The Sun Salutation Decoded: Learn Surya Namaskar

Start your day with reverence for the sun, and harness its life-giving energy with Surya Namaskar.
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Start your day with reverence for the sun, and harness its life-giving energy with Surya Namaskar.
Surya Namaskar

Start your day with reverence for the sun, and harness its life-giving energy with Surya Namaskar.

Each Sunday morning, Christopher Key Chapple opens his 8:30 yoga class with eight rounds of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). Students at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica, California, reach their arms toward the sky and then fold forward to the ground as if in prostration to the sun, expressing the same reverence for the life-giving solar energy as did the ancient yogis.

Repeating the sequence in each of the four cardinal directions, the students perform a silent yet powerful ritual of gratitude. Chapple, a professor of Indic and comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University, says the sequence not only wakes up the body but also "calls us to stretch our minds and spirits to the corners of the universe, allowing us to feel the vast expanse of the cosmos within the movement of our bodies."

To Chapple, Surya Namaskar is nothing less than the embodiment of the Gayatri mantra, a sacred prayer to the sun. "As we sweep our arms up and bow forward, we honor the earth, the heavens, and all of life in between that is nourished by the breath cycle," he says. "As we lower our bodies, we connect with the earth. As we rise up from the earth, we stretch through the atmosphere once more, reaching for the sky. As we bring our hands together in Namaste, we gather the space of the heavens back into our heart and breath, acknowledging that our body forms the center point between heaven and earth."

While it's not always taught with such auspicious intentions, the humble Sun Salutation—performed in studios across the country as an energizing sequence that links the body, breath, and mind—is nonetheless deeply potent. "It revitalizes every aspect of your being, from physical to spiritual," says Shiva Rea, creator of Prana Flow Yoga and founder of the Global Mala Project.

Rea prefers the Sanskrit name for the sequence, arguing that the translation to the English "Sun Salutation" doesn't capture the intention and experience of the word namaskar. "'Salutation,'" she says, "seems so formal and stiff. It has nothing to do with the heart. Namaskar means 'to bow,' to recognize with your whole being. Reaching up, bowing forward to the earth in prostration—the meaning is inherent in the movement. Eventually, you are going to have an ecstatic experience of the life force entering your body."

Surya Namaskar also embodies the spirit of yoga in the West: It is intensely physical but can be infused with devotion. And like so much about yoga today, it reflects both ancient ideas and modern innovation. Understanding its history and meaning will allow you to bring the healing energy of the sun and a connection to the Divine into your own practice.

The Definition of Surya Namaskar

The original Surya Namaskar wasn't a sequence of postures, but rather a sequence of sacred words. The Vedic tradition, which predates classical yoga by several thousands of years, honored the sun as a symbol of the Divine. According to Ganesh Mohan, a Vedic and yoga scholar and teacher in Chennai, India, Vedic mantras to honor the sun were traditionally chanted at sunrise. The full practice includes 132 passages and takes more than an hour to recite. After each passage, the practitioner performs a full prostration, laying his body face-down on the ground in the direction of the sun in an expression of devotion.

The connection between the sun and the Divine continues to appear throughout the Vedic and yoga traditions. However, the origins of Surya Namaskar in modern hatha yoga are more mysterious. "There is no reference to asanas as 'Sun Salutation' in traditional yoga texts," Mohan says.

So where did this popular sequence come from? The oldest-known yoga text to describe the Sun Salutation sequence, the Yoga Makaranda, was written in 1934 by T. Krishnamacharya, who is considered by many to be the father of modern hatha yoga. It is unclear whether Krishnamacharya learned the sequence from his teacher Ramamohan Brahmachari or from other sources, or whether he invented it himself. In The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, yoga scholar N.E. Sjoman identifies an earlier text called the Vyayama Dipika (or "Light on Exercise") that illustrates athletic exercises for Indian wrestlers, including some that are strikingly similar to Krishnamacharya's version of Surya Namaskar.

