The Sun Salute – Surya Namaskara
Surya means sun, and namaskara is a greeting, so we are greeting the sun.
The sun is the soul of the world. Rig Veda 1.115.1
Sun Salutes begin the process of synchronizing body with breath. Moving our body in rhythm with our breath is about cortical balance in the brain between the relaxing and excitatory phases. Society today tends us toward the excitatory side of the brain, we need to learn how to relax the brain more. When the brain is too long in the excitatory phase is when anxiety, depression, mood swings, and other issues arise, which do seem more prevalent today.
That is the difference between exercise and yoga — yoga includes a contemplative awareness within the practice of postures, which includes moving our body in a rhythm with our breath. Especially beneficial for balancing the function of the brain is moving our extremities in rhythm with our breath. This enhances our GABA and oxytocin making us nicer people.
This is one of the reasons sun salutes are such an important part of the practice.
Sun salutes and moving body with breath synchronizes our brain, also we bring our heart rhythm into coherence with our breath — sun salutes synchronize this too. Literally sun salutes help encourage our entire body’s synchronicity – to work in a time and rhythm together to keep all systems running smoothly. Sun salutes can do all this!
One of the benefits of sun salutes is the help to balance the cortical response in the brain, meaning they put your decision maker (pre-frontal cortex) in control while putting the amygdala (stress response center) in the “back seat”. We make better decisions when not stressed, stress, sugar, and bad diets too all shift our brain power from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala where we do not make good decisions.
I referenced the yoga textbook “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” to research the sun salutes.These texts talk of the symbolism of the sun and why this practice was named a sun salute — to help bring awareness to honoring the sun.
Worship of the sun was created because the sun is a powerful symbol of spiritual consciousness and health of body & mind. In the body our heart is our sun — or inner sun (our brain is the moon, so our brain only reflects what is in our heart). Sun Salutes worship the outer and inner sun (our heart).
The yogic texts don’t talk put your energy into getting a bind or a jump through or some cool arm balance. The yogic texts say to put your effort into moving in rhythm with your breath (vinyasa), bandhas, and drishti and all else will follow. The sun salutes help us do this.
This internal contemplative practice within yoga is what gives yoga a its benefit over just exercise alone.
Sun salutes help gather the strength of the mind in one direction and aid in mental focus. Without its focusing of mental energies, yoga practice amounts to little more than exercises.
Surya Namaskar or the sun salutes are the foundation of our practice. Although they seem very physical — they are devotional in nature. Their main focus is on a moving meditation, moving in synchronicity with inhales and exhales, while having bandhas and drishti.
This is where we establish our moving and breathing synchronization which is the heart of this practice–it connects our body, mind, and breath calming the mind while energizing our body, making space for good thoughts, and building a firm foundation which will support the rest of our practice.
In yoga philosophy the Sun represents health and vitality — mentally and physically. By practicing sun salutes they bring health to our body and peace of mind to our head. Health is our greatest wealth, both in the body and mind. When practiced with a meditation in mind the sun salutes gather the strength of the mind developing inner happiness and aiding in mental focus.
The ancient yoga texts state the reason yoga helps us connect to a higher consciousness is due to the inner contemplation of the practice — developing an inner awareness helps us develop a better outer awareness. I’d like to bring back more inner awareness or contemplation into our yoga practice.
Sun Salutes from the inside out — For the heart and mind
Sun salutes and yoga postures stir up a lot of energy in our body. Left undirected this energy can stir up negative issues (negative memories and thoughts), if we make the conscious effort to direct this energy we can use it more productively by thinking about more positive actions, it is helpful to start your practice with an intention. This way you start to reel in the mind and take control of your thoughts!
In Sanskrit this is known as Bhavana, which means “to be” or “to become”. So in essence you can “dream it”, use your intention to help direct your energy in your practice — dream the positive effects you want from the practice and focus your mind on that. This helps give our practice inner significance — an inner meaning with a practical method that improves health, clarity of mind, and is spiritually up-lifting.
And of course yoga gives a us a tool to use to help — until we develop our own strength of mind and can make your own meditative mantra.
There is a mantra that goes with the sun salutes to help us develop the meditative side of our practice, it is actually more a meditation than a mantra that you just recite. The Rig Veda outlines a meditation that goes with each position of Surya Namaskar A (below). I have found it useful to repeat this meditation in sanskrit with each position, and again in English while holding down dog for 5 breaths.
