Sun Salutations, Surya Namaskara

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The Sanskrit name for Sun Salutations is Surya Namaskara. Surya is the Sanskrit word for the sun. Namaskara derives from namas: "to bow, obeisance, reverential salutation." (1) This is the same root that gives us the term “namaste.”

As with most yoga postures, the actual history of Sun Salutations is not known. It is well-documented that the people of India historically had a practice of sun worship. When I was in India last year, one palace we visited had a beautiful room built just for the purpose of receiving the sun’s first rays each morning. Throughout the palace, walls were adorned with beautiful golden suns. Traditionally the Sun Salutations were performed facing the direction of the sun, as it first rose in the morning.

Many different variations of Sun Salutations exist, and some styles of yoga do not include them at all. In my own practice, I have used the existence of so many variations as an opportunity to explore all the different expressions and avoid becoming habit-bound or dogmatic about what makes a Sun Salutation. Sun Salutations are not a time to be overly fussy with preferences and precise physical alignment. Instead, we can take that same care for precision and use the Sun Salutations as a time for aligning our intentions and our actions.

When we draw our hands together at the heart in “namaste” position, we feel a natural softening and humility from the expression of the gesture. This same humility is meant to be expressed through the Sun Salutations. Remember the “reverential salutation” from namas, and use the Sun Salutations to evoke a sense of offering up all that you have – your pride, your abilities, your uniqueness, your potential, your accomplishments. It can be an offering to the general ethos, or to someone specific whom you deeply love and respect and admire. It could be a relative, a mentor, a teacher, even a diety. Practicing the salutations with this attitude gently leads us away from the gripping hold of the ego.

Sun Salutations are usually done early in the asana practice, to aerobically generate heat and warmth in the body, which is helpful as one gradually moves into deeper postures. However, performance of the Salutations early in the practice is also beneficial because it generates warmth of spirit, and it establishes our awareness of the breath and our intentions. Each inhalation is an opportunity to be receptive to gratitude and abundance. Each exhalation is an act of bowing down, a chance to humbly relinquish self-importance. Just as we hope to achieve a smooth and steady flow of breath, neither gasping nor holding the breath – we aim for a smooth and steady flow of movement through the Sun Salutations, not lurching from one posture to the next, but embracing an even appreciation for every moment of the sequence.

Ultimately, it is the sun that provides the energy for all life on earth, and the Sun Salutations are a celebration of this life force within us. Just as waves lap on the shore, just as the breath shifts in and out, the Sun Salutations ebb and flow with gratitute and deference.


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Updated January 26, 2005