"Certainly, modern asana practice—and Surya Namaskar, after it was grafted on to it—is an innovation that has no precedent in the ancient Indian tradition, but it was rarely formulated as 'mere gymnastics,'" says Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. "More often, it was conceived within a religious [Hindu] framework, and was seen as a spiritual expression as well as a physical one. But in modern India, for many people, it made complete sense for physical training to be conceived as a form of spiritual practice, with no contradiction implied."

So, it appears that Krishnamacharya was influenced by both athletics and spiritual practice, and it was the emphasis he placed on the breath and on devotion that set his teaching of yoga asana apart from a purely athletic endeavor. According to Mohan, co-author (with his father, A.G. Mohan) of the forthcoming From Here Flows the River: The Life and Teachings of Krishnamacharya, it was the attitude of Surya Namaskar that Krishnamacharya cared about. Whether he was teaching the Vedic mantras or the sequence of postures, the intention was the same. "One is offering salutation to the Divine, represented by the sun, as a source of light removing the darkness of a clouded mind and as a source of vitality removing the diseases of the body," says Mohan.

Krishnamacharya taught the sequence to his students, including K. Pattabhi Jois (founder of the Ashtanga Yoga system), B.K.S. Iyengar (founder of the Iyengar Yoga system), and Indra Devi (recognized as the first Western woman to teach yoga around the world). These students went on to become internationally prominent teachers and to inspire much of the practice in the West. As a result, Sun Salutations became an integral part of our modern practice.

Breath + Mantra Drive Surya Namaskar

To enjoy the full experience of Surya Namaskar, Shiva Rea recommends four things. First, let the breath lead the movement. Each inhalation and exhalation should draw you into and through the next pose, and not be forced to fit a predetermined pace. "When you go into that state of following the breath, you are following the source," she says. "That is the heart of yoga." Also, take the time to fully contemplate the meaning of what Surya Namaskar is and to sense your authentic gratitude to the sun. "All of life on Earth depends on the sun," says Rea. "Contemplating the vitality you receive from the elements allows you to go to a deeper level of participation with the movements of the sequence."

Rea also recommends adding mantra to the movements. "With mantra, you really start to feel the spiritual activation of Namaskar," she explains. She integrates traditional mantras into the sequence, but you can use any sacred sound, including Om, on the exhalations. You can also open and close your yoga practice with the Gayatri mantra, the Vedic mantra that honors the Divine as represented by the sun.

Finally, try practicing outdoors, in the presence of the sun, at least occasionally. "It's really important to experience a Namaskar outside of a studio," Rea says. "Experience it with the rising sun, feeling the rays of the sun on your body."

Practice Sun Salutations in the Morning

Although Sun Salutations can be practiced at any time of the day, the early-morning hours are considered especially auspicious for yoga and meditation practice. The hour just before sunrise is called Brahma muhurta ("time of God"). "The mind is supposed to be most calm and clear at this time. Ayurveda recommends that one awake at this time every day," says Mohan.

For most of us, early morning is one time of the day we can be alone, without demands and distractions. Rising a bit early can allow you to experience inner stillness and offer your energy to a greater intention for your day. Surya Namaskar is the perfect morning practice to awaken the body, focus the mind, and connect to a sense of gratitude for the new day. "An extra one to two hours of sleep cannot equal the energy of the sunrise," Rea says.

"Celebrating being alive is the essence of a spiritual experience."
If getting up to practice yoga before sunrise seems intimidating or impossible, you can capture the feeling of Surya Namaskar by doing a simple morning ritual whenever you wake up. Bring the attitude of the Sun Salutation to your heart and mind, face the direction of the rising sun, and offer a formal bow of gratitude. "Even in long winters, you can face the sun," says Rea. "Visualize that you have the sun inside your heart. Part of Surya Namaskar is really being able to see the sun inside yourself."

Sun Salute: Classic Surya Namaskar Yoga Sequence

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teaches yoga and psychology at Stanford University.