Here is the mantra from the Rig Veda — with the sun in my mind I meditate on the following:
Om Bhadram Karnebhih Shrnnuyaama Devaah = Om, Oh Deva may we hear with our ears what is Auspicious (conducive to success)
Bhadram Pashyema-Akssabhir-Yajatraah = May we see with our eyes what is Auspicious and Adorable
Sthirair-Annggais-Tussttuvaamsas-Tanuubhih = May we be playful in life with Steadiness in our Bodies and Minds
Vyashema Devahitam Yad-Aayuh = May we offer our lifespan allotted by the Devas for the Service of mankind
Svasti Na Indro Vrddha-Shravaah = May Indra, the Deva of Great Wisdom and Glory, grant us well-being by bestowing us with wisdom
Svasti Nah Puushaa-Vishva-Vedaa = May Pushan, the sun god, the Nourisher, and the provider of great knowledge grant us well being by nourishing us and granting us Knowledge
Svasti Nas-Taarkssyo Arisstta-Nemih = May Tarksya, a Mythical Bird of great Protective Power who has a thunderbolt to dispel our misfortunes, grant us well-being by protecting us from mis-fortunes.
Svasti No Vrhaspatir-Dadhaatu = And May Brihaspati, the Guru of the Devas, grant us Well-Being
OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti = Om, may we recognize we are all one, Peace from Nature (regarding storms and natural events), Peace with each other, and Peace Within.
This mantra is asking for longevity, hearing and seeing what is pleasant, happiness, health and equilibrium in our bodies and minds, so that we may live a long life free of disease to provide a good service to mankind.
The mantra then goes on to ask for Wisdom, Knowledge, nourishment, to be protected from mis-fortunes, and asks for general well being. A nice way to start your day 🙂
Sometimes I even tweak some of the English words I repeat in Down Dog to suit me or my day or what is swirling in my world to some version of this below (you also can do the same, make it fit you):
- ★Please bestow upon me the good fortune of having only good thoughts
- ★Of hearing and speaking only Satya words and seeing good things (Satya is the Sanskrit word for truth, but it means truth that does not hurt–so you want to speak the truth no matter what, but you don’t want to hurt with it no matter what . . . very difficult!)
- ★Of having a sound, strong, light, and pain free physical body
- ★that I may live a long life teaching and speaking words of value and wisdom that many people benefit from, and attain yoga, helping to spread the yoga joy ;).
There is also a mantra for Sun Salute B. Surya Namaskar B is said to benefit the heart — when a beginner first starts practicing sun salute b they find themselves quickly winded, but if you keep with it you will get a stronger and a more cardiovascular-ly fit heart from practicing them giving you a strong heart.
The Rig Veda states that whoever is suffering from heart trouble will find their trouble eliminated if they practice Surya Namaskar B regularly. This is because the surya namaskar B mantra destroys the inner enemies (which if left to manifest will become our outer enemies). The Vedas describe 6 poisons that surround the spiritual heart, recitation of this mantra helps to rid these poisons from our body. They are:
According to the Rig Veda by removing these poisons from our body, heart disease will disappear.
The mantra for surya namaskar B is long and complicated, instead I focus my attention on breathing around my heart while holding down dog. I focus on having my breath totally encompass my heart, front to back, side to side, top to bottom, keeping the heart area open and allowing prana to circulate around the heart. Remember this is more dhyana (meditation) than an actual recitation.
As you begin your practice with sun salutes what is your intension? Make a conscious effort toward the internal contemplation and having a positive intension with each practice that you can pull your thinking mind back to practicing power of mind, not letting the mind jump around from one topic to another.
On your breath in sun salutes, it is important to keep your inhales and exhales the same length as this promotes body and mind equilibrium by balancing the nervous systems and removing stress from the body. This also helps develop the awareness in practice that reduces the risk of injury while connecting our body, mind. and breath at the start, which helps us maintain that connection throughout our entire practice.
According to the sages-the first duty is to take care of the body which is the means to the pursuit of spiritual life. Sedentary lifestyle leads to pain. The practice of Surya Namaskara cures this affliction; sun salutes lead to greater health, creativity, and productivity.
Sun Salutes from the Inside Out for the body and mind
Along with waking us up, the sun Salutes improve our respiratory system, activates our digestive system, and promotes heart health. Here is some info on the physiology of sun salutes:
As we inhale and extend our spine lifting our face and heart to the sky — while we hold our pelvis level with the strength of our abdominals — we are creating space above and below the diaphragm allowing more room for it to move up and down in the abdomen which allows for deeper breathing, improving our respiratory system.
Then as we exhale and bend forward the ribs and pelvis come back together like an accordion squeezing and soaking all the tissues and organs in the abdomen helping their function and restoring elasticity.
The forward and backward bending of the sun salute alone can improve digestion by helping to move matter through your body. When you combine the movements with deep breathing you get even more benefit; your diaphragm sits just on top of your liver and stomach so as you breathe and bend, the diaphragm also massages the stomach and liver aiding them in detoxing and doing their jobs.
The space created in the abdomen by the sun salutes also helps to give your stomach the room it needs in your abdomen. Sometimes between stress and an immobile rib cage your stomach gets pushed up against your diaphragm where it starts to adhere to the underside of your diaphragm further restricting movement and increasing the risk of a hiatal hernia.
The vigorous nature of the Sun salutes are competent at improving our heart function, especially when done mindfully with deep breathing. The heart is also massaged by the diaphragm as we improve our mobility of the ribs and diaphragm.
