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Shiva Rea, this month’s featured teacher in Yoga Journal’s new online Master Class series, calls herself a movement alchemist. Since earning her master’s degree in world arts and cultures and dance from the University of California, Los Angeles, Rea has spent 25 years honoring and adapting yoga and other ancient movement practices so that her students can experience “a connection to movement meditation in a universal way.” She also developed Prana Flow Vinyasa, which has roots in Krishnamacharya’s yoga system. Here, Rea shares her love of Sun Salutations, a focus of her Master Class with YJ. Read on for her inspiring story and an exclusive practice.
My love of Sun Salutations is twofold. Like most human beings, I really love sunlight. I was born in Hermosa Beach, California, where I learned to appreciate sunrises and sunsets from my mother. On a deeper level, a Sun Salutation, or Surya Namaskar, is an accessible way to practice moving meditation. Namaskar is translated as “to bow or offer respect,” which has more heart than how it’s often translated—as a “salutation.” A namaskar is an opportunity for awe and natural reverence, which is expressed by people around the world in relation to the rising and setting of the sun. This is what I’ve been delving into during my 25 years of teaching—embodying the state of namaskar and how to go deeper—not just into Surya Namaskar but also into Chandra Namaskar (Moon Salutation) as well as what came before both (and is perhaps their origin): pranams, or prostrations.
See also Watch Shiva Rae’s Moon Salutation
I learned Surya Namaskar A and B, which are what most people think of as Sun Salutations, when I studied Ashtanga vinyasa with founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and other Ashtanga teachers, including Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Richard Freeman, and Tim Miller. These are set sequences of poses that Jois learned from his teacher, Krishnamacharya. To keep the orthodoxy of those sequences when I taught Ashtanga, I never varied from the set form that Jois taught. However, I also studied yoga with Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar, and in the Bihar School, so I have an appreciation for different approaches to the beginning of practice.
In my teacher trainings, we always start with classical Surya and Chandra Namaskars as movement meditations. In Prana Flow Vinyasa we have 4o different namaskars, based on the elements, chakras, rasas (essences), mandalas, and bhakti (devotion). The first namaskar my students learn now is Prana Flow Pranam, which we use as a potential way to start a practice; it is a namaskar prep, close to a traditional prostration, but a sequence I developed slowly that can be repeated for 3 to 12 rounds as a practice on its own or as a way to begin a longer practice. It is a moving prayer. With this pranam, anyone can experience bowing to the life force in everything—the sky, the heavens, or your own heart. For me, it is a way to be intimate with my own spiritual resources, a way that honors all faiths and the simple power of returning to the earth, sacred ground. When you bring your whole body to the earth, with your hands overhead, it is a way to surrender and listen to your heart or the universe. It is a very profound moving meditation that everyone can do. If you cannot go to the earth, simply bow forward, even just your head. After Prana Flow Pranam, we learn the classical namaskars, and then the evolution of namaskars within Prana Flow Vinyasa begins.
See also Shiva Rea’s Playlist
Just like the cycles of the day, moon, and seasons change, our energy changes. As the world is in a state of flux and stress runs high, we need a way to find balance at the beginning of our practice. In the mandala of Prana Flow namaskars, practitioners learn to listen and practice the elemental namaskar that is energetically right for them, based on the season and their constitution. When you understand the roots of a practice, you can make careful decisions about how to expand it. The shape of an asana creates its function, effect, and feeling, or bhava. The asana can awaken an inner experience, or a natural devotion. Forty namaskars may sound overwhelming, but it is an intelligent progression that one can enjoy for many years.
It is important to transmit the roots of a practice and then offer its evolution. Unfortunately, these days the practice of vinyasa feels like a mashup: nobody knows where anything comes from anymore. But evolving from the roots is not disrespectful, especially when you show your ideas to the teachers whose practices you are adapting. With the guidance of my teacher G. Sathya Narayan, I have been integrating the Indian martial art Kalaripayattu into a Kalari Namaskar and vinyasa practice. Not everyone can travel to India to study Kalaripayattu, but I can bring back a form that is accessible. Then if those who try it want to go deeper, they know where to go. We can always be in contact with our teachers and receive their guidance. We can consciously evolve a practice.
Fifty years from now, the Ganga [the Ganges River] will still be flowing, and pilgrims will still be offering Surya Namaskars in prayer form and in movement. But I think we’ll have a much greater understanding of the power of movement, breath, and meditation in terms of regeneration and healing. If we’re wise, we’ll be living in a green revolution, with the end of reliance on fossil fuels. Just like we’ll have learned how to harness renewable energy, we’ll have learned to harness the power of yoga in a positive way.
Yoga will never be a fad. It is part of our universal natural-healing system. Through yoga, people are making long-term positive changes and better choices for their health, relationships, and the environment. With prostrations, we can listen to our hearts and the earth through all the seasons of life and be positive agents for change.
TRY THE PRACTICE Move Into Meditation with Shiva Rea’s Prana Flow Pranams
Yoga Journal’s new online Master Class program brings the wisdom of world-renowned teachers to your fingertips, offering access to exclusive workshops with a different master teacher every six weeks. This month, Shiva Rea presents ancient and unique Sun and Moon Salutation variations. If you’re ready to get a fresh perspective and maybe even meet a lifelong yoga mentor, sign up now for YJ’s year-long membership.