written documentation of sun salutations as we know them today comes from Indian yoga master T. Krishnamacharya, who recorded the sequence in his book Yoga Makaranda in the 1930s.
Krishnamacharya is considered the Father of Modern Yoga and is widely credited with spreading yoga to the West. While documents from around the same time depict similar poses that were practiced by Indian wrestlers as part of their training, Krishnamacharya’s teachings of Surya Namaskar emphasized the coordination of the breath with the movements and presented the sequence as an act of devotion and meditation rather than of mere exercise.
Though it is unclear whether Krishnamacharya learned the sun salutation sequence from his teachers or created it himself, he played a major role in its rise to popularity. In the mid-20th century, he taught the sequence to his students in India, including K. Patthabi Jois, BKS Iyengar, and Indra Devi, who all went on to spread their practice of yoga around the world.
Though they are practiced in many yoga traditions, sun salutations are commonly associated with Ashtanga, a school of yoga founded in Mysore by Krishnamacharya’s student K. Patthabi Jois. Practitioners of Ashtanga typically warm up with five rounds of sun salutation A and five rounds of sun salutation B, before moving on their main practice. Many other styles of vinyasa yoga evolved out of Ashtanga, and now incorporate a similar sun salutation practice.
But in Ashtanga, as in other schools of yoga, Surya Namaskar is both a physical and a spiritual practice. In fact, Jois has been quoted as saying, “Let me repeat that no asana practice is complete without sun worship… Indeed the Surya Namaskar should never be mistaken for mere physical exercise – for something incidental, that is, that simply precedes the asanas of yoga.”
Surya Namaskar Today
So, when we practice sun salutations in Western yoga classes today, what are we really doing? There’s no doubt that the sequence is a useful warm-up and an invigorating exercise, and that it teaches foundational yoga poses and introduces the link between breath and movement.
Though many modern yogis practice it solely with those intentions, a look at the origins of Surya Namaskar reveals that it was actually intended much more as a spiritual practice than a physical one. Even for yogis who don’t believe in worshipping the sun, understanding the history of such an integral sequence is a key part of respecting the lineage of yoga.