And specifically on the stress response (which helps with heart health), the improved elasticity of the diaphragm and ribs makes the diaphragm stronger and able to easier stretch low enough on inhalation into the abdomen to draw in sufficient air to get the breath into the lower lobes of the lungs. This is where there is more oxygen, AND this is also where the receptors to the parasympathetic nervous system lie — the calming side of our nervous system.
As lung elasticity is lost the ability to breath deep into the lower lobes of the lungs is lost, restricting breath to the upper lobes of the lungs which house the receptors for the sympathetic nervous system (triggering a stress response). When this happens over long periods of time the stress hormones start to break down the body’s tissues.
The improved elasticity between our heart and lung, diaphragm and, stomach and liver junction — just from bending forward and backward with your breath as we do in sun salutes helps is preventative medicine!
Benefits of the Sun Salutes:
- Moving/Breathing Synchronicity – Connecting the moving and breathing synchronicity is the most important lesson in the sun salute. Pay attention to envelope your movement with your breath, at first this may seem challenging (especially in sun salute b) but over time with practice it will become easier. When we synchronize our moving and breathing it is very calming to the mind while energizing to the body, removing stress.
- They build heat in the body, helping to prepare our body for the practice; and even more importantly it is the heat that helps with the removal of toxins from our organs to our bloodstream to our kidneys and liver where they are processed and removed.
- They alternate forward and backward bending give a profound stretch to the spinal column and abdomen, keeping the body healthy. The alternating stretch on the legs between up dog and down dog is also very therapeutic for the knees.
- Improve digestion
- Improve stomach function by keeping the stomach from adhering to the underside of the abdomen (which leads to heartburn issues, digestive issues and could lead to a hiatal hernia)
- improve heart function
- improved lung function
- Surya Namaskar is good at reducing stress.
- Improved Sleep
- Help with weight control (remember the study published in BMJ proving that we break down most of our fat to CO2 and exhale it out of our body — and this is more effectively down with nasal breathing than mouth breathing)
- Reduce back and neck pain
- Improved strength for the back and abs
- The postures generate prana (energy in our body) by helping all systems move; blood to flow, hormones to secrete, neurons to move, lymph fluid to creep along, and cells to regenerate.
Breathe deep into al 5 lobes of your lungs as many times each day as you can, you have approx. 26,000 times each day to do that.
Practicing Sun Salutes from the inside out
Aside from a mantra in your sun salutes — you can also work with your breath in your body as I talk about when in the poses to breathe into different areas of your body.
For example in Surya Namaskar A – Send your breath to:
- Position 1 – Inhale reach up and lengthen your body – breathe some space between your vertebrae
- Position 2 – exhale forward bend – and breathe out toxins, let negative thoughts drain out of the top of your head
- Position 3 – Inhale head up and breathe in energy
- Position 4 – exhale to the push up position known as chaturanga – Breathe strong — think strength.
- Position 5 – inhale into upward facing dog take your face to the sky and draw in the sun. In yogic lore this position represents an awakening after the low point of the previous pose, the arising of knowledge from ignorance
- Position 6 – Exhale push back to Down dog for 5 deep breaths, relax with deep breathing and your navel drishti — breathe into your digestion — not just digestion of food but also importantly digestion of life’s experiences.
Each inhale fills your body with prana, each exhale fans the flames burning the toxins.
- Position 7 – Inhale step/jump forward head up, and breathe in energy
- Position 8 – Exhale forward bend and breathe it all out
- Position 9 – Inhale come all the way up and send thanks to the sun.
- Exhale to samastitihi
The practice of Surya Namaskara brings happiness, health, and sunlight to the spirit.
Here is another breathing exercise to help you synchronize rhythm, breath, and body movement. It is essentially a little sun salute 😉 This is a short and easy breathing practice that is great to start your day, take a 30 second break from the computer, or release a little extra stress.
Hasta Utthanasana (Hand Raising Pose) – Oxygenating your body
- Standing in samastitihi or a mountain pose with relaxed shoulders.
- Cross your wrists low on the front of your body
- Inhale deeply and slowly raise your crossed hands above your head synchronizing your breath and body movement, while gazing upward to your hands as you do this.
- Exhale spread your arms out to the sides and lower them half way so they form a straight line at shoulder level
- Inhale reverse the movement recrossing your hands above your head
- Exhale lower your hands straight down the front of your body, back to starting position.
As many times throughout the day you can remember to smooth our your breath and make it deep and rhythmic the quicker it will become habit. The more often you breathe like this the healthier your body and mind will feel. Yoga, its not just for on your mat!
The practice of Sun Salutes requires form, energy, and rhythm.
To learn the physical practice of sun salutes, you can schedule a session with me 😉 and go to this area of my website where I outline the physical practice, and click on Surya Namaskar A & B, the physical practice starts on page 8.