Where Did Sun Salutations Come From?

This two-minute primer traces Namaskars—and the pieces missing from modern practice—back thousands of years.
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Shiva Rea Namaskar

Talk about a throwback: Traditionalists trace the roots of modern Sun Salutations back to rituals called Namaskars performed more than 3,500 years ago. But a few crucial pieces of the original custom never quite caught on in today's mainstream practice. Prana Vinyasa Yoga teacher Shiva Rea brings back the transformative missing links through her six-week Master Class session, Evolution of Namaskar. Sign up here!

The earliest archaeological evidence of yoga culture was depicted on seals of Harappan, one of the most ancient urban cultures on the Indian subcontinent. That means that movement meditation may have been practiced in this swath of land across northeast Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwest India around 3500 BCE, more than 5,500 years ago.

In particular, Namaskars were first described around 1500 BCE in the Rig Veda, the oldest collection of sacred Hindu scriptures, composed of more than one thousand hymns rich with metaphor, myth, and instruction. The movements and mantras outlined in this 3,500-year-old Vedic tradition were rituals to be offered at sunrise and sunset.

“We know there are some Vedic ties in the current rituals of daily life in India, which include pranam (or prostration). I’ve been to India 15 times, and I go on a lot of pilgrimages, the practice of coming to a sacred spot or moving around a temple or its inner sanctum as you bring the whole body to the earth and rise again. It’s this ritual of release, bonding, surrender, and sometimes even the process of touching the feet of a respected teacher or elder, and then rising again," says Rea, who has devoted her teachings to exploring Namaskar as transformative movement meditations.

“When I first experienced prostrations and movement meditation, I was in Bodh Gaya, where they have prostration boards that allow you to slide along; the beginning path of Vajrayana Buddhism is to practice 100,000 rounds.”

Early Tantra texts described prostrations as an embodied ritual like this. In fact, from a sequence of dance-like poses referenced in the Pashupata Sutra to the first-ever sequence of poses called “50 Bodily Poses” detailed in the Nishvasa Tantra, the oldest evidence of vinyasa was found in early Tantric scriptures dating back to the fifth century. The 11th-century Jayadrathayamala Tantra referenced a lively ritual that resulted in the performance of mudras and playful dance forms called Karana, sacred forms similar to yoga poses. Karana was eventually replaced by the word “asana” in Hatha Yoga manuals as early at the 13th century and brought into the 19th century by guru Matsyendranath.

In addition to lacking mantras, the Sun Salutations that landed on modern-day mats are often missing a crucial piece of the original ancient Namaskar ritual: the pranam. In place of the surrender is the super-charged Chaturanga. “That starts to bring this reflection: How is it that in the west we don’t know about this? Why is it missing?" Rea says. "It isn’t integrated into yoga asana culture, though I think Krishnamacharya did teach pranam within Surya Namaskar, and now I’m inspired to figure out what happened.”

Inspired to learn more? 
Yoga Journal’s new online Master Class program brings the wisdom of world-renowned teachers to your fingertips through a new online workshop and live webinar every six weeks. This month, Shiva Rea presents ancient and unique Sun and Moon Salutation variations. If you’re ready to get a deeper perspective on Namaskars and maybe even meet a lifelong yoga mentor, sign up now for YJ’s year-long membership

Adapted from Tending the Heart Fire by Shiva Rea (Sounds True)
Translations of text by Christopher Tompkins