Staying in Balance

Surya Namaskar

By Janice George, RYT/PYT

So what is Surya Namaskar?

Let us start this inquiry with Surya, the sun in Sanskrit. Many ancient civilizations developed religions based on sun worship. In India this worship was of Surya, the Lord of the heavens, the deity associated with the physical manifestation of the solar orb, the sun. The sun was recognized early on as the giver and sustainer of life. Without the transformative warmth of the sun, life, at least as these peoples and we, as well, know it would cease to exist. This worship evolved into not just an honoring of the sun as the sustainer of the physical life force but also the illuminator of the spiritual path In the words of Paracelsus, the medieval alchemist, "There is an earthly, material sun, which is the cause of heat; and all who are capable of seeing it, even those who are blind, can feel the heat. And then there is an eternal sun, which is the source of wisdom; and those who are spiritually awakened will see this sun and be conscious of His existence."

The sun gives us many metaphors for life; at each dawn it becomes Brahma, the creator of life, at midday it grows into Vishnu the sustainer, and at night we move into he time of Shiva, the destroyer. Everyday we are reminded that for rebirth to take place a death must first happen. This is something we also experience with each season. Summer would be the time of sustaining, winter of death, and both fall and spring are the times of creation moving us into the next phase of life. The winter solstice was thought, by many cultures, to represent the death of the sun. Three days later, on December 25, when the sun could be seen to be growing in intensity the rebirth of the sun was celebrated. This date is still celebrated in many religions worldwide.

The Gayatri mantra is first introduced in Chapter 3 of the Chandogya-Upanishad. The mantra and its translation from Vyas Houston in his audio tape "The Gayatri Mantra" is as follows:

"Om bhur bhuvah svah Tat savitur varenyam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi Dhiyo yo nah pracodayat"

"Earth Atmosphere Heavens. We meditate on the sacred light of the effulgent source. Let that inspire our thoughts".

"Savitur" is referring to the God Savitri, who is the active principle of Surya. Surya is honored here as the embodiment of "the luminous ultimate reality and the principle of spiritual illumination." Chanting this mantra while flowing with Surya Namaskar can aid with focus.

Namaskar very simply refers to the saluting or worshiping of the sun energy. So Surya Namaskar is, quite literally, a salute to the sun. The origins of Surya Namaskar are a bit obscure. It appears they are ancient postures but were not put together into the flowing sequence we experience them today until this century. Surya Namaskar is mentioned in ancient scripture, the Rig and Yajur Vedas, where they were practiced as static postures combined with mantras. The 12 step sequence usually practiced today appears to have been developed (or at least brought to the United /states) in the early 1950s by the late Swami Vishnu Devanda. The literature also cites the Raja of Aundh as having instructed all his subjects in what he called a complete form of Yoga exercise, Surya Namaskar, early in this century. His version appears to have linked the postures with the breath although in a somewhat different form. His son later wrote in the book Surya Namaskars "It is said that when Rama faced Ravana on the battlefield, he received the great knowledge of the technique of Surya Namaskar from the sage Vishwamitra. It was this knowledge that enabled Rama to endure the strain of battle against Ravana, an enemy far superior to him in armored strength. Those who seek good health, greater equilibrium of mind, conquest over slothfulness and tiredness should certainly practice these exercises".

Many famous yoga teachers have made reference to the yogic adage "you are only as young as your spine". Surya Namaskar is a series of 12 fluid postures, linked with the breath, which stretch and lubricate the entire spine. When the body lengthens forward and the spine is released into the back body the breath gently compressed from the belly. When the spine moves in the opposite direction with a backbend the front body is opened to receive a complete breath of air. The breath adds to the dynamic soak and squeeze effect of Surya Namaskar. Usually, there are 12 postures which comprise this movement. Each asana supposedly represents one zodiac house so a complete round takes us on a trip of the solar astrological signs. Also, it is often recommended that the practitioner do 12 salutes as there are 12 names for the sun. You can also chant each name of the sun in succession as you flow in and out. If you wish to do this the mantras are:

  1. Om Hram Mitraya Namah
  2. Om Hrim Ravaye Namah
  3. Om Hrum Suryaya Namah
  4. Om Hraim Bhanave Namah
  5. Om Hraum Khagaya Namah
  6. Om Hramh Pushne Namah
  7. Om Ham Hiranyagarbhaya Namah
  8. Om Hrim Marichaye Namah
  9. Om Hrum Adityaya Namah
  10. Om Hraim Savitre Namah
  11. Om Hraum Arkaya Namah
  12. Om Hramh Bhaskaraya Namah

Finally, it is recommended that the best time to engage in this practice is at dawn so you can soak up the vital energy of the rebirth of the sun. Don't worry if you have trouble getting up that early though. With intention the energy is still there and even 1 or 2 rounds of Surya Namaskar will make a difference in your day.

Traditionally, Surya Namaskar consists of the following 12 asanas linked with the breath: Begin in Tadasana with the hands folded at the heart in Namaste (prayer pose or Pranamasana) on the inhalation stretch the arms overhead bringing the body in a slight backbend Hasta Uttanasana, on the exhalation fold forward into a standing forward bend (Uttanasana), on the inhalation bring the right leg back into a lunge, opening the chest (Ashwa Sanchalanasana), on the exhale come into Plank (Chaturanga Dandasana), slowly lowering down into 8 parts posture onto the knees, chest, and chin (Ashtanga Namaskara), inhale coming up into Cobra (Bhujangasana) or Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Muka Svanasana), and exhale into Downward Facing Dog (Adho Muka Svanasana), the next inhalation brings the left leg forward into the lunge, exhale into standing forward bend, inhale back up into the standing back arch, and exhale back to resting position - Tadasana with hands in namaste. In many texts this is considered of a round. To complete one round begin as before but bring the right leg forward first into the lunge and the left leg forward on the return trip up.

There are endless variations to explore but here are a few additional notes. For students with limitations there is the sun salute which involves the standin postures only or a resting pose can be added by having the students come back into Garbhasana after an easy Plank and then have them move forward into sphinx or cobra (the rest stays the same). For a more dynamic version try the ashtanga series which involves jumping back to Plank from the standing forward bend and lowering into a push up position, and then moving into up dog and down dog. Whatever your energy Surya Namaskar probably has something for you.

That is not to say it does not have any contra-indications. The benefits have been briefly covered. Besides the breath and spine are the vitality it brings to the entire body; digestive system, elimination system, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, and nervous systems. It strengthens and tones the entire muscular and skeletal system. Helps with thyroid, uterine and ovary functioning. Can assist in eliminating constipation. It is grounding and help develop concentration, coordination, and balance. It can help alleviate depression and anxiety. It can also remove blockages in the pranic body creating a pathway for spiritual illumination. It should not be done after the first trimester of pregnancy and by people with sciatica, slipped disc, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Also, if you are ill your body is probably signaling that you need rest. A restorative practice is usually more appropriate during this time. Finally, if you are new to this practice, begin and work up slowly. Surya Namskar is quite effective at releasing toxins. It is best to allow that release to happen gradually so the rest of the system has time to adjust. This can prevent a "cleansing crisis".

Resources used for this handout include: The Yoga Tradition, both by Georg Feuerstein; Yoga World: International Newsletter for Yoga Teachers and Students, Vols. 8 and 9; A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.