A brief history of the humble Sun Salutation
If you have been to a yoga class, it’s highly likely that you will have practiced a sun salutation or a variation of one.
The traditional Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara) is an essential and fundamental yoga practice dating back thousands of years. From the traditional Surya Namaskara came Ashtanga Sun Salutations A and B, and subsequently ‘Vinyasa Flow’ yoga, which is now very popular. There is no need for a caffeine hit in the morning when practicing Sun Salutations, as you will generate vital energy for the day and enhance mental clarity. The only thing you must do is create the space and time for you and your practice.
The Sun Salutation is not only a beautiful sequence of poses, it’s versatile and adaptable to all bodies - and packs a serious punch. The 12-posture sequence fulfils the fundamental aspects yoga; physicality (form), mentality (focus) and energy (rhythm), becoming a complete practice in itself. I often say to my students “if your daily yoga practice was five rounds of sun salutations every day (which takes about 10 – 15 minutes) that would be more than enough”.
This really is true, the poses lengthen and strengthen the body, and the mental focus of mindful movement through the Sun Salutations creates a moving meditation, clearing the head. There is something magical and life-enhancing about this ancient practice, with more layers than initially meet the eye.
Sun Salutations date back thousands of years to when human beings first became aware of the spiritual power of nature that is reflected within themselves. They started to pay tribute to the source and creation of life – the sun. In yoga philosophy, Sun Salutations are said to release vital energy and develop conscious awareness.
“The Sun is a daily reminder that we too can rise again”.
The 12 Sun Salutation poses explained and how to do them
The alternating backwards and forward, bending asanas (poses) flex and stretch the spinal columns and limbs, giving a profound stretch that few other forms of exercise achieve. Sun Salutations release tension and increase coordination. On a deeper level each pose has a ‘dristi’ (gaze point to focus the mind) and an energetic point (chakra) that is stimulated.
With 12 poses (as shown in the image / diagram), the sequence starts standing with your hands in prayer pose; you can stay for several breaths, breathing mindfully, setting an intention, or allowing a feeling of gratitude to flourish in your heart.
The flow then begins with an inhale, reaching arms to the sky; this increases lung capacity and opens the heart and front of the body. This is followed by an exhale, reaching the arms in front, and folding forward. Each pose in the sequence works on opening certain areas off the body while strengthening others. For example, stepping back to the low lunge is a deep stretch for the hips but also activates the core as you reach the arms up. As we all know, (and mostly love!) downward dog has many benefits for the body such as improving posture, opening the back of the body, and activating the core.
The next pose, the ‘eight-point pose’ (generating its name from the eight points of the body connecting with the earth – chin, chest, hands, knees, and feet) lowers to the ground building strength and the cobra pose builds muscles in the back.
Once the twelve poses have been practiced leading with the right leg, the sequence starts again from standing prayer but stepping back with the left leg.
One complete cycle is 24 poses.
The yogic dance between effort and relaxation
Although physical and mental effort is required for practice, it is always important to avoid straining. If you are new to this sequence, move slowly, even holding the poses for several breaths.
As you practice, the sequence will become easier and begin to flow like a dance or wave. Even when an asana poses a deep stretch, the rest of the body, face, jaw and forehead should remain as relaxed as possible (if in doubt about whether the face is relaxed, a big smile will do it!) If you try to bring lightness to the body and heart, your practice will become more and more enjoyable and mediative.
Don't forget that extra special yoga pose... the Savasana
A Savasana is an essential end to our yoga practice. It is like a full stop at the end of your yogic mat dance. The Savasana marks the end of the class, translating as corpse pose, and is the metaphorical ‘death’ of the class before a ‘rebirth’ and a restart to your day with renewed energy and focus.
If you really want to harness the power of the sun and feel the benefit of Sun Salutations, don’t skip the Savasana - no matter how fired up you might feel!
Source / references
- Surya Namaskara – Swami Satyananda Saraswati
- Image: 12 postures of Surya Namaskar